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In the second half of the 1980s, the genre continued to develop in the United States and was primarily associated with C'est La Mort Records that featured artists such as Area (later The Moon Seven Times) and Heavenly Bodies - a band formed by ex-members of Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil.
Ethereal wave, especially the music of the Cocteau Twins, was one of the key inspirations for the British dreampop/shoegazing scene of the late 1980s.
Origin of the term
In the mid-1980s, several Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil records have been described as "ethereal", "etherealism", and "ethereal romanticism". In September 1988, Staci Bonner of Reflex magazine described the music of British label 4AD as "gothically ethereal". Print media in the U.S., such as Alternative Press,Billboard, and Option music magazine, started using the term "ethereal goth" more frequently, whereas European music magazines, primarily German zines such as Glasnost, Aeterna, Entry, Black, and Astan, had named the genre "ethereal wave" in the same vein as new wave, dark wave, and cold wave.
Historically, the term was mostly applied to the roster of 4AD label - not only referring to music, but also regarding aesthetics of the graphical visualization.
"Known for its slick, gauzy package design and quasi-Gothic bands invariably described as "Ethereal" (q.v. Cocteau Twins), the label did have an unpredictable streak." - Ben Sisario, The Pixies' Doolittle
The "ethereal" designation has been taken over by authors such as Mick Mercer and Dave Thompson to delineate the same musical phenomenon in their books, while Simon Reynolds began using the term "goth-lite" (or "post-goth", a term he coined in 1987) to describe the music of Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and related 4AD artists.
"Late '80s, wispy, ethereal-girl, 4AD/Cocteaus/Dead Can Dance... What I call Goth-lite... Post-Goth/4AD-type stuff... Goth-lite was primarily studio music, it was all about layers, sound treatments, and effects... It broke to large extent (see also: A.R. Kane, who I suspect may become a reference point pretty soon)..." - Simon Reynolds, Blissout
The defining characteristic of the style is the use of effects-laden guitar soundscapes, primarily based on minor key tonality (which unfolds a serious, dark and wistful atmosphere), frequently post-punk-oriented bass lines, restrained tempi (ranging from down- to midtempo) and high register female vocals (sometimes operatic and with hard-to-decipher lyrical content), often closely intertwined with romantic aesthetics and pre-Raphaelite imagery.
"The Ethereal tradition began with singers like ... Siouxsie Sioux. Later came Liz Fraser, shrouding herself in an unworldly aura of child-woman innocence." - Simon Reynolds, SPIN magazine
Another significant feature is the extensive use of drum machines, typical of many 4AD productions and initially established by Cocteau Twins' Garlands album and the first full-length work of Dead Can Dance. Acoustic guitars, often combined with electric guitars and bass guitars, are sometimes used to create a more folk-oriented feel (e.g. Love Spirals Downwards).
Aside from the genre's post-punk and gothic rock roots, some ethereal bands, namely Lycia and Soul Whirling Somewhere, were equally influenced by ambient and soundtrack-oriented music and/or by more traditional progressive rock textures.
1980s: Roots and initiators
The late 1970s to early 1980s was a period of innovation and diversification, in which punk rock explored new musical paths, interchangeably described as post-punk and new wave. Technical improvement and the rise of affordable equipment such as drum machines and multi-effects units helped define the sound of a new era. Seminal music artists such as The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Chameleons, and The Durutti Column - who were able to expand and refine their style over the years - began to emerge from the darker strands of post-punk (see dark wave and gothic rock), and tended to "became more ethereal in the process." Most of those bands, especially Siouxsie and the Banshees, are often credited with building the fertile ground for a subsequent generation of ethereal wave performers (e.g. This Ascension). Hits like Melt, released in 1982, rely on a ¾ time signature and an extensive use of digital delay, reverberation and modulation effects, accompanied by dark, unsettling lyrics, and have been described as languorous, seductive, and erotic.
"The band began to ditch the spikiness of Garlands, as Robin Guthrie developed a lush cascading guitar technique, creating a rich texture and an otherworldly feel ... From this point on, music journalists found it impossible to describe the band's work without resorting to the word ,Ethereal'." - Peter Buckley, The Rough Guide to Rock
"... it was the Cocteau Twins, whose debut album, "Garlands", appeared on 4AD in 1982, who proved to be the label's first major artists and did much to crystallize 4AD's image in its early years as an other-worldly purveyor of Ethereal music by reclusive groups who preferred the shadows to the light." - Rick Poynor, Vaughan Oliver: Visceral Pleasures
Ethereal aesthetics, closely related to the artwork of Nigel Grierson (4AD).
