Distortion. Lots of distortion. And reverb. And phase. And flange. And delay. Basically, anything involving effects —by effects pedals, guitar re-wiring, amplifier manipulation, or studio experimentation— so all consuming that individual instruments blend into giant, glowing clouds of thick, foggy tonality. Like alt-rock smothered in fog, or ambience rife with tension.
Shoegaze was a movement initially concentrated in England in the earliest days of the 1990s, essentially the synthesis of two separate strains of influence.
The genre's founding forefathers were, in all likelihood, two bands who were not true shoegazers themselves. When Velvet Underground-influenced Scottish outfit the Jesus and Mary Chain released their legendary debut, Psychocandy, in 1985, they gave the world rock’n’roll songs swathed in reverb and distortion. Spacemen 3, a gospel-tinged garage-rock band founded on excessive drug-use, released their The Perfect Prescription set in 1987, furthering the cause of walls of sound built from guitar noise.
The other spiritual forebearer of the genre was the 4AD-centred ‘dream-pop’ scene (personified by bands like the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil). Shoegazers took the detached, ambient, effects-draped, cooing-vocal style of dream-poppers and amped up the volume.
Though the name really only refers to its initial, self-contained era, the spirit of shoegaze can be summoned, still, by the foregrounding of effects-pedals over melody.
How it Sounds:
Distorted. Kevin Shields, the leader of all-time shoegaze pin-ups My Bloody Valentine, famously described his band as having a "fluff on the needle" sound. And, sure enough, My Bloody Valentine used effects-pedals to build walls of opaque guitar sound, burying their songs under torrents of reverberated guitar noise. The effect was to make the noise the centre of its musical universe, with vocals, bass, and drums all submerged under guitars reduced to sine-waves.
Whilst you could get into pedantic, semantic discussions about the differences between dream-pop, space-rock, and shoegaze, there are very little misconceptions about shoegaze as a genre. True shoegaze bands are few, and they all hailed from pretty much the same time and place.
Where The Name Came From:
First used in a review in the magazine Sounds, the handle was initially slander: the British music weeklies mocking the often shy, non-charismatic performers as doing nothing but “shoegazing.” In reality, the bands were staring at the vast arrays of effects-pedals they had at their feet, endlessly building their layers of guitar into walls of sound seemingly growing fuzzier and louder with each passing bar.
Quickly, the pejorative "shoegazing" was embraced, and, through use, it was shortened to the two-syllable shoegaze. So now you know.
When it broke:
When My Bloody Valentine released their debut album, Isn't Anything, in 1988. The record was critically embraced in the UK press, and served as a catalyst for other young bands of a similar ilk. By the time dreamy shoegaze romantics Slowdive broke up in 1995, the initial movement had run its course.
Aside from the fact that the current ranks of shoegaze-influenced artists are called, quite direly, "nu-gaze," all appears to be alive and well in the world of the 'fluff on the needle' sound. My Bloody Valentine have recently reformed, returning to the stage with new material in tow. Since they released Loveless in 1991, the Irish band have attained a legendary status —not least of all in Shields' inability to make a follow-up album— inspiring countless bands year in and year out.
The bands who drew from shoegaze are too numerous to mention, but some of the more notable staying-true-to-shoegaze acts have been: Seefeel, Bowery Electric, the Radio Dept., M83, Over the Atlantic, Asobi Seksu, Rumskib, and Sereena-Maneesh.