Belfast band Virgins have shot to prominence in a short space of time. Since their debut single as last summer fell away, the band have honed their line-up and most certainly their live show. Led by guitarist Michael Smyth (THVS, Paper Tigers), they’ve played plenty of live shows and are set to head to Scotland and England this week for dates with Wynona Bleach.
Alongside that tour, the band have left their mark with a debut EP out on Blowtorch Records last month. Transmit a Little Heaven, led by the brilliant ‘signalling’, encapsulates the shoegaze sound Virgins teased with last year’s ‘Vows’, a dreamy mix that sounds both heavy and soft, with harsher riffs and Rebecca’s softer vocals both disguised under the textural haze. A very accomplished first release from a band that is still very much in its infancy, it’s a heady distillation of the shoegaze elements. It should be no surprise that it’s taken the band from support shows round Belfast to headline shows and a UK tour in a short space of time.
Ahead of those shows, Virgins’ Smyth takes us through the combination of influences that informed the band’s sound.
Slow Crush – Glow
There are a few core influences for me in Virgins and Slow Crush are really central. It was an encounter with their record ‘Aurora’ that started me on this shoegaze dream! I can’t remember exactly how I came across them but whatever I read caught my interest enough to go check out this track. Up until then I had always thought of shoegaze to be slower and not very driven, ‘Glow’ changed all that. It has this great energy to it, it’s almost punk rock in its approach but then with these floatier and dreamier guitar tones that punctuate the track and Isa’s ethereal buried vocal makes it all feel very other worldly. It was this alchemy of heavy and floaty that really drew me in, and it’s something that I took and very much tried to apply to Virgins. Shoegaze doesn’t have to be a slower, still, sparkly song it can have weight and energy and you can move to it. So, without Slow Crush, Virgins probably wouldn’t exist, so maybe they’ve a lot to answer for. I’ve been lucky enough to see them and chat to them, they’ve said some nice things about Virgins which is a total thrill.
Nothing – Famine Asylum
Nothing are the second main influence on the band probably much more overtly than Slow Crush. They have this grungier approach to their sound, having really got into music through Nirvana and all that 90’s rock this really resonated with me. Again, it was combining these different elements to make something new, or new to me at least, that got me really excited about them. I bought all the records and played them continuously while I was writing the EP. I started with the album The Great Dismal which was their most recent and worked my way back. Nothing, for as heavy as they are, still have this pop quality to their music, the vocals are really catchy, and the tracks are littered with hooks. I’ve always thought of the lead guitars in Nothing to be like a second vocalist, the vocals aren’t as important in shoegaze so I find myself singing the leads as much as they actual vocals. They have this wall of sound approach that really appealed to me, very dense layered tracks, lots of fuzz, lots of reverb and gnarly bass. They were fantastic live.
Wolf Alice – Heavenward
Wolf Alice are probably the best band of our generation in my eyes, they can pretty much do anything and it will be amazing. The breadth their material covers is crazy from songs like ‘Yuk Foo’ to ‘Beautifully Unconventional’ to ‘The Last Man on Earth’. All very different songs and stunning pieces of music, that still sound like they’re from the same band. They’re not a shoegaze band through and through but they definitely have their moments and ‘Heavenward’ is one of them. The melty, reverb fuzzed out guitars that carry this track are pure gaze. Joff is an incredible guitar player and the different textures he utilises and brings in and out during the track are fantastic. Ellie’s vocals are beautiful and haunting and floaty. Seeing this live numerous times now and it never fails to give me goosebumps. I almost wish they’d just be pure gaze but we’d miss out on so much other great music.
Deafcult – Akira
I have a somewhat addictive personality so when I’m into something, I’m really into it. When I started to get in shoegaze I went after it and started trying to find and consume bands with a pretty voracious appetite. Deafcult were a band I found on some list of modern shoegaze bands, they’re from Australia so unfortunately I’ll probably never see them. Akira is the perfect blend of fuzzy, poppy, gazeyness that I love. So much of ‘modern gaze’ has a very poppy element to it, even though you can’t hear the vocals or what they’re saying (which I also love) the melodies are so pretty and dreamy they get stuck in your head. I think part of what appeals to me about shoegaze is that it flies in the face of normal ‘rock and pop’, you don’t have to have vocals on top, you don’t have to just have 3 and a half minute long songs and you can put 14 fuzz tracks on it. There’s so much freedom within the genre. Deafcult’s self-titled EP is well worth checking out.
