Gather round, and let me tell you a tale. In the early 90s, from the ashes of the shoegaze scene there emerged a band so original and inspiring that they still haven't been bettered today. The name of that band was Curve, and in their psychedelic electronica-meets-shoegaze-with-a-little-bit-of-grunge-in-the-mix attitude they created a sound that is still striking even today. I've decided to write about them because I saw a review that said SVIIB's second album wasn't anything new for anyone that remembered Curve. Well, I do remember Curve, and I suppose that's true to some extent, but Curve were always way darker, closer to the 'dark ambient' of Massive Attack's Mezzanine than the dream-pop of Lush. Also, let's not forget that on the Ten Little Girls EP they wrote a track that has what is possibly the only instance of rapping on a shoegazing record (to my knowledge).
So if Curve were so good, then why hasn't anyone heard of them? Good question. They released four albums on a major label- Doppelganger, Cuckoo, Come Clean, and Gift, as well as two download compilations and a number of EPs. More than this, if you listen to their most successful (and best) album, Come Clean, you'll hear a number of tracks that could- and did- become radio favourites, or even club tunes: 'Coming up Roses', 'Something Familiar', or 'Killer Baby', for instance, whilst I've heard singles 'Hell Above Water' from Gift and 'Chinese Burn', the lead single from Come Clean on Top Gear.
What happened then? Garbage. Garbage happened.
Every time I try and introduce Curve to a friend, they usually take one listen, scrunch up their nose and say words to the effect of 'kind of sounds like Garbage...' and that's that. There's a reason for this. Butch Vig, the driving force behind Garbage had worked with Curve and seen a gap in the market for a more stripped-down, post-grunge slash electronic version of their sound. I'm usually pretty generous on imitation leading to creation, but in this case, it's simple: Garbage ripped Curve off, and fucked them over. How? Let me explain. Garbage's more simple arrangements took Curve off the playlists, jumbled up people's sense of which band came first, and when the inevitable backlash came against Garbage's platinum-selling debut, Curve got buried completely, while Garbage were big enough to weather the storm.
It's just a case of bad luck really; with the right timing, and backing, Curve could have been as big, but they remained the perennial outsiders, despite their musings increasingly becoming more mainstream-acceptable dream pop. With each album they changed tone and approach, and in terms of sheer musical ability, the partnership can have been matched by few since. So, if you want to discover a hidden gem of the mid-90s, check Curve out. Yes, they are quite electronic, and yes, they have a female singer, but that's where the Garbage comparisons should end; they have oh so much more to offer than Garbage ever did.
Curve's first record, essentially just a shoegazing outing, riding the back of the scene that was popular at the time. Highlights include opener 'Already Yours', the sublimely vocal-led 'Horror Head', sinister 'Lillies Dying' and more aggressive 'Split Into Fractions'. The closer, 'Sandpit' is worth a mention, as it bears some resemblance to a melancholy 'Tea in the Sahara' by the Police.... at least to me.
Cuckoo, Curve's second album, is darker and more industrial in feel- the guitars are more agressive, less washed out in the mix, and the dark electronic influences that were later to tell are beginning to surface. That said, the highlight is undoubtedly the shoegaze mammoth of 'Superblaster'. The album performed poorly, both in sales and in critical reception, and overall it's by far Curve's weakest effort. After this, the band would break up.
From the word go, this album, by the newly- reformed Curve is unstoppable. From the sheer madness of 'Chinese Burn', which is like Nine Inch Nails covering The Cure, it just gets better and better. There's only one bad track on here- the inexplicable noise-punk of the title cut, which cuts in just as the album is tripping out towards the end. My personal favourite is possibly 'Beyond Reach'. The sheer restrained malice and bitterness in Toni Halliday's delivery of the lines "never pick a fight with someone bigger than you/ that's what I learned when I was at school", and "I'm a tosser for thinking/ it was anything more than it was" are the most plain her lyrics ever get, as well as the cathartic high-water mark of the album.
By Gift, major rifts had formed between Curve and their record label Universal, and it seems they can have had few illusions about this record being their last; a gentle progression from their previous effort, with the guitars all but gone, the downtempo 'Polaroid' and 'Hung Up' steal the show, while a guest appearance from Kevin Shields adds magic to the best track, 'Perish', and the lyrics, "we're staying together for the sake of our memories" and "I'm scared of the bugs, a millionth of the size of me" could as easily be about the breakdown of the band as the other loss they describe. Other guests (including Flood and members of Filter and Depeche Mode) bring subtle changes of mood to the tracks they feature on, and add a backstory to the album that gives it a fitting weight for a final outing. Curve go down swinging, and as Halliday screams "I should have seen it coming!" at the end of 'Bleeding Heart' you feel her trademark vocal restraint finally crack, as she moves from ethereal to pure, elemental anger amid a wall of fuzz distortion, and the heaviest passage of any song in their career.
The great thing about Curve though, over say, Vex Red, is that they had time to develop and actually put out a body of work before they finally went under. There's still the inevitable 'what if?', but with three truly great albums under their belts there's equally enough to get your teeth stuck into. By the time that 'Bleeding Heart' is fading out in your speakers, you'll have been with the band on a real journey, and an increasingly personal one at that, as the lyrics become progressively more transparent album to album. They are an obsessive music fan's dream- and more than that, they genuinely were an excellent band.
(For the interested) Live Rig for Dean Garcia: