Ethereal Roots Part I: Cocteau Twins, Changelings, and LSD

There are many different categories of music that can be discovered taking shelter under the black umbrella term of “goth music.” I found goth through a life-long love of vampires, which means that my deep-seated roots lie in classical music. Organs and harpsichords and violins were all that I listened to as I read Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and wrote poetry about ghosts and incense, longing and blood. When I was introduced properly to goth as a musical culture at the age of 15, I have to hand it to my goth mentor that I got proper exposure to all the classics. I was sent mix tape after mix tape of Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy, The Cure, and Christian Death. However, I was also introduced to slightly more esoteric bands that blurred the line between gothic rock and the classical that I already loved, bands such as Love Spirals Downwards, Bel Canto, Cocteau Twins, This Ascension, and Love Is Colder Than Death. Through research on the newly burgeoning internet I discovered that most of these bands were considered “ethereal.” They are distinguished by hazy, dreamy vocals (mostly female) and lush, shimmering instrumentals that make me feel as though I am swimming through oceans of serene sound whenever I listen to them. I knew that I wanted more.

Somehow I managed to get my hands on a Projekt catalogue, which is a label that has specialized in ethereal, ambient, and neo-folk music for many years, and I must have flipped through the pages of that small magazine (more like a brochure, really) over a hundred times, wondering what a band called “Black Tape For A Blue Girl” would sound like. (As I discovered several years later, they sound amazing.) While my exposure to ethereal music during high school was limited to the occasional mix tape song, once I went to college in Boston the floodgates opened. I frequented a marvelous music store called Newbury Comics that carried all the bands I ever dreamed about listening to and more. Suddenly I had entire albums of the artists that I was previously limited to owning one or two songs by. Though several of my most beloved ethereal bands from the 90s are now no longer together, they remain my most turned-to albums for inspiration and meditation. Ethereal is definitely a sister to dream pop and shoegaze, both of whom enjoy moderate to rising success in the current musical climate. However, true ethereal music does as the name promises: it transports you to another time and place by the simple act of closing your eyes and listening. And so, dear reader, I shall share three of my most beloved ethereal tracks with you here and now.

1.) Love Spirals Downwards – I Could Find It Only By Chance

Love Spirals Downwards is the first band that comes to mind when I think of quintessential ethereal music. I could literally have chosen any song from either of their first two albums, Idylls and Ardor, to share as the ultimate example of what otherworldly music sounds like. I chose this song from the latter, “I Could Find It Only By Chance,” because I discovered this beautiful fan made video that accompanies it. The creator of said video was spot-on in using so much water throughout, because this song is the sound of swimming at night, floating on stars, feeling weightless and at ease.

If you like this song, I can not recommend their first two albums enough. Magical things have happened to me when I’ve been listening to these albums, as well as magickal things. Dreams have been intensified, creativity has been unleashed, and my inner sense of calm and peace is always restored after an hour in a locked room with this band on my headphones. Their third album, Ever, has some lovely gems as well, but their fourth and final album together, Flux, is a vast departure from their earlier works, so be warned, angel seekers. Both LSD vocalist Suzanne Perry and instrumentalist Ryan Lum have begun other musical projects since parting ways (Melodyguild and Lovespirals, respectively) but in my opinion, their best and most significant works are to be found as Love Spirals Downwards.

2.) The Changelings – Earthquake At Versailles

The Changelings are particularly dear to my heart, as they are from Atlanta and I am a “dark southerner” myself. In this author’s country opinion, the southern United States has a certain ease to its gothic nature: you don’t have to travel far to find dilapidated graveyards with crumbling angel statues and mausoleums engulfed in kudzu. Every time that I drive to the nearby town to buy groceries I see rotting wooden barns and abandoned houses that were once white but now radiate an eerie blackness glimpsed between the dusty shards of shattered glass windows. I’m not sure why we keep these rusty cars and broken bricks around us, but we do, we have evidence of our humid, disintegrating lifestyle all around us. Perhaps it’s our way of trying to keep time standing still, by filling our yellowing parlors with antique artifacts from generations past. Whatever the cause, here we are, country folk all but swallowed in green foothills and the grey skies of thunder storms the likes of which you would never feel in an insulated city.

We southerners live with darkness and decay and death, and while we don’t claim to fully understand it, a great number of us have made peace with it. Many if not most traditional southern songs deal with death, but often in an uplifting way, speaking to the hardships of life and the joy of being reunited with loved ones in heaven. The Changelings are not as overtly heaven-focused in their lyrics as much southern music is, yet their songs are just as otherworldly as any ethereal band. While LSD is the sound of swimming in the stars, The Changelings delve deeper into the ethereal nature of all of the elements, utilizing fiery stringed instruments from all over the globe as well as earthy drums, airy vocals, and tinkling electronics like drops of rain at sea. This song in particular, “Earthquake At Versailles,” speaks to the beautiful decay that we southerners know so well. Each of their albums is an intoxicating blend of elemental magic, but their ghostly self-titled masterpiece remains my favourite. Though the band broke up in the early part of the last decade, happily they have recently announced that they are reunited once more. I look forward to more from this magnificent band, and hope to catch them live this time around.

3.) Cocteau Twins – Sea, Swallow Me

Chances are, even if you aren’t familiar with ethereal music as a whole, you’ve heard of Cocteau Twins. Choosing just one song to feature was a near impossible task (and one reason why today’s entry is posted much later than Miss Pink would wish it to be). Many folks argue that Cocteau Twins are dream pop, or post-punk, or simply alternative, but whatever genre you use to describe them pales in comparison to their actual music. The lyrics are sung in trills and half words/half noises, which could sound like cacophony with another vocalist, but coming from Elizabeth Fraser sounds like whispers from another realm, and Robin Guthrie turns any musical project he touches into gold for fans of this type of music.

This song is from a collaborative album between Cocteau Twins and renowned composer and pianist Harold Budd, called The Moon And The Melodies. “Sea, Swallow Me” is the first track of an amazing album, and it has always stood out to me because when I purchased the album I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. I was still in high school (re: limited musical exposure in those days before the glorious internet) but I had heard of Cocteau Twins, purchased one of their albums second-hand from the local indie record shop, and was eager to find more. During a trip to a huge Media Play in Chattanooga one weekend, I found The Moon And The Melodies. But whereas Four-Calendar Cafe (my first Cocteau purchase) was dreamy in a warm, sunny, summery way, this album was completely different: cool and quiet, an album for nighttime listening. I thought that it was so strange, but also fascinating. Listening to this album put me at odds within myself and led to much self-contemplation. Re-listening to it now reminds me of those times when I was questioning everything in my life, but it also provides a sort of cold comfort that keeps me on my toes. And above all, it is quite simply beautiful to hear.

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