I used to love shoegaze. Back in the day, I relished the hazy, wistful atmosphere of bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and The Daysleepers, usually while lying on a beach and pondering the life I wasn’t living. Though my tastes have changed, this didn’t stop me from snagging Spotlights from the promo bin upon seeing that familiar shoegaze tag. Formed by two members of post-rock group Sleep Lady, this Brooklyn-based husband-wife duo released debut EP Demonstration in 2015, followed by first full-length Tidals last year. Sophomore album Seismic shows the band once again working with Isis’s Aaron Harris for production duties, but will this record truly rock your socks or merely leave you gazing at your watch?
One thing’s for sure: Spotlights are quite a bit heavier than a “shoegaze” comparison would suggest. Instead, imagine Jesu with a fatter guitar tone, or a sludgier version of Nothing with a glimmer of Mogwai’s atmosphere. I’m not sure who handles the main vocal duties — both Mario and Sarah Quintero are credited — but whoever it is, they do a good job evoking a more subdued version of Katatonia’s Jonas Renske by utilizing a smothered croon that wafts lazily beneath the simple, glacial riffs. Supported by an often lethargic tempo and Mario’s thrumming synthesizers, it’s an effective sound that again draws to mind Jesu with a reflective, hypnotic mood that still manages to deliver some serious heft.
Opener “Seismic” shows this from the start, beginning with xylophone-esque melodies that soon escalate into rumbling, crushing riffs and layered, atmospheric chords. At six-and-a-half minutes it’s a slow-burning build but proves effective enough once the snappier beats of follow-up “Learn to Breathe” kick in. Third track “The Size of the Planet” rounds out this promising start with vast night sky melodies, strained notes, and a delightful squealing solo that swirls like a celestial kaleidoscope. If Seismic were to have a radio single, however, it would have to be late highlight “The Opening,” whose driving bassline, clean picking, and sensual vocal melodies sound like what would happen if Deftones collaborated with The Smashing Pumpkins in an attempt to create the poppiest and most ethereal three-and-a-half minutes possible.
Yet despite this alluring atmosphere, Seismic is rattled by debilitating issues. Though “A Southern Death” mixes things up with swift and loose Cobalt drumming, for the most part, these 11 tracks drift along on all-too-similar moods, tempos, and ideas. This wouldn’t be so bad if Seismic was shorter, but at a whopping 69 minutes, my interest starts to wane by the time late cut “What Is This? Where Are We?” has me asking that same question. Sadly this isn’t even the worst part: upon first listen of “Hollow Bones” I was certain the track was the closer and the running order was somehow messed up on my computer. Instead the squealing final solo of “Bones” is followed by “Hang Us All” and “The Hope of a Storm,” which together provide an additional 15 fucking minutes of runtime in the form of ambient post-rock that’s spacier and less interesting than anything else on the record. To say those tracks are unnecessary is an understatement — Seismic drags its ass like no other album I’ve ever heard, to the point where removing the final two tracks could easily have bumped up the score by another half point.
Fortunately, the production redeems things somewhat, with sharp snare hits and a mechanical, voluminous guitar tone that grants Seismic a dreamy, urban vibe. Though the loudness saps some sonic depth, Spotlights have clearly learned a lot from their influences about conjuring a compelling atmosphere. For all its flaws, I must admit this album presents quite a few delightfully pleasant melodies and dense soundscapes that almost redeem its bloated length. At this point, Spotlights may lack the same hooks and memorable songwriting as their peers, but it’s hard to deny the duo’s potential. In the future, more self-editing and distinct ideas would go a long way. For now, Seismic certainly delivers on its self-described “dreamsludge” sound but never quite shakes my core the way those old shoegaze bands once did.