Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The roots of Filipino shoegaze go back to the 1990s, to bands like Sonnet LVIII, Skies of Ember, and Daydream Cycle making the rounds of rock clubs and underground bars until Sugar Hiccup opened the floodgates of alternative music to a mainstream audience hungry for something better than MOR (middle of the road) radio programming.
In the Philippines, the curators of the Shoegaze Pilipinas album anthologies have made sure that in the spirit of renewed interest in the genre, the local pioneers and new firebrands have sonic documentation to trace their histories and traditions, while at once looking forward to the future with amps turned to 11.
On “Alimbukad,” the second of these compilations released during quarantine, Dale Marquez who co-curated the album confessed that “It was initially about providing some historical account of how shoegaze (and dream pop) inspired local bands in the Metro Manila area went back to the ‘90s, since it was not well-documented, and to pursue its path to the 2000’s down to the present.”
“Alimbukad extended its reach outside the metro, including the Visayas and Mindanao regions,” continued Marquez (himself part of the pioneering Sonnet LVIII), “I thought it would give the listener different points of view — how the scene started, flourished, how it endured, how it became what it is now.”
Shoegaze is the spiritual and sonic paterfamilias of noise pop, drone rock, and later post-rock. Its quintessential sound was said to be born almost wholly from the Fender Jazzmaster of My Bloody Valentine’s guitar meister Kevin Shields, an Irishman whose understanding of axework was the equivalent of building infrastructure. From MBV’s seminal LP “Loveless” their contemporaries like Ride, Slowdive, and Yo La Tengo pushed this idea of a “wall of sound” into what eventually became the loose conventions of the genre: reverb-drenched singing that often sound like a separate instrument, jangly or shimmering atmospherics leaning towards melodic songcraft, and loud, lushly textured guitars full of fuzz and delay effects front and center.
A shoegaze song feels like you are both drowning and flying. An irony since the creation of such a rich sound entails the guitar player almost perennially looking down, literally “gazing” at his shoes while constantly turning his boxes of pedal effects on and off, levitating with eyes on the floor.
Anybody listening will find the hypnotic charms obvious, but shoegaze was almost marginalized by the time grunge arrived, even as an emerging new drone and post-metal scene fueled renewed interest in the original bands after the 2010s.
It’s fitting then that some of the most innovative and exciting new Filipino shoegazers aren’t based in Manila, their geographic distance allowing them to thrive away from the often reflex cultural imperialism that the metro, unconsciously or not, inflicts on its artists.
Here are three of the top of the new sonic spear in Pinoy shoegaze.
WYWY – Singing Ambient in Dubai
Foremost among the new blood is the duo WYWY. Their song “Isolated” opens the Alimbukad anthology aptly with funereal vocal sighs, a lumbering beat, and doleful guitars as an ode to fear of the pandemic.
WYWY (short for Within You, Without You) are Mckie and X Alvarez, a married Pinoy couple based in the United Arab Emirates.
X works as an office manager in a logistics company, while Mckie is an admin in construction. The Alvarezes have been living in Dubai for more than 15 years and as WYWY, they’ve performed around the UAE as well as at venues in the Middle East and Eurasia, usually at arts and music festivals. Formed in 2017 with a self-titled EP released the same year, Mckie and X discovered shoegaze from collecting vinyl records, and were especially enamored of English shoegaze band Slowdive.
“The “Souvlaki” album by Slowdive was one of the reasons we fell in love with shoegaze and it also influenced us with our sounds with heavy use of delays, echo, and reverb,” said Mckie.
Mckie holds down most of the instrumental side with guitars and synthesizers, while his wife X does most of the singing, adding the occasional synth riff and even some xylophones.
“WYWY was supposed to be just a couple jamming and making music for fun, said Mckie. “Then a friend invited us to play live in an underground event in Dubai where the place was packed,”
“During our younger days as a couple we used to play around with Garageband on [the] iPad and we uploaded it online just for our private listening pleasure and then eventually our sound matured,” said X. “I come from a family of musicians [and] grew up listening to all kinds of music genres.”
