While Kevin Shields has busied himself by breeding chinchillas, cashing Lost in Translation publishing checks and royally pissing off the five people left on the planet who are still waiting for the next My Bloody Valentine album, Chicago musician Scott Cortez has quietly snatched the “King of Shoegaze” crown from his head. Although Cortez makes music under at least eight different names, it is his work under the Astrobrite name that bears every earmark of the sound that MBV pioneered 15 years ago: a perpetually unresolved tug-of-war between noise and melody, in which waves of distorted guitars veer in and out of tune, subduing both the androgynous vocals and the martial rhythms. However, Astrobrite’s fourth album Pinkshinyultrablast pushes both the melody and the noise to levels that Shields may never reach. In the effort to produce a follow-up to Loveless, Shields built and scrapped an entire recording studio. That Cortez has managed to do it FOR him with little more than a four-track and Cubase speaks wonders about the man’s genius.
Opening track “Ultrablast” begins in almost exactly the same manner as Loveless’ “To Here Knows When,” with a busy drum machine struggling to be heard above the six-string din. However, “Ultrablast” improves on that song by replacing its one-note drone with a seven-note motif that rises and falls with an almost classical grandeur. The drum machines start running backward halfway through the song’s second verse, which adds another level of disorientation to already potent sonic head-trip. Scott’s breathy sigh is a dead ringer for Shields’, and his lyrics imitate the jumbled syntax and lovesick fervor of classic MBV (“Don’t dare to hide/Won’t let you go/Forever feel your heartbreak”). However, his acute melodic sense and attention to detail enable the music to transcend mere mimicry.
On “Lollipop” and “Orange Creamsickle,” Scott demonstrates his mastery of tone and texture by tweaking his guitars to change texture as the songs move from one section to the next. On the former song, the guitars get slowly submerged in a sea of tape hiss and piercing feedback; on the latter, they shift from trebly blasts to subwoofer-shredding rumbles. On “Lemon-Limed Lie,” the guitars are completely stripped of treble, which brings the programmed drum loops to the forefront of the mix. The song’s tuned percussion suggests what collaboration between MBV and Konono No. 1 would sound like. The guitars on “Strawberry Kissdown” wail like an orchestra of police sirens. Scott wrecks so much shop with his guitars that his treatments almost begin to sound rote by Pinkshinyultrablast’s final third. It is at this point that he throws his biggest curveball. On “Please,” Scott goes completely a capella, using multi-tracked vocal harmonies to produce a song just as ethereal and woozy as any other on the album.
Don’t get it twisted, though: Pinkshinyultrablast isn’t just a showcase for Scott’s wicked production skills. The album may sound like pure white noise from half a room away, but multiple listens reveal the actual tunes underneath. All 13 songs are carefully composed, with hummable melodies and discernible hooks. For the first time ever, Scott puts his lyrics in the CD booklet. Of course, most of them would get you laughed at if you read them out loud in public (“I knew it from the start/I knew you’d break my heart/I wish you would have lied/Instead you keep inside”), but if the word “shoegaze” means anything to you, you already know that the words are secondary to the music. Nonetheless, the CD booklet ensures that you can actually sing along to these songs without feeling like you’re speaking in tongues. In short, this album is a masterpiece --- and now that it exists, Kevin Shields’ laziness doesn’t irritate me nearly as much as it once did.
Artist Website: www.geocities.com/wavertone
Label Website: www.vinyl-junkie.com
EDIT (4/19/06 11:29 P.M.):
Here's a message from Scott Cortez himself about the album:
"The Japanese would not release the album until I sent them a lyric sheet. I did not have one to send because there were no real lyrics; I just sang whatever came to mind when I recorded each song. I don't know what I sang on most of those songs, so I had to listen to the tracks over and over and decipher from all that chaos. The decipered mess is what I sent to the japanese, hence the strangeness and laughably insipid saccharine nature of the 'lyrics.' A couple are obvious-sounding --- 'Please' is dorky and lovely at the same time. Others are a mystery, and your guess is as good as mine as to what was said. They also printed the lyrics in Japanese, a translation of a translation. I would like to see that re-translated back into 'Engrish' and see the discombobulations that would result...or a Japanese person interpreting what they think is being sung would be more interesting to me."
By the way, he enjoyed this review :-)