Ethereal wave

This article is about the music genre. For waves in ether, see light wave.
Cocteau Twins:
"Elders of the Ethereal genre."[4]
(CMJ New Music Monthly, 1996)

Ethereal wave,[5][6] also called ethereal darkwave,[7] ethereal goth[8] or simply ethereal,[9][10] is a subgenre of dark wave music[11][12] and is variously described as "gothic", "romantic", and "otherworldly".[13][14] Developed in the early 1980s[15][16][17] in the UK as an outgrowth of gothic rock, ethereal was mainly represented by 4AD bands[18][19] such as Cocteau Twins[20] and early guitar-driven Dead Can Dance.

“Known for its slick, gauzy package design and quasi-Gothic bands invariably described as "Ethereal" (q.v. Cocteau Twins), the label did have an unpredictable streak.”
          – Ben Sisario, The Pixies' Doolittle[21]

In the second half of the 1980s, the genre continued to develop in the United States and was primarily associated with C'est La Mort Records that featured artists such as Area (later The Moon Seven Times) and Heavenly Bodies – a band formed by ex-members of Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil.[22]

Origin of the term

The origin of the genre term(s) is not known with certainty. In the mid-1980s, several Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil records have been described as "ethereal",[23][24] "etherealism"[25] or "ethereal romanticism".[13] In September 1988, Staci Bonner of Reflex magazine described the music of 4AD as "gothically ethereal".[18] Print media in the U.S., e.g. Alternative Press, SPIN, and Option music magazine, used the term "ethereal goth" more frequently, whereas European music magazines, especially German fanzines such as Glasnost, Aeterna, Entry, Black, and Astan, labeled the genre "ethereal wave" in the same vein as new wave, dark wave, and cold wave.


Trance to the Sun - Horse Head Lake
The clip illustrates a hard variant of the genre, based on a drumcomputer and swirling guitar patterns, comparable to the early music of the Cocteau Twins.

Audio clip collection (4 different bands)
4 track samples in waltz time signature, published by Cocteau Twins, Speaking Silence, Opium Den, and Mistle Thrush.

Problems playing these files? See media help.

The defining characteristic of the style is the use of effects-laden guitar soundscapes, primarily based on minor key tonality (which unfolds a serious, dark and wistful atmosphere), frequently post-punk-oriented bass lines, restrained tempi (ranging from down- to midtempo) and high register female vocals (sometimes operatic and with hard-to-decipher lyrical content[12]), often closely intertwined with the aesthetics of pre-Raphaelite imagery.[26][27][28][29]

“The Ethereal tradition began with singers like ... Siouxsie Sioux. Later came Liz Fraser, shrouding herself in an unworldly aura of child-woman innocence.”
          – Simon Reynolds, SPIN magazine[30]

Another significant feature is the extensive use of drum machines, typical of many 4AD productions and initially established by Cocteau Twins' Garlands album and the first full-length work of Dead Can Dance. Acoustic guitars – often combined with electric guitars and/or bass guitars – are sometimes used to create a more folk-oriented feel (e.g. Love Spirals Downwards).

Aside from the genre's post-punk and gothic rock roots, some ethereal bands, namely Lycia and Soul Whirling Somewhere, were equally influenced by ambient and soundtrack-oriented music and/or by more traditional progressive rock textures.[31]

Alicia Porter Smith, maintainer of the website, describes the genre as being

“... most characterized by soprano female vocals combined with ... bass, lead guitar, and drums which creates a surreal, angelic or otherworldly effect, e.g. Love Spirals Downwards, Cocteau Twins. Ethereal music often ... uses the female voice as an instrument. Sometimes, a male vocalist will also be in the group along with the female vocalist. Even more rarely will there be only a male vocalist, but it is still considered ethereal if the mood created is otherworldly and surreal ... It is currently a small division of music, and people who like this music are often called Goths.”[12]


1982–1988: Roots and initiators

Although post-punk bands, such as The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Chameleons, and The Durutti Column, are often credited with inspiring later ethereal wave groups (e.g. This Ascension), the Cocteau Twins and their widely cited early works Head over Heels and Treasure are considered the initiators of the genre.[4][20][32][33]

“The band began to ditch the spikiness of Garlands‘, as [Robin] Guthrie developed a lush cascading guitar technique, creating a rich texture and an otherworldly feel ... From this point on, music journalists found it impossible to describe the band's work without resorting to the word ‚Ethereal‘.”
          – Peter Buckley, The Rough Guide to Rock[34]
“... it was the Cocteau Twins, whose debut album, Garlands, appeared on 4AD in 1982, who proved to be the label's first major artists and did much to crystallize 4AD's image in its early years as an other-worldly purveyor of Ethereal music by reclusive groups who preferred the shadows to the light.”
          – Rick Poynor, Vaughan Oliver: Visceral Pleasures[16]
“The Cocteau Twins remain ground zero for the Ethereal subgenre and ... gave Romantigoths a soundtrack for clubbbing.”
          – Liisa Ladouceur, Encyclopedia Gothica[35]

Other bands from the 1980s who spawned a similar sound were Dif Juz, Breathless, All About Eve, A Primary Industry, Vazz, and Drowning Pool (not to be confused with the metal band).

According to Heather Phares (University of Michigan, arts editor at The Michigan Daily), the genre reached its first high point in 1986/87.[36] At that time, Siouxsie and the Banshees released their studio album Tinderbox, followed by All About Eve's In the Clouds, A Primary Industry's Ultramarine, and Cocteau Twins' last ethereal E.P. Love's Easy Tears.[13] In 1987, U.S. band Area debuted with Radio Caroline while Vazz from Scotland, a former new wave/synthwave band, brought out Feverpitch that follows the footsteps of the Cocteau Twins. In the same year, Robin Guthrie produced A.R. Kane's Lollita single that features Cocteau Twins' ethereal trademark, comparable to the band's early records. A.R. Kane themselves called their musical style "dreampop", which later became a descriptive term for gentle indie-pop music (cf. Bel Canto, Pale Saints, The Sundays).[37]

1989–1999: Peak and decline

Within the gothic/dark wave subculture, the genre reached a higher level of popularity throughout the 1990s, especially in the first half of the decade. During this time, ethereal wave and genres such as shoegazing (aka dream pop) interacted with each other, with many artists being heavily influenced by 4AD bands, such as the aforementioned Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil, as well as early All About Eve, The Chameleons, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The American ethereal band Siddal,[38] for example, described their music as follows:

“A product of influences such as the Cocteau Twins, Low, Slowdive, The Cure, and Dead Can Dance, use a blend of ambient music, shoegazer style guitars, synths and sequenced rhythms.”[39]

Other examples of these overlaps (partially referred to as "ethereal pop") include Hugo Largo,[40] Chimera, An April March, Hex,[41] Common Language, Miranda Sex Garden, Cranes, Rose Chronicles,[42] The Glee Club,[36] Lovesliescrushing, and Rosewater Elizabeth. Members of British shoegazing group Slowdive have repeatedly cited being influenced by bands such as The Cure, Cocteau Twins,[43] and Siouxsie and the Banshees.[44][45]

“... the huge irony with the bands called ‚Shoegazing‘ was that a lot of those bands really were into the Cocteau Twins. And they all used choruses, flangers and other effects pedals to create a certain kind of sound.”
          – Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine[46]

Since the 1990s, ethereal is strongly associated with the Projekt label, which had already used the term in 1987.[47] The label features some of the most well-known names of the US scene (Love Spirals Downwards, Lycia, etc.). Other record labels that featured some of the leading lights of the movement were Tess Records (This Ascension, Trance to the Sun, Autumn),[48] Bedazzled (Siddal, early Mistle Thrush, An April March)[49] and Yvy Records (Faith & Disease, Ninth Circle). Many of these labels and artists ceased activities over the years or changed the musical direction, incorporating elements of other genres such as ambient, trip hop and drum & bass.

“... there are the unexpected fringe crossovers, such as Love Spirals Downwards, whose recent album ‚Flux‘ offers Ethereal Breakbeat fusion.”
          – Bryan Reesman, CMJ New Music Monthly[50]

2000–2016: After the decline

In the early 2000s, two Cocteau Twins tribute compilations, Dark Treasures (Cleopatra) and Half-Gifts (Dewdrops Records), have been released, underlining the band's significant influence on the ethereal gothic sound.

