You could easily argue against the idea of “slowcore” as a genre. Unlike its late-’80s/early-’90s contemporaries in shoegaze and grunge, there was never a geographic focus or self-celebrating scene. Its key bands formed all across the country, rarely toured together, and never seemed to swap notes or compare guitar pedals. There were no formative moments, no Sex Pistols at Manchester in ’76. Nothing close to an ethos.
But, crucially, there is a sound—or, rather, a continuity of sound—a commitment to allowing songs the room to breathe, to stripping things down to their essence before something bigger can be built back up around them. Even when the songs are fast or loud or busy, they never lose that essential clarity, that push toward beauty as its own end.
In the beginning there was barely even that, just a handful of young men and women forming rock bands across the US and taking them to some shocking places. From the late-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, they released some of the most quietly revolutionary music around—some of it, improbably, on major labels. At the time, they had no real idea of the fullness of what they were making; other bands, later, would put together the pieces. Instead, we are left with the music as it is, and what thrilling music that happens to be.
Galaxie 500 (Boston, 1987-1991)
Even if nothing in history is inevitable, the same cannot be said for the music of Galaxie 500. Listening to Today or This is Our Music—recorded and released over a breathtakingly-short handful of years in the late ‘80s—you get the sense that at some distant point far across the earth, enough radio waves carrying out Feelies, Velvet Underground, and Big Star songs met. Maybe they got into Harvard, borrowed Conan O’Brien’s drum set, and formed the perfect band. Dean Wareham, Naomi Yang, and Damon Krukowski wrote music that was begging to be copied, diluted, and blown-up, but they never did it. Nothing more needs to be in these songs, and nothing less. This band was a perfect fountainhead for all that would come: Refusing to extrapolate out from their own sound, they practically dared other bands to try.
Codeine (New York City, 1989-1994)
Formed in NYC in 1989, Codeine represent probably the most extreme of the early slowcore bands, going slower and louder than anyone else. There is very little warmth or reassuring here, reflected in the stark black-and-white of their album covers as much as in John Engle’s ringing telecaster. “Loss Leader,” off of 1994’s The White Birch, moves with a subdued grace; Stephen Immerwahr’s bass holds stomach-rattling notes for beats at a time while he sings about “losing sight of the shore” in his nasal twang. When the band steps on the distortion, it’s a cold solid-state sound, absent of catharsis, and releases nothing. But this singleness of purpose and aesthetic would make Codeine, with just two albums over five years, into one of the genre’s most distinctive bands. It makes sense that their sound has found adherents in the metal world—it’s brutal in the most elementary sense imaginable.
Bedhead (Dallas, 1991-1998)
Perhaps the least schematic of the original slowcore bands, Bedhead played a mix of soft-voiced indie rock and the kind of repetition-heavy, dissonant music that would become the hallmark of the mid-’90s post-hardcore boom. It doesn’t seem to fit into the genre, but then again this was the time before anyone even knew what it was. Formed by the brothers Kadane in 1991, the band put out three perfect guitar albums and toured widely without ever causing much of a fuss. They represent one of those totally-unique moments in music history, a band with a complete sound but no imitators—nothing successful, anyway. The sonics are clear from the first: On “Liferaft,” the opening song from debut WhatFunLifeWas, three guitars dance around a central figure, a simple idea gradually fleshed into something complex, while Trini Martinez’s drums fill out the accents. The whole thing gradually rises into a glorious, Velvets-worthy climax on the back of a stomach-rumbling fuzzed-out bass. It sounds like the most natural music in the world, the perfect expression of these five players. It’s a sound not even the Kadanes themselves would be able, in later years, to match.
Low (Duluth, 1993-Present)
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Low is in many ways the slowcore band. But for close to 25 years, Mimi Parker, Alan Sparhawk, and a Spinal Tap-esque profusion of bass players have turned their core sound inside-out, finding unimaginable depth in a guitar, bass, and a Mo Tucker-style drum kit set-up. Parker and Sparhawk’s vocals remain indelible, pushing into country, gospel, and plainsong even as the music under them waxes electronic or reduces into the punishing austerity of early-career classic The Curtain Hits the Cast. Since their 1993 debut I Could Live in Hope, they’ve set Parker and Sparhawk’s voices within everything from the chamber pop of Things We Lost in the Fire and Drums and Guns’ hard-panned electronics, transforming the familiar into the alien. This is perhaps the perfect description of the band’s core sound, which, for all its stark simplicity, carries hints of the desolate and the alienating, the churchy familiarity of Parker’s choir-carrying voice shot through with Sparhawk’s reedy, faltering tenor. On songs like “Anon” and “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace,” nothing, no matter how beautiful, can stay that way forever.