In March 1986, journalist Sue Cummings of SPIN magazine described the music as an "introspective reaction to the macho aggression of rock 'n' roll" and noticed "all those big black haircuts leaving [after] the Cocteau Twins' concert this past fall." Soon, the ethereal style that has been dismissed at times as "swirly-girlie music" became closely associated with a certain type of audience, occasionally referred to as Ether(eal) goths or Romantigoths.
"The Cocteau Twins remain ground zero for the Ethereal subgenre and ... gave Romantigoths a soundtrack for clubbbing." - Liisa Ladouceur, Encyclopedia Gothica
According to Heather Phares (University of Michigan, arts editor at The Michigan Daily), the genre reached its first high point in 1986/87. At that time, Siouxsie and the Banshees released their studio album Tinderbox, followed by All About Eve's In the Clouds, A Primary Industry's Ultramarine, and Cocteau Twins' last ethereal E.P. Love's Easy Tears. In 1987, U.S. band Area debuted with Radio Caroline while Vazz from Scotland, a former new wave/synthwave band, brought out Feverpitch that follows the footsteps of the Cocteau Twins. In the same year, Robin Guthrie produced A.R. Kane's Lollita single that features Cocteau Twins' ethereal trademark, comparable to the band's early records. A.R. Kane themselves called their musical style "dreampop", which later became a descriptive term for gentle indie-pop music (cf. Bel Canto, Pale Saints, The Sundays).
1990s: Peak and decline
Within the gothic/dark wave scene, the genre reached a higher level of popularity throughout the 1990s, especially in the first half of the decade. During this time, ethereal wave and rock genres such as shoegazing (aka dream pop) interacted with each other, with many artists being influenced by 4AD bands, such as the aforementioned Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil as well as early All About Eve, The Chameleons, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Portsmouth-based ethereal band Siddal, for example, described their musical output as a "product of influences such as the Cocteau Twins, Low, Slowdive, The Cure, and Dead Can Dance, use a blend of ambient music, shoegazer style guitars, synths and sequenced rhythms." Other examples of this cross-pollination (partly referred to as "ethereal pop") include Hugo Largo,Rose Chronicles,Miranda Sex Garden, Cranes, Chimera, An April March, Hex, Common Language, The Glee Club,Lovesliescrushing, and Rosewater Elizabeth. Members of British shoegazing group Slowdive have cited being heavily influenced by artists such as The Cure, Cocteau Twins, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
"... the huge irony with the bands called ,Shoegazing' was that a lot of those bands really were into the Cocteau Twins. And they all used choruses, flangers and other effects pedals to create a certain kind of sound." - Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine
In the early 2000s, two Cocteau Twins tribute compilations, Dark Treasures (Cleopatra) and Half-Gifts (Dewdrops Records), have been released, underlining the band's significant influence on the ethereal gothic sound.
"The Cocteau Twins gave us 14 years of true musical "gifts". These covers are the best we can offer back to the Twins. "Half-Gifts" to the community of dedicated fans who remember those 14 treasured years fondly..." - Half-Gifts, Liner notes
Although ethereal wave and shoegazing (also referred to as dream pop) share some similarities (e.g. the use of guitar effects such as flanger, chorus, echo, and delay), there are substantial differences between the genres.
Shoegazing emerged primarily from the 1980s' noise pop/indie rock scene and a conventional instrumentation based on guitars, bass and drums. Initially, drum machines were not a regular part of the shoegazing genre but a basic component of new wave, post-punk, and gothic rock music. In contrast to shoegazing, ethereal wave usually features a traditional early 1980s post-punk and gothic rock signature, devoid of any influences of the simultaneously existing noise pop movement. Most ethereal wave groups, such as Cocteau Twins, early Dead Can Dance, Area, Love Spirals Downwards, Lycia, Autumn, and Speaking Silence, employed drum machines and electronically generated rhythms.
Ethereal wave is predominantly a female-fronted style, whereas shoegazing is - apart from the popularity of acts such as Lush, Curve, and Medicine - largely male-dominated (A.R. Kane, Pale Saints, Ride, Chapterhouse, Blind Mr. Jones, The Boo Radleys, Kitchens of Distinction) or, more rarely, gender-balanced (Slowdive, Secret Shine, The Telescopes).
"Women have a much larger role in Darkwave and ... the Ethereal subgenre that developed in Europe (e.g. Dead Can Dance)." - Joshua Gunn, Assistant Professor of Rhetorical Studies at Louisiana State University
^ abMimi Abramovitz, Karen Kelly, Evelyn McDonnell: Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky. Music and Myth, New York University Press 1998, ISBN0-8147-4727-2, p. 82 "Punk flicked its emotional switch from anger to depression, and became more ethereal in the process. The careers of the most successful atmospheric post-punk bands - The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance - tended to be long and uneven."
