Album review: Sennen – ‘Widows (Expanded Edition)’: now twice the size, Noughties shoegaze torchbearers’ debut packs a glorious punch

The Breakdown

A great, blurry, guitar record of the Noughties with a line back to the Nineties and very much a record for the early Twenties; it sounds great, occasionally punky, dreamy, autumnal, wielding the guitars in doing the good work. As a keystone completes and holds an arch, so Sennen's Widows unites two pillars of the shoegaze tradition

WHEN shoegaze was so cruelly traduced by the British inkies, dazzle-eyed by their enthralment with the twin coming of grunge and early Britpop, us aficionados shed a quiet tear for a lovely sound, a gorgeous aesthetic seemingly consigned to the history books; but you can’t, as we can see in retrospect, keep a great idea down.

I remember when shoegaze was considered a dirty word in supposedly right-thinking company; was indeed working in a very cool Manchester record shop when the first advance copies of Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun began to filter through, to jawdropping reaction from members of staff; and was looked at as if I’d done something really rather horrible when I genuinely and enthusiastically remarked: “Wow! That guitar sound; they’ve really been listening to Slowdive, great!”. Faces: like thunder.

Now, of course, the shoegaze sound is as celebrated as it’s ever been – with some of those records from three decades ago still very much sounding like the future. (OK, litmus test: take Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”, Cast’s “Alright”, Dodgy’s “Staying Out For The Summer” and play them next to Pale Saints’ “Throwing Back The Apple”, Lush’s “Thoughtforms”, My Bloody Valentine’s “To Here Knows When”, and tell me which sound like they’re forging forward, full of ecstatic possibility?)

Of course, the revival began sometime around 15 years ago, quietly, with bands like Southpacific and Sennen, Engineers, Ringo Deathstarr, even German electronica artists Ulrich Schnauss, starting to cite and adopt the majesty of the sound; and the Sonic Cathedral club night began to cater to the diehards and the newly seduced. From such acorns, mighty oaks …

Because Sonic Cathedral are now to release an expanded edition of the aforementioned Sennen’s 2005 debut, Widows – and it comes out on vinyl for the first time, as well.

Sonic Cathedral’s Nat says: “When Sonic Cathedral first started out as a club night in 2004, there were a number of bands around that reminded us of the stuff that had made us fall in love with music about 15 years earlier.

“In this so-called ‘nu-gaze’ scene, alongside the likes of Engineers and Amusement Parks On Fire, were an unassuming four-piece from Norwich called Sennen; they played lots of shows for us, and their mixture of melody and noise made them stand out. Essentially, they sounded like the perfect cross between Mogwai and Teenage Fanclub.

“Sennen have gone on to release a number of albums, the most recent being 2016’s First Light, and their music has featured on big TV dramas such as One Tree Hill and True Blood. However, Widows, which never got a vinyl release, remained a much sought-after time capsule of early noughties experimentation.

“Now, just over 15 years later, we are really proud to be once again shining a spotlight on it.”

This new expanded edition doubles the original album with another seven contemporaneous tracks, many of which were live staples at the time, but that have never been released before.

It’s all been remastered by Slowdive’s Simon Scott, whose then band Televise were touring partners with Sennen back in the day.

“Everyone now knows Simon as the drummer in Slowdive,” says Sennen singer and guitarist Rich Kelleway, “but he sang and played guitar in Televise and they were a really good band.

“We were thrilled that he agreed to remaster the record for us. He did a fantastic job, I’ve honestly heard things I’d never noticed before.

“We’re all still very proud of Widows. With your debut you just have to trust your instincts. You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know enough to make a good noise together. Listening to it again in 2021, I wouldn’t change any of it; I think our instincts were right. We gigged and rehearsed a lot in those days and the band was the most important thing in our lives; we worked those songs out together and put a lot of time into them, and you can hear that.”

And showing how music cycles in and out, in and out, according to the vagaries of the dominant discourse, Sennen had their roots in a Britpop outfit on the Isle of Wight: the movement that seemed to kill shoegaze dead practically overnight, save for the couple of bands who jumped the fence but lost pretty much everything they once had in the process – Lush and The Boo Radleys.