Red House Painters (San Francisco, 1988-2001)
It is worth remembering that there was a time when Mark Kozelek believed in the existence of melody or the virtue of composing lyrics a few minutes before recording them. In songs like “Void” and “Evil,” Kozelek waxed romantic over increasingly-dense layers of instrumentation, embracing distortion and flange for a sound that fit in well at label 4AD, even if Kozelek’s penchant for guitar collage and his love for classics like Wings and KISS got him kicked off. It can, in the words of an old high school teacher, “make you want to eat your own head” if you’re not on the same wavelength. And yet, despite all of the moping and the eight-minute runtimes, Red House Painters were undeniably the poppiest of the original bands, with a skill for hummable melody that turned “Have You Forgotten,” from Songs for a Blue Guitar, into the kind of song that could show up in a Cameron Crowe movie. For their 2001 swansong Old Ramon Kozelek split the difference, fitting in the somber “Smokey” alongside “Wop-a-Din-Din,” a breezy acoustic ode to his cat.
Ida (New York City, 1992-Present)
I’m not sure two voices have ever deserved each other more than Elizabeth Mitchell’s and Daniel Littleton’s. As singing partners, and eventual spouses, they found every possible wrinkle, every possible cranny in their harmonies, never settling for simple counterpoint when an act of unison could do. Like Low’s Sparhawk and Parker, they took the potentially simple and mined it for every ounce of desolation and exaltation they could find. On early classics like 1996’s I Know About You the music stays in a particular DIY indie mold, ringing electric guitars and skittering drums. But as the band grew, their sound took in loping Americana and even elements of avant-garde classical, culminating in the circular compositions of Heart Like a River. On “Laurel Blues,” a single repeating chord sequence soundtracks an endless array of three-part harmonies, harmonium and accordion, and a trilling violin droning under Littleton and Mitchell and bassist Karla Schikele—three voices that sound as one. And even when the ingredients were as simple as a guitar and two voices, the result was spellbinding. Check out their cover of American Music Club’s “What Holds the World Together” for an all-time great version of an all-time great.
Galaxie 500 by Norman van Holtzendorff
If few of the original slowcore groups toured together or even interacted, then it was their successors, many of them based out of the Pacific Northwest, that found the thread connecting them and set about responding to it. Not many people lumped On the Beach and Frigid Stars together at the time, but Pedro the Lion saw a way forward, and Carissa’s Wierd found more than a bit of connection between Ida and Secret Name. But unlike other, similar inventions (see: the emo revival of the last few years), the result was a sound that was never entirely dependent on its forebears, even as it channeled them openly.
Pedro the Lion (Seattle, 1995-2006)
David Bazan was often positioned as an heir to Low, both in his evangelical upbringing and his withering voice. But even before a conversion to atheism, the Washington-based singer had his own firm identity. From their lo-fi acoustic origins to a full-on rock blossoming with 2000’s Control, Pedro the Lion was a perverse and idiosyncratic band, as apt to fit in a lyric about “corporate cum” as one about faith or Christ. More than anyone else here, Bazan works in simultaneous confessional and story-telling modes, spinning out fascinating characters from moments of sexual disgust, or, as in the classic “June 18 1976,” a single mother’s hospital suicide. The result is songs that skip Low’s abstraction and Red House Painters’ emotional immediacy for something sadder—a world-weary sigh that seems to shake itself loose from Bazan’s chest and out through the plaintive, spare music. In recent years, he has messed around with genre, including outright synth-pop on the upcoming Care. But his music has never been more incisive and painful than on The Only Reason I Feel Secure, and his plaintive one-man take on “Be Thou My Vision.”
