Slowcore refers to a vaguely-associated 'movement' of acts from the 1990s who played music that was really slow (obviously), really quiet, and really beautiful. For many, this was an act of rebellion against the predominant alternative-music culture that ruled the era; the extent of their not-at-all rocking a deliberate provocation to an era of distortion, sarcasm, aggression, and mosh-pits.
Late-'80s acts like Slint, Galaxie 500, and American Music Club served as forerunners of the slowcore sound, even though none of them can really be confused for slowcore acts. Galaxie 500's melancholy evocations of the Velvet Underground, Television, and Pearls Before Swine were hugely influential on the budding movement; especially on slowcore figureheads Low, and known-only-to-slowcore-lovers Australian outfit Bluetile Lounge.
Slowcore really only persisted as long as it was an 'other.' Founded as an alternative to alternative music, once grunge started to peter out in the '90s, slowcore lost its oppositional status, and the genre's constraints no longer seemed so liberating (as evidence by how much Low began to experiment once the '00s arrived). Thus, slowcore effectively died, even if people have continued to make slow, quiet, beautiful music in the spirit of the genre.
Given their stylistic choice was a way of not fitting in, it's not surprising that none of the bands dubbed 'slowcore' ever seemed particularly fond of the term; but, in the '90s, the name had a real resonance. Not for the mainstream media or, even, music magazines —slowcore barely caught on, anywhere, ever— but for the fans. Anyone who loved quiet, introspective music suffered greatly for much of the late-'80s and early-'90s, and discovering the slowcore coterie felt like being ushered into a special club.
How it Sounds:
Well, um, y'know, slow. And quiet. And beautiful. And slow. I said that, right?
Slowcore bands don't use different instrumentation to differentiate themselves from the rock'n'roll massive, instead taking these traditional tools —guitar, bass, drums— and using them in unexpected ways.
Born, as it was, in rebellion to grunge, it's no surprise that slowcore bands abhorred distortion and fuzztone. Guitar, the genre's predominant instrument, was left 'clean,' but often employed huge amounts of reverb, to make their few notes ring out long and lingering.
Drums, too, were often recorded/presented in an echoey manner, simple snare-taps booming out big, then trailing away. Often the secret to slowcore bands' success was their drumming: keeping the beat when the pace is that laggard is infinitely more difficult than knocking something out in rockin' 4/4 time, and Codeine's Doug Scharin and Low's Mimi Parker are fine examples of two humans who manage to make their few drumstrokes carry great weight.
Oh, this is easy: that slowcore is boring, that slowcore is depressing, that slowcore —lacking, as it does, crunchy riffs and four-on-the-floor rhythms— is somehow a lesser, duller form of music.
Aired in this day, these criticisms sound like the complaints of ignorant meatheads, but, back in the '90s, when slowcore was taking its stand, such 'criticisms' were offered by actual critics; who, in hindsight, now seem like embarrassing fossils of rock orthodoxy.
"[We were] completely praised and hailed by the British press," Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon songwriter Mark Kozelek told me, in a 2008 interview, "having people say things like 'Down Colorful Hill is the best album since Astral Weeks'... but the American press just said 'it's too slow', 'bring a pillow', 'go to the show if you need some sleep.'"
Where the Name Came From:
From the mid-'80s onward, there's been an annoying tendency to affix the suffix '-core' to any kind of genre name. And, though it's far more prevalent in heavy metal and dance music —places where genres are stylistic totems and veritable badges of pride— there was plenty of '-core'-ing going on in the alternative realm. Slowcore seems to have grown up synonymously with sadcore, a term often applied to Mark Eitzel's American Music Club around the turn of the '90s.
Eventually, slowcore won out; I guess because it sounds far less embarrassing, and serves as a literal descriptive —these are, after all, bands playing slow— as opposed to a largely-dismissive term whose blanket emotional response says more about the prejudices of the user than the motives and emotions of the players.
Basically, what I'm saying is: no one really knows. It's a term so generic that it can't be patented.
When it broke:
Fittingly, for a genre predisposed to reluctance and quietude, slowcore never actually broke out; remaining eternally on the fringes as a genre either unknown, overlooked, underrated, or scorned. But, if we can reapply this proposition to mean something more like 'when it came of age,' then maybe we could pick 1994. In the wake of Red House Painters releasing their twin self-titled albums in late 1993 (known, colloquially, as 'the Rollercoaster record' and 'the Bridge record'), Codeine issued their awe-inspiring second (and final) LP, The White Birch, Bedhead debuted with the suitably-somnolent What Fun Life Was, and slowcore's most beloved institution, Low, debuted with the intensely beautiful I Could Live in Hope
As long as Mark Kozelek —recording, these days, as Sun Kil Moon— and Low continue to soldier on, slowcore is effectively alive and kicking. But, it's obviously no longer anything resembling a movement; without the reign of grunge as the predominant culture, playing really quiet, deliberately beautiful music no longer feels like such a strange, unexpected act of transgression.
Sometime in the late-'90s, the stigma of playing slow, non-rocking music fell away; around the same time as mosh-pits did. Thus, even though its practitioners, and others, continue to play music that, stylistically, is slowcore, it no longer feels banded together, sheltering on the fringes.