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Swervedriver transcend genres at the Biltmore Cabaret

Photo by Giles Borg
Photo by Giles Borg

Genre categories can often polarize people, especially musicians themselves and their listeners. While artists often balk at the idea of their work being categorized, for us listeners and critics, music can’t merely be music. Styles vary so radically, from psychedelic funk-rock to electro-folk to progressive metal, that we need some way of making the new and weird seem familiar and understandable, and hopefully embraceable.

And yet sometimes you get to witness a performance that makes you forget the categories you use to make sense of things, and the music is just music. This is what happened for the crowd when Swervedriver played the Biltmore Cabaret last Monday.

The term “shoegaze” is usually the first one associated with Swervedriver’s music, so it made sense for Vancouver band Did You Die to open the night. Did You Die combine rocking bass riffs, intense drum grooves, and guitar chords that sounds like they’re imploding to create a huge wall of sound. Guitarist and singer Richie Alexander follows in the tradition of his shoegaze/dream-pop predecessors with lethargic yet anguished whines and moans, yet not without injecting some kind of individuality. That’s one really nice thing about this kind of music: there’s certainly a signature sound that ties all of the bands together, yet the no-rules approach lets groups as diverse as Amusement Parks on Fire, A Place To Bury Strangers, and Giant Drag hang in roughly the same space.

Still, Did You Die’s songs themselves were on the formulaic side (easy to do when the sound of the instruments is so captivating). It also didn’t help that the volume was a bit too much for the Biltmore’s low stage, and the songs had little dynamic variation – it was full blast all the way, and at times it seemed like the band was hiding behind the wall of sound they were creating. While DYD certainly had something to offer, their greatest strength was in the textural dimension of their tones, which unfortunately lost its impact over time.

Fortunately, this was not the case with the headliners.

The first thing I noticed as the veteran Oxford-based group began their set was how clear the sound was. When I think “shoegaze,” I tend to expect a lot of reverb effects and huge, over-saturated guitars. But the sound coming from the speakers was more like a normal rock band, meaning that the guitars sounded like guitars, the bass and drums could make you move, and (most shockingly of all) you could actually hear the lyrics that singer/guitarist Adam Franklin was singing! It seems that this sonic clarity and restraint is something the band has worked hard to achieve, and it makes a huge difference for the audience.

The basic structure of the set was built mainly from selections from their newest album, I Wasn’t Born To Lose You, interspersed with classic tunes from the band’s ’90s catalogue. Fans should be encouraged by how well this set list worked: although the new songs have a clear signature apart from the old ones, it was a highly appropriate and enjoyable blend, where everything fit together. I think it has to do with how strong their songs are. This band is not at all lacking in style, but the compositions themselves could work just as well as intimate acoustic performances. Unlike typical expectations associated with shoegaze, Swervedriver have an overriding melodic sensibility, even at their most aggressive, and as the set went on I became more impressed with the highly musical character of everything they did.

Anyone who has paid much attention to Swervedriver knows that the guitar really is the centrepiece of the band’s sound, and it was a privilege to hear guitar counterparts Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge jamming out their signature melodies and arpeggios, as well as navigate the more bizarre end of the electric guitar’s potential. But because they’re musicians of such good taste, it never feels frivolous or self-important. Every note really does count with these guys.

Truth be told, as the night went on the idea of genre seemed less and less relevant, because what we were witnessing was a great musical performance, regardless of who influenced it or what scene it belonged to. It was, as nearly as can be judged, an objectively good performance. As a music lover, it’s easy to get bogged down in genre labels, subcultural divisions, this or that person’s opinion, and a million other extra-musical concerns and forget your first love. Swervedriver helped me remember.