You have to admire Highspire’s tenacity. It’s taken nearly 3 years for Your Everything to come out, during which the band has undergone numerous setbacks and trials that would’ve signalled the end for less-committed folks. Starting out as the Philadelphia-based duo of E.J. Hagen (guitars, programming, piano) and Alex White (vocals, guitars, programming, keys), Highspire has gone through 15 members, moved to and from New York, had all of their demo tapes (along with Hagen’s equipment) stolen from a halfway house, moved out to the country, and finally recorded their full-length… only to have it delayed for nearly a year due to legal issues.
But as the famous saying goes, that which does not kill you only makes you stronger. Highspire have obviously taken that to heart, as Your Everything is a very strong album indeed. Highspire clearly yearns for a return of shoegazing’s early ’90s heyday — their sonics echo acts including Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, Swervedriver, and of course, the great My Bloody Valentine — so much so that you’re bound to get a serious case of déjà vu within the first 15 seconds. But at the same time, they’ve got one eye fixed on the present, blending smooth downtempo atmospherics and Bristol-inspired rhythms into their vast walls of sound.
One thing I was unprepared for was just how massive some of the sounds on the album can get. Rather than ease the listener into their record, Highspire opts for the slow-mo avalanche that is “Until the Lights Go Down,” burying the listener under layers of guitar that, for all of their ethereal-ness, still come dangerously close to smothering you (not to mention almost damaging my poor little stereo system).
“Believe” continues along a similar tack, with a handful of forlorn guitar chords signaling for a sudden bombardment of crashing drums (think Ride’s Nowhere), synth stabs, and angelic guitar cascades. And as the name might imply, “Fade in a Day” bears an obvious resemblance to Slowdive’s earlier material (again, that case of deja vu). The keening guitar line that soars above the song bears an uncanny likeness to the melodies Slowdive employed on tracks like “Morningrise,” though Highspire’s track is much heavier and noisier than anything Halstead and Co. ever put to tape.
Buried somewhere in the sound (about 20 layers deep or so, I’d say) are White’s vocals, though like the best of shoegazer pop, they’re so obscured by the sonics that they take on an abstract air. Sure, you can read the lyrics in the CD sleeve (for example, on the album’s opener, he intones “I walked the lonely streets just to be with her/She opened up my eyes with velvet shivers”), but it works so much better when you pay less attention to what he sings, and more attention to the how he sings it and lets it blur into everything else.
As I mentioned before, the group also incorporates some downtempo bits throughout the album. Those first appear on “Portsmouth,” as glassy keys and a sputtering beat float on top of an undulating bassline like oil on water; meanwhile, White’s detached voice chants, mantra-like “The message never got through to you.” This track, along with “Sub-Par Life, A Brilliant Death” and “No Day Like Today,” are reminiscent of the sadly deceased Bowery Electric’s material; the smoggy, downbeat atmospherics almost seem to be channeling in from Bowery Electric’s Beat.
If there’s one weakness to the album, it’s that Highspire doesn’t do much to blend these two disparate sounds. The downtempo material, while containing some of the album’s most interesting dynamics (such as the chiming guitars that flit about “No Day Like Today”), often stick out more than its mellow, downbeat vibe might imply. The transition back to the noise-pop can be a bit jarring; I almost jumped to make sure I was still listening to the same CD when “Portsmouth” gave way to the much more energetic, much noisier “Shattered.”
Though perhaps not as readily accessible as other parts of the album, the points on the album where the two facets of the band’s sound converge create some of its strongest material. The second part of “No Day Like Today” just seems to hang there suspended as a spiraling bass line casually makes it way amongst programming chirps and a wall of soft noise (unfortunately, the contemplative mood is disrupted somewhat when “Vesperbell” comes rushing in, before that track’s own shoegazing charms work their magic). And “Slowbeat” lives up to its name, drowning the vocals and another bass groove under waves of fuzz and feedback, with sparse pianos and gossamery guitars only occasionally rising to the surface.
There’s currently been a resurgence in shoegazer, with labels like Clairecords (who, in reality, have been toiling away at this for years), Blisscent, and Alison releasing plenty of quality output. In fact, it seems like this year alone I’ve listened to more new shoegazer music and read about more shoegazer bands than I have in the past 3. And Your Everything fits perfectly well within that trend. Along with A Northern Chorus’ Spirit Flags and Skywave’s Synthstatic, it’s one of the more substantial shoegazer offerings I’ve heard in a long time… and it only took 3 years to get here.
Hopefully, future releases won’t take as much time (or toil) to arrive, but if the band can continue to deepen and mature their already proficient sound, they’ll definitely be worth the wait.