Death Cab for Cutie (Bellingham, 1997-Present)
Though overshadowed by their status as the indie success story of the 2000s, Death Cab came up in the crowded late-‘90s Pacific Northwest scene, starting out as Ben Gibbard’s lo-fi solo project and eventually touring with Pedro the Lion and Dismemberment Plan. While these early Barsuk recordings bear more than a little underground influence, their debt to slowcore, particularly to Low, shows most clearly on 2001’s The Photo Album, particularly the 2002 outtakes Stability EP. “20th Century Towers” is perhaps the boldest statement the band ever made, all held notes and ringing cymbals, except for the title track, a 12-minute-long beauty that slides to a wonderfully abstract conclusion, the band’s homage to their mentor’s classic “Do You Know How to Waltz?” Even if Gibbard and company would follow a more TV-friendly sound to multi-platinum stardom, they held onto scraps of this former language, distilling “Stability” into “Stable Song” on 2005’s Plans and even bringing Low on tour, with Gibbard joining the band onstage to play bass on “Words.”
Carissa’s Wierd (Seattle, 1995-2003)
Though perhaps best-known today for their connections to former Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla and eventual Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell, for a few years in the early-2000s Carissa’s Wierd seemed poised for an indie stardom on par with their PNW peers. Begun as a lo-fi acoustic project in the vein of Sebadoh, CW evolved from the whispered duets of Mat Brooke and Jenn Champion into an orchestral rock combo before breaking up right after the release of 2002’s breakthrough Songs About Leaving. Channeling Robert Altman as much as Ida or Low, Brooke and Champion’s voices break from harmony to sing competing sets of lyrics across and atop one another, a dramatic tension relieved only when they come together on the chorus. This close attention to dynamics shows up all over the band’s music, transforming songs like “Die” and “Ignorant Piece of Shit” from sadsack reveries into dramatic exercises in chamber pop, folding in piano, violin, and Bridwell’s fleet drums to thrilling effect. In their subsequent projects, the band’s founders would emphasize different parts of this equation, Champion going quiet with her S project and Brooke aiming for stadiums with Bridwell. But neither has really achieved the delicate balancing act they seemed to effortlessly maintain in Carissa’s Wierd.
Jesu (Abergele, 2003-Present)
When Justin Broadrick was touring the world playing punishing industrial metal with Godflesh, he marinated in the lushness of shoegaze and the desolation of bands like American Music Club. It all came together in his first recordings with Jesu. While he would use the project to explore ambient drone and Chemical Brothers-tainted electronic music, Broadrick’s best and most coherent songs come directly out of the slowcore tradition, particularly indebted to bands like Codeine and Red House Painters. The result, in songs like “Silver” and “Clear Stream” is a frigid lushness, a distillation of the genre’s hallmarks (ringing chords, clear harmonies, relaxed tempos) into their most elemental forms: narcotized vocoder swells, glacial chord changes, walls of melodic guitars. It makes sense that Jesu has, over time, emerged as one of the most-imitated of the 2000’s post-metal bands. These songs often feel like templates, base materials, which explains Broadrick’s tendency to remix and reconfigure them again and again, taking the same few sounds and distorting them endlessly.
At this point, the fingerprints of Low and Mark Kozelek are everywhere, even if the so-called “classic sound” can barely be heard, even in their own recent work. But don’t let it fool you. We have reached the point in any genre’s evolution where modern bands are as likely to reference interstitial acts like Jesu as they are Jesu’s influences in Bedhead and Red House Painters, reflecting a broadening and a deepening of the sound. Slowcore is remarkable in that sense. Whereas subcultures like emo and NYHC became ever-more constricting over time, our genre began with a specific set of goals and expanded outward. Perhaps because slowcore was always more about a feeling and less a particular set of sonic parameters, it was always more open to interpretation than some of its fellow spawn of the underground. And the bands working today prove it in spades.
Planning for Burial (Matawan, 2005-Present)
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Perhaps the most clearly Jesu-influenced of the bands working on the fringes of metal today, Planning for Burial create an alternately punishing and narcotizing wash that pummels the listener with processed jackhammer drums as often as it lulls them with pure and unfiltered beauty. Thom Wasluck seems hellbent on finding some perfect point of intersection between Low, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and the kaleidoscopic sounds of Trent Reznor’s experimental years. On the just-released Below the House, he’s found it, moving from the hyper-aggressive “Whiskey & Wine” through an instrumental midsection and to the two-part classic of “Dull Knife,” which strips the sound down to Wasluck’s voice before piling on layer-after-layer of sound into a startling climax. Like his Flenser labelmates Have a Nice Life, Wasluck often buries his voice in pure sound, abstracting it to screeching noise or a whispered near-nothing. Below the House is simultaneously his most punishing and his most inviting record, and also his best.
