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Definitive Albums: Chapterhouse 'Whirlpool' (1991)

Shoegaze's Bronze Medalist

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Chapterhouse 'Whirlpool'

Chapterhouse 'Whirlpool'


The Scene That is Celebrated, Still

Like many modes of music broadly referred to as 'movements,' the original shoegaze scene was a brief flutter involving only a handful of acts. The effective end of shoegaze as contemporary, still-alive movement was, for many, when Slowdive broke up in 1995. With My Bloody Valentine beginning their 'wilderness' period, the flag-waving of Britpop having overtaken the English press, and grunge still the predominant musical currency in the broader realm of alternative music, the sound went out not with a bang, but a whimper.

And yet, over the years, the legend of Loveless persisted; MBV's never-to-be-followed-up second LP floating its way, with every passing year, higher and higher in best-album-of-all-time type lists. For devoted fans of its famous 'fluff on the needle sound,' the next step was to explore the other handful of acts who defined shoegaze in its lifespan. Slowdive were a sure second port of call. But who came then?

For most, Chapterhouse fit that bill. Though they're, compared to Kevin Shields and co, utterly unknown, any devotees to the shoegaze sound know them all too well. The quintet from Reading lasted only seven years and issued but two albums, but their debut LP, Whirlpool, released at the peak of shoegaze glory —1991— will forever endear them to lovers of noisy snarls of guitar, whitened washes of effects, and swooning, semi-inaudible vocals.

Sweet Pirouettes of Whitewashed Noise

What's interesting, for modern-day listeners hearing Whirlpool with decades worth of distance, is that the album was criticized, in its day, for being 'fragmented.' It's a criticism born from reading the production credits, no doubt, with numerous sessions under numerous producers —including the Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie— used to assemble the LP.

To this ears, in this era, such supposed 'differences' in sound come somewhere close to non-existent. After decades of genre-dabbling, genre-splicing, and all manner of semi-ironic monkeyshines and dilettantish musical tourism, Whirlpool plays as utterly singular; an album whose variations in style —a Madchester beat-pattern here, an slightly dubby production choice there— are nothing more than mild ruminations upon the same theme.

A shoegaze album to its very core, Whirlpool is, befitting its title, an album of circular sound: repeating guitar patterns turning pirouettes of whitewashed noise, phasing in an out of concentric meters. It's hard to geometrically apply such romantic, interpretive notions to the very structure of songs; it's more something that's felt in the ambience, in the way these walls of fuzzed out audio billow about in four-minute-ish pop-songs.

To these ends, the LP's cover is strangely evocative: a curled-up cat, head buried within itself like some fluffy ouroboros, creates a circular pattern that borders on a circle's neverending nature. Yet, at the same time, it's lovable, shaggy, and fuzzy; not the perfect eternity of a circle but the imperfect, warm-blooded mortality of the mammal. For, no matter how they wielded layers of white-hot sonic noise, Chapterhouse never came across as musical futurists or sound scientists; they were always a band of slightly-dorky boys with floppy fringes, wearing their hearts on their (LP) sleeves.

They'll never be mistaken for shoegaze's coolest combo, but Chapterhouse were definitely one of the movement's best.

Record Label: Dedicated
Release Date: May, 1991

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