^Michael Ahlers, Christoph Jacke: Perspectives on German Popular Music, Ashgate 2016, ISBN1-472-47962-9, Chapter 14, p. 7
^Cam Lindsay: Sound of Confusion. How Shoegaze Defied Critics and Influenced a Generation, Exclaim.ca, August 2008. "Like any genre, 'shoegazing' has many parents; most date the first traces back to the drugged-out noise and motionless performances of the Velvet Underground. More obviously, the groundwork was laid in early '80s Britain by The Cure albums 'Faith' and 'Pornography', by the swirling buzz-saw noise and anti-social behaviour of the Jesus & Mary Chain, the ethereal textures of Cocteau Twins and the hypnotic drones of Spacemen 3."
^CD Review magazine: "The Cocteau Twins' calling card -- ethereal soundscapes marked by offbeat, haunting female vocals -- was unique back in the early '80s.", Cocteau Twins album review, p. 44, issues # 1-6, 1990
^Fred Perry Subculture: "...the 4AD roots lay within a sub-set of post-punk, and it is this period in the 80s where 4AD have developed a cult status. The label, alongside its artists, nurtured and raised a new and defined sound, predominantly ethereal and dark...", Book presentation of Martin Aston's Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, September 2013
^ abStaci Bonner: "In 1982, they hand-picked their record label, 4AD -- a company that had corralled all that was gothically ethereal...", Interview with the Cocteau Twins, Reflex magazine, September 1988
^Colin Larkin: "... the label which, more than anyone else, was capable of handling their brand of ethereal, dreamlike elegance.", Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, p. 1156, Guinness Publishing 1992, ISBN0-85112-939-0
^ abcdOliver Köble: Vollendete Gothic-Ästhetik, Interview with William Faith of Faith & The Muse (and Tess Records), Glasnost Wave magazine, issue # 44, p. 11, Germany, November/December 1994
^Thierry F. Le Boucanier: Batcave Memories, Camion Blanc, 2011, ISBN2-357-79113-6 "Les groupes d'éthéré les plus représentatifs et précurseurs sont Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins et This Mortal Coil."
^ abcdOlivier Bernard: Anthologie de l'ambient, Camion Blanc, 2013, ISBN2-357-794151 "L'ethereal wave s'est développée à partir du gothic rock, et tire ses origines principalement de la musique de Siouxsie and the Banshees (les Cocteau Twins s'en sont fortement inspirés, ce qui se ressent dans leur premier album Garlands, sorti en 1982). Le genre s'est développé surtout autour des années 1983-1984, avec l'émergence de trois formations majeures: Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil et Dead Can Dance... Cela est rendu par des effets d'écho, de reverb et de delay très imposants sur les guitares... On relève une prédominance d'un chant féminin haut perché ou très ample et de voix masculines soufflées, douces at contemplatives. Les paroles sont parfois difficilement compréhensibles... L'ethereal wave (et notamment les Cocteau Twins) a grandement influencé le shoegaze et la dream pop. Les labels principaux promouvant le genre sont 4AD et Projekt Records."
^Alternative Press, issue 8, 1995, p. 95 "...If the ethereal goth movement is heading anywhere, it's towards a collision with the new age, without any of the bog-awful connotations which that phrase normally evokes."
^Carrie Borzillo: Artists & Music, Billboard magazine, 28 October 1995, p. 117
^Lisa Gidley: Siddal. Mystery of the Sea, Option music magazine, Volume 77 - 81, 1997 "Siddal's music is exquisitely beautiful and frustratingly static, like a film depicting a frozen lake where nothing moves but a few rays of sunlight and a windblown leaf or two. With similarities to '80s-style ethereal Goth (This Mortal Coil, early Cocteau Twins)..."
^ abStefan Mensing: This Burning Effigy, Astan music magazine, issue # 9, p. 36, March/April 1999
^Rick Poynor: Design without Boundaries. Visual Communication in Transition, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1998, ISBN1-861-54006-X, p. 127 "The cover designs from 1983 to 1986 were a kind of late-flowering romanticism, as peculiarly English and ethereal as the music of the Cocteau Twins..."
^Josh Frank, Caryn Ganz: Fool the World. The Oral History... Chapter Six (Marc Geiger), St. Martin's Griffin, 2006, ISBN0-312-34007-9, p. 79 "The label had an ethereal trademark - because the artist Vaughan Oliver was so distinct graphically that it lent itself to sort of the ethereal, beautiful sound of ... the Cocteau Twins."