Grouper (Portland, 2005-Present)
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
Liz Harris has been alternating between abstraction and beauty for over a decade now, channeling her instincts for pure pop. At the same time, she subdues them through an aggressively lo-fi aesthetic that favors distorted tape hiss as much as it does her exceptional voice. Grouper has always been a solo project and while sometimes this means Harris with a Fender Rhodes, as often as not, she builds an orchestra out of her meager instruments, building dense collages of guitar pedals and tape delay that bristle out of your speakers and confound headphone listening sessions. The effect would be narcotizing if it wasn’t so intriguing. In recent years though, Harris has stepped back from the clutter and presented a series of (reasonably) clear songs on the Water People and Paradise Valley singles. But with 2014’s Ruins, she released a series of bracing, breathtakingly painful pieces for solo piano, an album shot through with an ice-clear winter light. Alternating between vocal and instrumental pieces, Ruins often finds Harris singing with a ghostly partner, a gauzy, gossamer-thin voice that overlaps and threatens sometimes to subdue the main melody into its own counterpart. For Harris the voice, as well as the piano, can become a purely spatial instrument, holding notes that decay across the room and fade through the years. This reaches its absolute pinnacle in the penultimate “Holding,” a simple rise-and-fall melody that holds equal weight with the buzz of room noise, rain falling outside the window, and a voice that doubles itself in a way reminiscent of Curtain Hits the Cast-era Low that is equally piercing, equally thrilling.
Worm Ouroboros (San Francisco, 2007-Present)
Compact Disc (CD)
Possibly the most measured band working today, Worm Ouroboros make impossibly deliberate music. Vocalists Jessica Way and Lorraine Rath move through one another like wind in fog and their guitars follow suit, slightly jazzy and with hints of 4AD-style pop. On 2016’s triumphant What Graceless Dawn, this culminated in six reverb-heavy compositions that posited some middle point between I Could Live in Hope and the Cocteau Twins, Aesop Dekker’s drums pattering away, more accent than rhythm, not a note out of place. I’m not sure if a rock band today understands the melodic potential of the bass half as well as Rath, nor Way’s graciousness in letting her guitar recede to the fringes. As slow as this music moves, it nevertheless lilts along. An hour-plus can drift by and you’ll still turn the record over and start it up again.
40 Watt Sun (London, 2009-Present)
Following the breakup of the seminal doom band Warning, Patrick Walker moved into something very different, mourning the keening vocals of his previous band to something increasingly austere. If 2011’s The Inside Room was Codeine playing through a wall of Marshall stacks, then Wider than the Sky takes a subtler, sadder approach, like Jason Molina dropping by to record vocals for “Katy Song.” There are no solos, nothing that might distract from Walker’s jangling guitar and mournful voice. It’s an approach without a star, a band playing with the house lights on, where the sheer length of each song (none of the first five tracks comes in at less than nine-and-a-half minutes) becomes an instrument in itself, repetition and space their own ends. If that sounds tedious, it can get that way. But for the first four tracks in particular, it works perfectly. At the very end of “Another Room” when we are left with Walker’s fading guitar and a xylophone’s echo, I’m not sure if 2016 gave us a more effecting piece of music.
Kowloon Walled City (San Francisco, 2007-Present)
As indie rock got busier and more car commercial-friendly, slowcore has taken refuge in some strange places. Take Kowloon Walled City, a San Francisco group that, over their last few albums, have progressed from doom to Chicago-style noise rock to the heaviest Low cover band around. In a metal moment defined by throwback riffs and busy mixes, KWC’s commitment to patience and austerity is thrilling. On 2015’s overlooked Grievances, the band took empty space to punishing extremes, punctuating Shellac riffs with entire measures of silence, the chords ringing out and curdling in the air a la The White Birch. They even put in a sludgy cover of The Great Destroyer cut “July” for a 2012 split with Thou. It never feels like an attempt to layer one genre atop another, a la Deafheaven’s post-rock-over-blastbeats sound, but rather to incorporate slowcore’s approach into a very different sound. Most importantly, it works.