With three boys in the house, the couple rarely have time for rehearsals and thus songs are usually finished within a day or two. “We work by day and we start our parents-game-face-on once we step inside our home,” said X.
However, once Mckie has finished the skeleton instrumental framework, X then literally takes it for a drive around the streets of Dubai. “The best time for me is when I am driving my way to work in traffic,” said X. “Which gives me an hour or more to listen to what Mckie has sent me. Then I will come up with the melodies and lyrics using my mobile phone to sing along with the track.”
In Dubai, an open city consisting of “multi-nationalities and mixed cultures,” Pinoy shoegaze has found fertile ground for one of its future stars. “Art is big in the city, it’s the main thing here,” said X. “And WYWY is always getting invites from art events to perform and it’s an advantage for us.”
KRNA – The Pride of Cagayan De Oro
No idea what they’re putting in the waters of CDO City but KRNA (from “Kirei Na”, the Japanese word for “beautiful”) are among the best acts to come out of the roster of Cebu-based Melt Records.
Formed in 2016, the band have since released a debut EP titled “The Rvr Gld,” a truly beautiful, expansive, and sustained dream of five songs that you just wish wouldn’t end. Led by singer and guitarist KC Salazar, Francis Ramos (piano and synthesizers), Rotsanjani Mojica (bass guitar), and Marc Janro Abian (drums) the members are veteran CDO scene musicians. Salazar was slinging her axe for emo/alternative rock acts Maudlin and Paperthick years ago, while Janro banged the skins for Gasulina, Peachfuzz, and the Tool-inspired Nuncyspungen.
On “Wide Eyes” their dreamy and hypnotic contribution to the Shoegaze Pilipinas anthology, a dreamy soundscape of propulsive, jangly pop and a contemplative beat let Salazar’s angelic, reverb-saturated pipes soar, making for easy comparisons to Melody Del Mundo in her early Sugar Hiccup days and even Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. “The song is about a person that always looks at you ‘wide-eyed’ in wonder,” said Salazar.
Inspired as much by traditional shoegaze and dream pop as by the 2000s New York avant sound artists Asobi Seksu, it usually takes the trio around two months to finish a song. Unlike the hurried pace of necessity that the duo of WYWY usually consume for their music, for KRNA the months of breathing room and time to meditate are apparent in their very textured, thoughtful melodies.
“Shoegaze is a dark, solitary and weightless voyage to another realm,” said Ramos, a 15-year veteran of the local music scene. “I just felt that my peers at that time were making ‘in your face sound’ type of music which was overwhelming at most times. I, on the other hand, wanted to make music that was big, distant, detached and deep.”
Their scene in CDO was always “leaning on the heavy metal/ska/reggae side,” said Abian, “But when I heard [the five-piece Pinoy fuzz popsters] Megumie Acorda perform live, phew, mind-blowing and inspiring!”
“Shoegaze was the sound in my head that I’ve always wanted to explore,” said Salazar. “I was very self-conscious as, here in our city, I was recognized by the more relatable genres of soul and blues or alternative rock. But across the years, Asobi Seksu’s song ‘Familiar Light’ would start playing non-stop in my head no matter how hard I tried to write something bluesy, so I just gave up and finally went for the sound that I really like.”
For a band that’s based in Northern Mindanao, Salazar confesses that one of the biggest challenges of being is the “scarcity of proper music productions here.” This has often forced them to play event organizer just “so we can play a good gig. It has really taken a toll on us organizing and playing at the same time.”
UJU – Sounds to Dream with in Dumaguete
In the college town of Dumaguete where the shady and cool campus grounds of four universities make for a bucolic student life, the four-piece UJU (which means ‘space’ in Korean) is making some of the most tender and moving dream pop songs Pinoy shoegaze fans have likely heard in years.