^Simon Reynolds: Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Penguin Books 2006, ISBN0-143-03672-6
^Simon Reynolds: 4AD. The Dozen, Director's cut, eMusic, 2006 "4AD will be forever identified with its signature Goth-lite group the Cocteau Twins, but other key signings of this period include Dead Can Dance..."
^Douglas Wolk: Siouxsie & The Banshees, CMJ New Music Monthly, January 1995, p. 42
^Jody Press: Spins. Siouxsie & The Banshees, SPIN magazine, March 1995, p. 99
^Charles Allen Mueller: The Music of the Goth Subculture. Postmodernism and Aesthetics, ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing, 2011, ISBN1-243-59935-9, pp. 74-79
^ abcLiisa Ladouceur: Ethereal, Encyclopedia Gothica, ECW Press 2011, ISBN1-7704-1024-4 "Applied to 1980s English post-punk groups on the 4AD label such as the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance... Ethereal generally meant to encompass bands with dreamy atmospheres, most often featuring angelic, soprano vocals and shimmery, reverb-soaked guitars, as distinct from more aggressive rock."
^ abChris Jones: Cocteau Twins review on BBC.co.uk "The fact remains that despite a whole host of post-punk wannabes adopting the flange 'n' drum machine tactics of the Twins, no-one has ever come remotely close to emulating their sound."
^Katherine Charlton: Rock Music Styles. A History, Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1994, Second Edition, ISBN0-697-12493-2, p. 12 "The post-punk music that had been called New Wave during the late 1970s had dissolved into many styles that bore little relationship to one another by the next decade so the term New Wave became somewhat meaningless."
^ abJacqueline Edmondson: Music in American Life. An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories That Shaped Our Culture, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2013, ISBN0-313-39347-8, p. 548 "Gothic rock - often shortened as Goth - is one of the prominent styles of music that is considered post-punk. Electronically processed guitar effects such as flange, phasing, and chorus were a fixture of Goth bands, lending a tone to the guitar that was sharp and brittle. The drum machine, disavowed by many in the rock community, was also a prominent feature of Goth music, especially in the 1980s."
^Charles Allen Mueller: The Music of the Goth Subculture. Postmodernism and Aesthetics, ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing, 2011, ISBN1-243-59935-9, pp. 177-182 "Goth's obsession with generating an enveloping ambience is an aesthetic perfectly befitting the values of the twentieth century. The version of "Melt" recorded on A Kiss in the Dreamhouse was produced with those values of total simulation in mind, with its heavy use of digital delay (echo) and continuous digital reverb effects that distract from the music's melodic and harmonic beauty and the musicality of the performances of each member."
^Danny Housman: "Elders of the Ethereal genre", Cocteau Twins album review, CMJ New Music Monthly, p. 30, May 1996
^ abMTV News Staff: "In 1983, Heggie left the band, and the group recorded Head Over Heels as a duo. The album was highly improvised and is the first recording to feature the Twins' signature sound -- Guthrie's lush guitars under Fraser's mostly wordless vocals. The group became a trio again when bassist Simon Raymonde joined in 1984. Later that year, they released Treasure, an album that hit #29 on the U.K. charts and cemented the band's ethereal sound.", Cocteau Twins short biography, January 4, 1998
^Bradley Bambarger: Artists & Music. Cocteau Twins, Billboard magazine, 6 April 1996, p. 14, "The Cocteau Twins debuted in 1982 with the dark post-punk strains of "Garlands" and broadened their distinctive sound over a string of releases on 4AD. A mid-'80s burst of innovation brought forth the best of these: "Head over Heals" and the "Sunburst and Snowblind" EP from '83, the seminal album "Treasure" from '84, and the compilation "The Pink Opaque" from '86."
^Josh Frank, Caryn Ganz: Fool the World. The Oral History... Chapter Six (Kristin Hersh), St. Martin's Griffin, 2006, ISBN0-312-34007-9, p. 78 "... all the other bands on 4AD were extreme English. suddenly, we realized we were in the company of bands like the Cocteau Twins and Dif Juz - they're all real gauzy and beautiful and ethereal and we just so weren't."
^Peter Buckley: The Rough Guide to Rock, Rough Guides 1999, ISBN1-8582-8457-0, p. 19 "The duo recruited Andy Cousin to pump the bass but chose a drum machine for their well-received first single, "D for Desire", a mix of Cocteau Twins and Banshees which struck a chord at the time."
