What’s in a name? When it comes to music scenes, a great deal. In the eighties – while the UK charts were dominated by naggingly catchy, gaudy synth pop – British guitar music was quietly giving birth to something very different. Led by pioneers such as the Cocteau Twins and blossoming in the brief, frustrating, glorious career of My Bloody Valentine, this was a new kind of guitar music that shimmered and shifted, pursuing sonic beauty over the traditional song structure.
And how was this ambition and loveliness rewarded by UK music critics? With the title “shoegazing”, a sneering and lumpen name that guaranteed its unfashionability – a status that lingers in the UK to this day. Yes, the rumours of a new My Bloody Valentine record may be causing hyperventilation among certain sections of the music press, but those bands who have actually pursued their legacy in the 21 years since their last album – such as the wondrous Engineers – have been largely ignored, commercially and critically.
In other parts of the world – particulary in the US – the term “dreampop” was preferred, a vastly better description of the type of beautiful, evocative, lavish music being created by the likes of the criminally under-rated Slowdive. Perhaps it’s this lovelier language which partly explains why such music has flourished in other parts of the world and been treated with the respect all adventurous, beauty-pursuing music deserves.
Ummagma are a perfect illustration of the point. Ukrainian Alexx Kretov and Canadian Shauna McLarnon met in 2003 and have spent the time since wisely, getting married and perfecting the distinctive sound to be found on the two albums they released simultaneously earlier this year: the self-titled “Ummagma” and “Antigravity”. Taken together, they add up to some of the loveliest, most seductive dreampop since Engineers’ magnificent swansong, “Three Fact Fader”, though with a more eclectic, fluid musical approach.
Broadly speaking, the two records reflect two different sides to Ummagma’s personality. The self-titled record is the more conventional rock record, taking in the growling bass-driven “Human Nature”, the bustling indie pop of “Outside” (with its enticing echoes of Throwing Muses at their insistent best) and the sweetly simple, radio-friendly chime of “NIMBY.” The second record “Antigravity” is a more restless, moody creature, taking in sinister, bastardised central-European folk (“Balkanofelli”), David Lynchian atmospherics (“Back To You”) and mutating FX-fuzz (“Live And Let Die”, sadly not a Wings cover).
But such a divide doesn’t really do justice to the complexities and ambiguities that make Ummagma’s sound so rich, and which so generously reward repeated listens. The more accessible “Ummagma” also yields the heavy squall of “Rotation”, its gorgeous MBV-esque scuzz underpinned by industrial percussion, while the darker “Antigravity” contains one of the loveliest songs the band have yet written, the dreamy soundscape of “Lama”, with its long stretches of yearning guitar and crystalline McLarnon vocal. Although their single prettiest song is “Orion”: its twinkling starlit synths and whalesong sighs making it sound like some gorgeous echo from Kate Bush’s “Hounds Of Love”.
But for all the references you can throw at the band, the best moments are when they sound like no-one but themselves. “Upsurd” is one such moment, a turbulent tussle of a tune which fully exploits the interplay between McLarnon’s sweet tones and Kretov’s huskier voice, slipping between moods like it’s twisting and turning in a troubled sleep.
Which isn’t to say that these are perfect records. Some of the songs slip over the line from hazy to insubstantial, and you could argue that if the two albums had been edited into one they would have had a greater intensity and impact. But these are songs that chase beauty at a time when so many guitar bands are content to tread the same stagnant water, and they deserve to be heard. Ummagma sound like a band who are already somewhere fascinating and beautiful, but may be heading towards somewhere even more exciting.
If you’d like to hear Ummagma – and we really, really think you should – go to http://ummagma.bandcamp.com/ where you can hear and download their albums. We’d recommend starting off with “Lama” and working your way in from there.