In the world of shoegaze, Ride always had the most clarity of sound. That clarity is, of course, relative, but the Oxford group was one always dedicated to melody, to the structures that drive the song. The band was plenty loud, but the music was never necessarily about being loud. Their first classic album, Nowhere, is about as soaring as it gets. It stretches out and rises high so much it might be better described as Everywhere. The crashing yet in-the-groove drums, the thick bass, and the spin and fall of guitars -- not to mention Mark Gardener's haunting voice hiding in the mix -- made for a volatile sound that was always, first and foremost, sweet.
But if Nowhere was an exercise in making a whole more than the sum of its parts, then Ride left itself with no real place to go on a sophomore LP. Nowhere defined its hooks only to launch them so high they melted and fell again. 1992's Going Blank Again, the follow-up record, couldn't hope to achieve the same heights without sounding repetitive.
And yet, if you hear the eight-minute opener "Leave Them All Behind," the band seems intent on pushing forward, on going further and higher. It starts simply enough, with the strong rumble of Steve Queralt's bass and the spacious propulsion of Loz Colbert's drums, but things eventually burst open in layers of ringing acoustics and spiraling electrics mixed with heavily layered vocals. It's as big as any song the band ever did, and sets an impossible precedent for the rest of the record. It's presents us with a reminder of what made Nowhere brilliant, but also with a grandiose sound the band can't possibly keep up.
What makes Going Blank Again so amazing, though, is that the rest of the record doesn't try to keep up. It turns out what the band is leaving behind are all those towering, if well defined, layers. From there, the rest of the record makes us wonder if really we can call Ride a shoegaze band. If that tag comes from the first impression of Nowhere, it doesn't hold up well here. "Leave Them All Behind" follows with the bright, clean power-pop of "Twisterella." The song isn't reaching for the atmosphere at all. In fact, it's half-twang guitar leads seem more content to roll in the dust. There's still Ride's dreamy vibe on this song, but it also feels like the band at their earthiest. "Not Fazed" beefs the distortion back up after the pastoral leanings of "Twisterella," but it's a song condensed. The vocals don't seem hidden here. Instead Mark Gardener and fellow songwriter and singer Andy Bell sing together and absolutely belt it out, making their voices clear above the fray, while guitar lines cascade over the crunchy foundation. You can hear every single part here, including the warm hum of organ, and yet they never meld into formless volume.
The band still has its big moments on Going Blank Again. "Cool Your Boots" would be shoegaze by the numbers if it weren't so beautifully executed. Colbert leans heavily on the cymbals here, and the guitars are heavily treated in chorus effects, so everything smudges just a bit at the edges. There's also the edgier space of closer "0x4," that pits airy synths again brittle guitar lines, while under them Queralt (as he always does) gives the song a thundering pulse and Colbert sets a Krautrock-persistent beat. In moments like these, the melody is still defined, but you can see the band stretching out again, reminding themselves of just how big they can sound. It's no wonder they sing "I'm going home" towards the end of the song, since they feel right in their own wheelhouse -- and, for an album that so often describes getting lost, it's a fitting end.
Those big moments, though, are defined by the more concise ones around them. The taut ringing of acoustic guitars on "Chrome Waves" or the lean psych-pop of "Making Judy Smile" or the angular riffage of "Time Of Her Time" all let us hear a new side of Ride. It reminded us that Ride may have made pop built firmly for the dreamworld, but the group never forgot the very real rock muscle this sound could generate underneath all that atmosphere. Here, it's that physicality that comes to the surface and makes Going Blank Again an album that doesn't have to take up space to be staggering in its sound. Ride didn't make the mistake of making one huge-sounding album (Nowhere) and trying to top it with more layers, with bigger distortion, with more muddled volume. Instead, Ride peeled things back most of the time on Going Blank Again, so when they did decide to swell into something more atmospheric, those huge moments were earned.
Ride never quite killed it in the states, and they've become one of those bands that critics celebrate in retrospect, mostly on the strength of their immaculate debut. But don't let the shining noise of that album drown out its predecessor, because this one is just as deserving of that type of praise. If Nowhere was more than the sum of its parts, Going Blank Again makes every part count, every part defined and strong. In other words, it's not musical alchemy. It's something much harder to pull off: clarity.
A 20th-anniversary edition of Going Blank Again will be out soon on Oxford Music. Preorder it here.