“Larry, Rew and I all went to school together on the Isle of Wight and decided that, if we wanted to carry on doing the music thing, we should all go to the same university and start a band, so we moved to Norwich, where we met Brownie in 2000,” explains Rich.

“We were much more like a post-rock band at that point, we were interested in what Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor were doing – basically exploring how much apocalyptic noise we could make with our amps and pedals.

“When Phil moved away we carried on, but we made the songs a bit shorter and introduced the vocal harmonies, so instrumentally we sounded a bit like a post-rock band; we weren’t aware of much of what you’d call shoegaze. We were always being compared with shoegaze bands, and people assumed that because we were called Sennen we were all huge Ride fans (“Sennen” being a track on Ride’s 1991 Today Forever EP, itself in turn named for the village nearest to Land’s End).

“Originally it was Phil who suggested Sennen for the band name, we liked it, but we were actually only familiar with a few Ride songs at the time. So we did some of our musical education a bit back to front. Once we did our homework we discovered a lot of great music that you might assume we’d listened to all along. We liked the repetition of bands like Spacemen 3 and Six. By Seven and I suppose all this was the beginning of what would become Widows.”

Heady and exciting times indeed, when you can almost taste the tide running with you; something really good willing itself into being.

Rich continues: “It felt like there were lots of cool things happening around the music we liked at this time, the Sonic Cathedral nights were starting, and we felt momentum in the build-up to this album.

“I remember rehearsing for a gig one night and we’d been told Steve Lamacq might play us on Radio 1, so we rushed home and sat on the sofa not quite believing it was going to happen. It did. He played “It’s Not Like It Used To Be”, which ends with a minute of white noise. At the end he said, ‘Not exactly a cure for insomnia, is it?’.

“It was a brilliant time. We were enjoying playing so much we’d accept almost any gig we were offered; we’d think nothing of driving from Norwich to Leeds and back on a Tuesday night. We played with some great bands: The Telescopes, Lyca Sleep, Televise … I remember Simon kindly getting us out of a hole by lending me an amp when mine broke in, I think, Oxford.

“All of the bonus songs on the reissue are taken from the same recording sessions as the Widows album. Most never saw the light of day until now, probably just because we were moving on so fast and always thought the next song was more important.”

Sennen, photographed in 2005 by Alice Lee

Something of an outlier of an album, then; a record carrying a torch for a sound with derisory referencing in the culture at large, but which was just at that moment beginning to reassert its validity, as like minds and old hands began to reach out and connect with each other and a disparate array of new bands found the sound. How is it, a decade and a half on?

… well, you can tell from the off we’re in for a great journey. Many a band is eager to dive straight into the opening of a debut album with a whoop, adrenaline-fuelled, banging it out to say: hey! We’re here. But “I Couldn’t Tell You” has languor, stretches out from an opening heat haze. You can hear post-rock influence in its unhurried pacing and autumnal chime, and yes, you could so have seen Ride ending up here (and they pretty much have, now they’ve reformed) had they not swerved off after Carnival Of Light. It has Andy Bell’s confessional, melodic sensibility, a little of Mogwai’s mid-period mournfulness, the street-lit atmospheres of Bark Psychosis. And it does quiet-LOUD in its crescendo with the absolute best of them. The soft despair evident in that closing couplet, as it all subsides: “I couldn’t tell you / If I tried.”

“Opened Up My Arms” keeps that autumnal thing going – drums skipping and rolling with guitars ringing, building to a properly delightful fuzz haze over a simple lyrical yearn: “I opened up my arms to let you in.” There’s definitely a little Six. By Seven in the depth and seductive smoulder of the guitars, but still a fragility about the tune; a barenakedness, somehow.

“Laid Out” might these days qualify more as that ill-defined adjunct of shoegaze, dream pop, with its cycling, accordionesque riff over which low-slung, lo-fi guitars are strummed with a Drop Nineteens or Pavement aplomb. It needs a video of chopped-up Super 8 that features shades, summer cars, scratchplate close-ups. It’s quietly a delight. “All The Time” has that poignant emotional sway that you hear to such potency on the early Slowdive EPs, a thousand words painted in sound. It feels like wrapping up with a lover on a slate-grey day, making a cave away from it all. A love nest as a defence. Moving.

“It’s Not Like It Used To Be” has that bone-deep sadness of a love that’s fading, chemical gears throwing into reverse but the thicketing of souls still very much intact – and that’s examined with a calmly sad touch and immersive guitar, all downstrokes and gentle harmonic suspense, pulsing away. It rises, falls, promises to burst open and instead fades to whisper, only gradually then ascending through peaks, eventually collapsing into one-chord, six-string fuzz abrasion. It’s very much a distant cousin of “Today” by Ride, and that’s fully complimentary.

That track bleeds into “One And The Same Thing”, a real garage-punk bruiser, dirty riffs and pounding toms with eyes cast Stateside; so much packed glorious angst packed into two minutes.

The album’s title track, “Widows”, closes the first innings; as with the opener, its unhurried, wintry, has plenty of space and a Bark Psychosis windchill, “A Street Scene” pushed towards the odyssey, with the simple mantra, “I’ll try to, I’ll try to,” your hook. A sparse riff drops through space, and Rich’s voice is deliberately compressed and narrowed in the mix. Of course it’s gonna break open like molten rock, and so it does, though three minutes of eerie scene-setting elapse before it reveals a ringing, almost goth majesty. The drums fair thrum away, tribally and the guitars assimilate a judgmental grandeur. As the closer on the first release, it’s quite the statement.

And so ends the original, seven-track Widows; but Sonic Cathedral and the band, in their munificence, have doubled it in size; a whole extra disc for the vinyl release. As noted previously, all these tracks stem from the selfsame album sessions and it begins with “Next Day”, which captures some of that bleary, washed-out romance of The Telescopes. “Hard To Take” is the slightest of Fanclubby sketches, exactly 60 seconds of stop-start Bellshill fun – it’s kinda great that it follows the Oscar Wilde maxim of leaving you wanting so much more, ending just when you think it’s gonna kick up a level; and “I Knew A Girl” is blissfully gazey, romantic, loping, wistful, whispered; conspiratorial, satisfyingly guitar-laden, humming with strummed honey.

You can watch the video for “Forty Years” below; it was dropped as a single when this fine reissue was announced. And it’s a cracker, isn’t it? You can hear a little of the Norman Blakes in there, certainly, and when those guitars descend like sheets of warm rain … . It has easy euphoria, and I can’t believe it’s only seeing the light of day now. Quality, and by rights should’ve been out years ago on a now sought-after 12″.

“It’s Good To Know” is deliciously dissonant and demo-raw, all kinds of howlround and crackle left in, the sound of equipment on the edge; it’s the closest to a more traditionally American guitar scrappiness of any of the tracks on Widow and doesn’t suffer at all for that. “Watch The Skies” starts off down that more Swervedriver route, one to flail the locks to, and breaks to an almost Fugazi, straightedge, punk-minimalist centre and buzzsaws to a giddy conclusion. “Just Wanted To Know” concludes the trip with the drip-drip-drip, Vox Teardrop psych-blues minimalism of Spacemen 3, which absolutely riots into noise and out the other side with arcing power.

It’s a record partly out of time, given its early Nineties’ antecedents from the mainspring of shoegaze; but it does join dots with other bands both contemporary with your Rides and Lushes, such as Teenage Fanclub and Swervedriver, who were running alongside with other destinations in mind; and also across to Mogwai and Six. By Seven – this latter especially a band who don’t fall into any of the current guitar band narrative flows, and shamefully so.

It’s a great, blurry, guitar record of the Noughties with a line back to the Nineties and very much a record for the early Twenties, where we find ourselves now; it sounds great, occasionally punky, dreamy, autumnal, wielding the guitars in doing the good work. As a keystone completes and holds an arch, so Sennen’s Widows unites two pillars of a tradition.

What next? I’d love to see the Southpacific records on vinyl, myself … anyone?

Sennen’s Widows (expanded edition) will be released by Sonic Cathedral digitally, on CD and on 2xLP on July 9th and is available to pre-order at Bandcamp, right now.

Connect with Sennen elsewhere on the web at their official website and on Twitter.

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