★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, after two decades of music steadily getting faster and faster via punk, hardcore and speed metal, things started to slow way down. On the heavier end of things, sludgy, doomy metal and dirgey, grungy punk rock became de rigueur, while independent rock took a somewhat different tack.
Splicing the sensitive aesthetics of collegiate art-rock with the quirky complexities of post-punk, the unaligned confederacy of bands playing what was dubbed “slowcore” proved that the underground’s musical dynamics didn’t always have to be LOUD-quiet-LOUD, but could instead be quiet-quiet-slightly-less-quiet-then-somewhat-quieter-again.
While some groups, like Galaxie 500 and Cowboy Junkies (the latter of which never gets properly acknowledged as a superlative slowcore act), achieved this effect by stripping away all excess instrumentation and melodic ornamentation, others, like Low and Red House Painters, simply whispered their way through gelatinously expansive arrangements that sounded like someone literally slooooowed doooowwnnn time itself.
The predominant thread of slowcore, though, ran through bands like the New York-based Codeine and Dallas, Texas’ Bedhead, groups that were – nominally, at least – rooted in electrified rock and punk aesthetics, but also groups that were trying to be artful and considered in their approach to intricate, low-key music.
Codeine’s work for Sub Pop was collected by Numero Group in a lavish, beautiful box set in 2012. Now, Numero turns their attention to Bedhead, a group that, at the time, was somewhat less well-known (thanks to their music being released on a smaller label, the King Coffey-owned Trance Syndicate), but also much more contemporarily synonymous with “slowcore.”
Bedhead’s approach to slowcore was decidedly unique at the time; neither gentle (like Low) nor occasionally rockist (like Codeine), the restrained approach the band took gave equal emphasis to each instrument – whether the sparkling, plucked guitar notes, the clear-eyed basslines, the brushes-and-chimes percussion, or the evocative, undemanding vocals that were as heavy-lidded as they were purposeful.
It was that sense of purpose and restraint that made Bedhead special; rather than rearranging standard indie rock songs into some “slowcore” format, Bedhead’s songs couldn’t have existed in any other space. Whether on less-known tracks like “Inhume” (from The Dark Ages EP) – on which the band chips away at a single, propulsive structure that’s neither a drone nor a typical melody – or on more classic tracks like the subdued and emotionally affecting “Powder” (from the debut album), the breadth of expression Bedhead achieves without ever having to yell or devolve into histrionics is impressive. And while a four-CD box set might seem as exhausting as it is exhaustive, in reality the dynamics and subtlety that Bedhead mastered make this extensive collection well worth deep exploration.