I’ll admit that I got into dreampop/shoegaze a little late in the scene, first hearing a shoegaze CD in 1994 and only really getting into this kind of music in the late 1990’s. As such, there is a whole back-catalog of CD’s that I’ve had to play catch-up with as I explore this subgenre of music. Yet, these are the very CD’s that have so strongly influenced the current artists I love, so starting with the newer stuff as a reference point and then looking back to the real foundation of shoegaze is absurd. Thankfully, Minneapolis-based music label Words on Music has taken it upon itself to help educate listeners like me with their re-release of pioneering dreampop band For Against’s 1987 release Echelons.
Surprisingly, Echelons sounds as fresh and innovative as it must have upon its original release, with its jangly guitars, haunting melodies, and dark atmosphere. In fact, Echelons features tight production, helping it to sound right at home with the more current releases on Words on Music, yet the music also features musical influences that range quite some time before 1987. For Against combine the subtle atmospheric sonics with frantic-sounding percussion and add into the mix almost British-sounding male vocals by Jeffrey Runnings that one would expect to find on Factory Records in the early 1980’s. In fact, the sound on Echelons, is to similar to these even earlier influences that one may be shocked to learn that the band is not from the U.K., but Lincoln, Nebraska! Similarities aside, Echelons is a compelling listen from start to finish.
Echelons opens with “Shine”, a song highlighted by its fast tempo, catchy (yet dark-sounding) melody, and sublime guitar work. “Daylight”, another equally jangly, yet moody song follows, with wonderfully cryptic lyrics: “that’s all there is inside this place, that’s all there is inside this space”. The pulsating bass and drums of “Get On With It” introduces a different aspect of For Against, as the band dives into an almost gothic sound with dark atmospherics kissing the forlorn melodies sung by Runnings. The title song is another morose affair, as the band plays a slowed-down, droning and mournful song. The rest of the songs on Echelons hover in-between these two extremes of tempo, while retaining a shadowy overall mood. Songs like “It’s a Lie” showcase the faster side of For Against, as guitarist Harry Dingman plays intricate lines to the pulsating rhythm section. On “Forget Who You Are”, a direct line can be drawn from For Against to more recent shoegazers, as the song features a mid-tempo beat buried under an assortment of dreamy keyboards and guitars. Yet, even in the midst of the sonic experimentation found in Echelons, the band is always able to craft well-balanced songs that feature strong melodies along with mysterious lyrics. It’s a treat to listen to such solid songs perfectly wrapped in stunning sounds.
The music found on the CD isn’t the only aspect of the release that is draped in beauty. Echelons is packaged in an attractively designed gatefold. The artwork features a gorgeous painting of wheat on the front cover by Bruce Licher, mirroring the original release’s artwork (each copy of the original release contained a single sheath of wheat).
All in all, Echelons is a fine disc, and a welcome introduction to the roots of dreampop. Ultimately, I’ve struggled a bit to describe the sound of this disc, given my relative unfamiliarity with the great bands of the 1980’s. But, one thing is for sure, without ground-breaking releases like Echelons, the current shoegaze world would not exist. Fans of current dreampop artists would do themselves a favour in educating themselves with this CD.