Big Black Delta – Huggin & Kissin
I heard this song on the show ‘The Sinner’, no spoilers but it’s pretty central to the plot in season one so you hear it a lot. It’s got this great beat that pushes the track forward and then this really dark synth comes in and creates this fantastic groove. Over the top of that are these beautiful sparkly keys and this really effected vocal. So, it’s an electronic track but to me has all these amazing elements that were what I wanted to do with Virgins. In the first iteration of the band we used to cover it, I’d really like to start to do it again. There’s a live band version of BBD doing it on YouTube that’s also worth checking out. It’s an example of at least attempting to take influence from outside of the genre and trying to bring those things into the melting pot to try and make something new and exciting.
My Bloody Valentine – Soon
Look, we all knew they were going to be in here somewhere so let’s get it out of the way. You can’t be in a shoegaze band and not like MBV, I don’t think they let you be a card carrying shoegazer without it. Anyone who plays shoegaze owes Kevin Shields and MBV a debt. This is easily my favourite MBV track, I love the little lead hook that acts as a chorus in the song (fun fact there’s only one song on loveless that has a ‘chorus’). It has those big fuzzy trem arm glide guitar parts and it blends in some electronic elements which I’d really love to start incorporating into Virgins as well. I don’t think I can say anything that hasn’t already be said about them, we tip our trem arms to you MBV.
Primal Scream – Shoot Speed / Kill Light (live at the Zepp/Live in Japan)
I heard this track on the Buddyhead sampler a long time ago, it’s from the XTRMNTR album that our good buddy Kevin Shields played on and toured after. The live version feels a lot more menacing and anarchic than the studio version, you can hear the drug induced tweakiness in the playing. That collaboration yielded such a great album and so many great songs. It’s so layered, all these different samples, guitar textures, the bass that drives the whole track forward. You can really hear the contribution that Kevin made, all these floaty, sparkly guitar parts but with the rock n roll badassery of Primal Scream. Again, another example of taking these disparate elements and stirring them up all together to make something new. I’ve used two cooking analogies now, cooking pot and stirring, it’s almost lunch time. I must be getting hungry.
Ringo Deathstarr – Kaleidoscope
Surely they’re in the running for the best band name ever. 2 minutes of perfect fuzzy, noisy gaze pop. Another band I had never heard about until delving into all this. They definitely have their own sound, it’s a little noisier than most, played with a little more reckless abandon. Musically this track has some shades of Green Mind era Dinosaur Jr I think. The vocals definitely convey a wanting, a quiet unrequited desire. I’ve started listening to them a lot more after the EP came out but this track in particular, I went back to again and again.
Narrowhead – Necrosis
Something I haven’t touched on is how shoegaze has its own aesthetic and language almost, Narrowhead seem to avoid all of that but still in the process make some of the best grungier gaze. Very much akin to Nothing this record has that wall of fuzz and distortion, heavy drums with wailing guitars that reverb and sustain forever. Coming from that heavier background this was something I latched onto pretty quick, and ‘Satisfaction’ was put on heavy repeat. This track opens the record with everything hammering away, cymbals and kick getting destroyed, all the effects on, it almost feels like the end of the set rather than the start then when it breaks its very satisfying, excuse the pun.
Smashing Pumpkins – 1979
This is my favourite song, ever. The guitar sound on Siamese Dream is the stuff of, well…..dreams. Much like Wolf Alice, the Pumpkins are not an out and out shoegaze band but there’s definitely some in their chemistry. The vocals and lyrics in particular on this track I took a lot of inspiration from, there’s a Mellon collie (Jesus, I can’t stop) inherent to lyrics but there’s also a hope to them. Looking out over a horizon you know is all too finite but it’s the journey in getting there. The duality of things is something I tried to play into as much as possible. Interestingly when ‘Vows’ came out we drew a lot of comparisons to the Pumpkins, which I obviously begrudgingly accepted, but then when the EP came out, they stopped. That was weird because in the interim between recording the single ‘Vows’ and recording the EP I had got the Pumpkins EHX Big Muff and it’s all over the EP but not on ‘Vows’. Go figure.