Formed in 2018, the quartet assembled out of a desire to play a local battle of the bands called Rock Against Youth Apathy (RAYA). “For the longest time, I’ve always wanted to be in a band but couldn’t find people to form one with,” said Kenanaiah Jo, the band’s bassist. “I would watch RAYA every year and each year I did, it made me want to start a band. Finally, in 2018 I was set on forming one so I talked to David and Diosem. Then when I was scrolling through Twitter I saw Judy’s covers and immediately messaged her if she wanted to join us.”
Currently, the band are Jo on bass, David Chu on lead guitars, Diosem A. Dagaas on drums, and the Korean teen Leeju Jung — who prefers to go by Judy.
“I’m the main vocalist and I play rhythm guitar in the band as well,” said the 17-year-old Judy. Her family first came to Dumaguete for summer vacation and her mother liked the place so much that she figured living in Negros Oriental would also be a good opportunity to learn English for her and her kids. “I am full Korean and I came to the Philippines when I was four years old,” said Judy. “Music has always played a big role in my life, but I only really got interested in the music scene here in Dumaguete. At the time we moved here I didn’t even know my ABCs. It’s been 13 years already, and I love this place more than ever. I’m basically a Filipino at heart now!”
Judy is currently in senior high and, like her much older sonic brothers in the band, primarily came to shoegaze through a variety of post-rock bands, specifically Explosions In the Sky and sleepmakeswaves.
“I came across ‘Friday Night Lights’ in 2005,” said Chu. “What really caught my attention was the background music. The soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky added so much depth to each scene, [and] made it more emotional and believable. Probably even the first film that made me cry.”
“Listening to sleepmakeswaves for the first time in 2017 was when I was able to realize that a song could feel like a friend and that words weren’t necessary to convey an emotion,” said Judy. “In fact, music could even better express emotion than words ever could.”
The emotive impact of the Texan Explosions in the Sky and the Aussie sleepmakeswaves have become high benchmarks to aspire to for UJU. You can hear that direct inspiration on their song “Summer” on the Alimbukad anthology, a measured and direct shoegaze sound that harkens to the kind of droning and soothing tilt-a-whirl of someone lost in thought and deliberate introspection, a scene set by the delays and the hall reverb.
“In my ripe old age of 17, pedals go BRRRR hahaha,” laughed Judy. “On a serious note, a little delay and reverb goes a long way. On our vocals, we double or sometimes even triple track recordings. Oftentimes we just want someone to understand, and that’s exactly how ‘It’s Dark, It’s Cold, It’s Winter’ by sleepmakeswaves felt to me. When I try to write lyrics, I find myself going back to this song that has definitely inspired me to write lines that speak of hope in a broken world.”
“Explosions in the Sky set the foundation for my shoegaze journey,” said Chu. “The way they create emotion and atmospheric textures to their music. Each guitar having clear note definition, and a tone that sounds clean but still fills out so much space in the audio spectrum. Specifically, we use tape emulation and analog sounding delays, as well as big roomy reverbs. Explosions in the Sky are the reason why I have the Dispatch Master instead of the RV-3 on my pedalboard.”
Though Dumaguete’s arts and music scene consists of so many genres and so many artists, the only challenge UJU has experienced so far is the caliber of exposure they get in their college city. It’s admittedly not easy for local artists to reach a large audience because “this is an extremely small town,” said Judy. “What I’ve noticed here is that everyone supports one another and it never feels like a competition in this music scene.”
Now that UJU are signed under Melt Records like their label mates KRNA, the sound of the Philippine South, whether in Dumaguete or CDO is definitely richer by far in its tapestry. This makes UJU’s forthcoming album “Dream of Better Days” something good to look forward to as Pinoy shoegaze expands in many places across the country.
“Alimbukad: A Shoegaze Pilipinas Compilation” can be downloaded and streamed for free on Bandcamp.