It starts as I assume things are meant to end, with a blinding, transcendent light. The opening of HEAVEN INCHES AWAY is as the album title suggests: 23 seconds of weightless, floating noise, a quiet hum that seems to signal that otherworldly enlightenment is about to wash over you. Suddenly, inches become miles as you come crashing back to something more terrestrial, the massive drum fill at the top of “Emerald Bells” still buoyant and dream-like, sure, but familiar. True transcendence might have slipped away, but what follows on Soft Blue Shimmer’s debut album often captures something resembling it.
Listening to Los Angeles shoegazers Soft Blue Shimmer’s first full length HEAVEN INCHES AWAY, out on Disposable America later this week, an inviting warmness reveals itself. That immediate invitation to see what heaven sounds like, fittingly titled “Space Heater,” is a comforting vibe the band carry throughout the album.
While they flirted with Heaven plenty on their excellent 2019 EP, NOTHING HAPPENS HERE, here you can sense a different level of intensity and workmanship. The trio once again returned to Loveland, CO, to work with Gleemer’s Corey Coffman in his studio just south of Fort Collins. The result is a massive, echoing rock sound that far outreaches not only where their previous material reached, but where their peers even aim to land, the kind of record that, in a different year, would have heads turning in small rock clubs up and down the West Coast. It’s a self-assured record, and you can sense a level of confidence that has pushed the band further, everything from the recording of the drums to lead singer Meredith Ramond’s soaring vocals.
“We wrote the last EP really getting to know each other and learning to collaborate, and now we were able to write the most ‘us’ thing possible,” explains guitarist Charlie Crowley. “There was a definite feeling of it being a risk. I remember us having the demos and talking to each other and thinking it might be total shit. We were looking at each other thinking, are any of these any good?’”
That sense of confidence is only echoed when you talk to the band. They know what they made is, even if only by their own standards, great. “Once we got to Loveland and Corey was super stoked on all of it, I think we thought it might be really really good,” drummer Kenzo Cardenas reaffirms.
“There was one thing I remember us constantly coming back to,” Crowley recalls. ”I remember thinking it with ‘Cherry Cola,’ there was a part we were writing and I remember saying ‘Is this a little cheesy? Is it too cheesy?’ And Kenzo just said ‘Who gives a fuck, it sounds like us,’ and I think that was our main ethos.”
Soft Blue Shimmer are an experiment in exploring the aesthetics of shoegaze and dream pop just as much as the sound itself, which is part of what makes the band so exciting. The album is called HEAVEN INCHES AWAY. The cover nails a blurry, quotidian gaze with such specificity it becomes re-engaged and rejuvenated. Even the band name, Soft Blue Shimmer, is sonically inviting like Slowdive or Lush before them. You begin to compound the fact that the songs have names like “Sunpools” or “Adore the Distance” or “Cherry Cola Abyss”—if they weren’t immediate in their earnestness and obvious in their quality, it’d be easy to write off Soft Blue Shimmer as a parody of a shoegaze band.
Those aesthetics are key to what Soft Blue Shimmer wants to do, and that’s only emphasized on HEAVEN INCHES AWAY. When I bring it up to the band, you can tell they relish in the lore of the genre that they’re active participants in. Crowley in particular, who is at the helm of many of the band’s creative decisions, from song names to helping with album covers, knows exactly what Soft Blue Shimmer is, almost down to a definition, so much so that when I bring up the song titles both Ramond and Cardenas laughingly roll their eyes (“Alright, go ahead Charlie, talk about the names.”) “I’ll have a list of 40 song titles, and all these words sound really nice. But then we’ll go through and sometimes it’s none of them and it’s something completely different. And I’ll show the band and very overwhelmingly be like ‘What of these 25 names do you like!’”
“I judge every book by its cover,” Crowley says. “I walk into a book store and I think this creative team must understand this book, because it looks sick, and I’m gonna buy it and read it! I approach an album in the same way. The goal for us is to always do something that we look at as timeless. In 10 years from now, will we still be proud of this album cover? Does it still capture the essence, the abstract metaphysical thing that is these songs, that are these lyrics? These are the invisible webs that hold together all of HEAVEN INCHES AWAY.”
The confidence that Soft Blue Shimmer have feels immediately refreshing, both in talking to them and in listening to the album. An exciting, youthful crop of indie artists have come out swinging the last two years in LA, helping to define what a shoegaze could be for a city that hasn’t had a defined hallmark sound in decades. But I’d be hard-pressed to say any of them have tried to record a record that would feel more at home blasting out of Dodger Stadium than The Echo.
From Fime to Launder to Deserta, and even the spiritually important relocation of the band that’s been at the center of the 2010s shoegaze revival, DIIV, it certainly feels as though things are happening in LA. When I pitch this idea to Soft Blue Shimmer though, they don’t seem entirely convinced. Admittedly, Los Angeles is a transplant city—turning a cynical eye towards that fact is almost essential for people who have grown up here like the whole band has.
“I think it’s cool to be here (in LA) as a fan, but I think there are a lot of wack-ass bands out here too,” Cardenas says as the rest of us all chuckle, knowing full well what he means. “People do it for the wrong reasons, and going to Loveland and becoming friends with Corey, where he’s talking about the Fort Collins and Denver DIY and basement scenes, doing it on their own… We’ve been in other bands, it’s hard, and you’re competing with a lot of other bands here. It’s either all-ages in a shitty venue or it’s 21+ in a 400-cap venue, and it’s hard to break in.”
Certainly breaking in becomes harder when you’re releasing a record amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, when you don’t have the ability to play live or make an impression beyond what resources are afforded to you online. HEAVEN INCHES AWAY was recorded in Colorado the week states were beginning to announce shutdowns—Crowley recalls having to hop on calls from the studio between takes to gameplan how the café he manages would be dealing with Los Angeles protocols from literally 1000 miles away. But these days, like every other one of those burgeoning Los Angeles bands, Soft Blue Shimmer are simply trying to survive, working service industry jobs while waiting for their album to drop, and waiting, like the rest of us, to see what the future might hold.
Like every other song title on the album, closer “Adore the Distance” exists in an uncanny valley of the band’s own manufactured identity, but especially in 2020, it lands with a swift, melancholic gravitas. The heavenly highs of those opening seconds quickly become a distant memory as the mirage of heaven coming in and out of focus defines as much of HEAVEN INCHES AWAY as its actual sound. “Adore the Distance” reverberates with a comforting, if not appropriately far away, aura, Ramond’s vocals a calm ahead of a storm of uncertainty. As things begin to splinter apart, maybe some of those wack-ass transplant bands go back to where they came from, leaving artists like Soft Blue Shimmer to rise up. It’s wishful thinking., but I’m hopeful.
You can grab a copy of Soft Blue Shimmer’s HEAVEN INCHES AWAY over on Bandcamp.