^Fred Mills: Drowning Pool. Nierika, Option magazine, 1990 "The music of Drowning Pool is swirling, echoing haunting, and beautiful. It is sinuous like early Felt, melancholy like some R.E.M., and ethereal like Cocteau Twins."
^4AD: "The studio-based outfit comprised East London duo Alex Ayuli and Rudi Tambala, who described their music as "dreampop". After releasing their debut EP on the One Little Indian label, they moved to 4AD in 1987 and issued the Lollita 12", which was produced by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins."A.R. Kane short info
^Abramowitz, Ari: Pockit Rockit Music Finder. My Bloody Valentine., Music Guru, Inc., October 2004, ISBN0-975-97870-5 "Drawing from 80s alt rock, ethereal Goth, and lots of guitars, MBV's music was both delicate and huge, like a 100' wall of deep red clouds."
^Sage Weatherford: Sam Rosenthal, Heathen Harvest, 27 December 2011 "Sam Rosenthal is a name synonymous with the darkwave and ethereal genres that were largely popular and highly influential throughout the '90s, and though popularity and exposure for these genres has waned over the past decade, Rosenthal's now nearly three decade old label Projekt is still running..."
^ abSpectrum Culture: Interview with Sam Rosenthal, 9 April 2013 "In the '90s, the three big acts on Projekt were Lycia, Black Tape For a Blue Girl and Love Spirals Downwards... But I'll be quite honest, the ambient side of the label sells a lot more music than the Goth/Darkwave side. Sales are perhaps 10% of what they were 15 years ago. Meaning an equivalent stature band (not the same band) sells 10% of what they did in 1998. This is going to make you cry - but if we can sell 10 copies of a non-Projekt CD through our website, Shea and I are impressed. And if we can sell 25, we're getting out the party hats. Back in the early 90s, I probably sold 1000 copies of each Faith & the Muse CD through my mail-order catalog. We sold 2000+ copies of the Heavenly Voices box set. It was great."
^ abNancy Kilpatrick: The Goth Bible. A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined, St. Martin's Griffin 2004, ISBN0-312-30696-2, p. 90 "Projekt bands like Love Spirals Downwards and Lycia are among the most popular of this subgenre. ... Tess Records bands like Faith & The Muse, This Ascension, and Autumn dropped the obscenity and blasphemy in favor of the more 'ethereal', Romantic stylings becoming popular in Europe."
^ abBen Greenman: ?Bedazzled Records: Ethereal and ambient pop artists, including Strange Boutique, Siddal, Viola Peacock, and the Curtain Society.?, Netmusic. Your Complete Guide to Rock and More on the Internet and Online Services, p. 321, Random House Electronic Publishing 1995, ISBN0-6797-6385-6
^Simon Reynolds: The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll, Harvard University Press 1996, ISBN0-6748-0273-X, p. 172 "But by the '90s, Pink Floyd's blurry sound and androgynous aura were resurrected by a mini-movement of British neo-psychedelic bands known as 'shoegazers' or 'dreampop'."
^Pete Prown, Harvey P. Newquist, Jon F. Eiche: Legends of Rock Guitar, Hal Leonard Corporation, 1997, ISBN0-7935-4042-9, p. 237 "One faction came to be known as dream-pop or "shoegazers" (for their habit of looking at the ground while playing the guitars on stage)."
^AllMusic: Noise Pop "In the late '80s, noise pop was the chief inspiration for the British shoegazing movement, which made the lyrics more introspective and the melodies more fragile."
^ abMichael Bibby, Lauren M. E. Goodlad: Goth. Undead Subculture, Duke University Press Books, 2007, ISBN0-822-33921-8, p. 126
^Jason Morehead: Love Spirals Downwards. Idylls, Opus Zine, October 2009 "Ryan Lum's guitars create the same sort of jawdroppingly gorgeous soundscapes as those produced by Robin Guthrie, Suzanne Perry's gorgeous voice echoes Elizabeth Fraser's gossamery glossolalia, and beneath it all, there's the cold, artificial thump of a drum machine (which serves only to highlight the music's ethereal aspects)."
^Stuart Maconie: Ride. Sex and the Singles Band, New Musical Express, 8 February 1992 "They are the model '90s pop group; sensitive young men with floppy hair and languid tunes, displaying cherubic belligerence laced with existential angst. But surely RIDE belong to the blank generation of anonymous musicians who are killing the glamour of pop?"
^Ben Myers: Muse. Inside The Muscle Machine, Independent Music Press, 2004, ISBN0-953-99426-0 "The shoegazing scene of the turn of the decade - inconsequential, murmured, low-mix vocals atop swathes of FX-laden guitars, as played by studious young men and women with nothing to say..."