More recent bands who partly represent the genre are Autumn's Grey Solace, Tearwave, Ashrae Fax, Mercury's Antennae, Melodyguild, Faded Sympathy, Saigon Blue Rain, Scarlet Mother,[51] and Broaddaylight.

Notable artists

  • Lycia[5][8]
  • Mercury's Antennae (‚Agalia‘, ‚Nepenthe‘, ‚Elendil‘)[58]
  • Mistle Thrush (‚Six Hour Sunday‘ and ‚Whispers‘)
  • Mors Syphilitica (album ‚Primrose‘)
  • Numeralia (album ‚Deep Breath‘)
  • Opium Den (album ‚Diary of a Drunken Sun‘)
  • Ostia (‚Rope‘, ‚Advocating Venus‘ etc.)[59]
  • Sensualists, The (‚Lovesongs of Chaos and Desire‘)[60]
  • Siddal (‚Beds of Light‘, ‚Frozen Garden‘, ‚Eternity‘, ‚Centuries of Love‘ etc.)[61]
  • Siouxsie and the Banshees (‚Melt‘ and ‚92 Degrees‘)
  • Soul Whirling Somewhere[5]
  • Speaking Silence (album ‚Speak in Silence‘)
  • Stare (album ‚Haunted...‘)[62][63]
  • Tearwave[64]
  • The Violet Hour (album ‚Galdr‘)
  • This Ascension[5]
  • This Mortal Coil (album ‚It'll End in Tears‘)
  • Trance to the Sun[5]
  • Translucia (album ‚Ghostpheria‘)
  • Trees Dance (album ‚Sweet are the Clouds‘)
  • Vazz (‚Feverpitch‘)
  • Where I Wake Warm (self-titled EP)

Besides these artists, a number of darkwave-oriented bands have been worldwide loosely associated with the ethereal wave genre, such as The Dreamside and Sophya (Netherlands), The Breath of Life (Belgium),[65][66] Crimson Joy (Germany), Rise and Fall of a Decade (France), Cello (Portugal), Faith & the Muse, The Shroud and Sunshine Blind (United States), This Burning Effigy (Ireland),[67] and Mellonta Tauta (Argentina). Most of these artists were heavily influenced by the music of the Cocteau Twins and the 4AD record label.

Genre distinction

Though ethereal wave and shoegazing (also referred to as "dream pop" by Simon Reynolds[68]) share some similarities (e.g. the use of guitar effects such as flanger, chorus, echo, and delay), there are substantial differences between the genres.

Shoegazing developed primarily from the 1980s' noise pop/indie rock scene and a conventional instrumentation, based on guitars, bass and drums. Initially, drum machines were not a regular part of the shoegazing genre but a basic component of new wave, post-punk and gothic rock. Most ethereal wave bands used drum machines and electronically generated rhythms (e.g. Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Area, Love Spirals Downwards, Lycia, Autumn, Speaking Silence, etc.). Commonly, ethereal wave often features a traditional early 1980s post-punk/gothic rock signature – devoid of any influences of the twee- and noise pop movements.

Ethereal wave is a female-fronted style, while shoegazing/dream pop is, apart from the popularity of bands like Lush, Curve, and Medicine, largely male-dominated (Galaxie 500, A.R. Kane, Pale Saints, Ride, Chapterhouse, Blind Mr. Jones, Kitchens of Distinction) or, more rarely, gender-balanced (Slowdive, Secret Shine, The Telescopes).

“Women have a much larger role in Darkwave and ... the Ethereal subgenre that developed in Europe (e.g. Dead Can Dance).”
          – Nancy Kilpatrick, The Goth Bible[48]


  1. Mimi Abramovitz, Karen Kelly, Evelyn McDonnell: "Punk flicked its emotional switch from anger to depression, and became more ethereal in the process. The careers of the most successful atmospheric post-punk bands – The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance – tended to be long and uneven.", Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky. Music and Myth, p. 82, New York University Press 1998, ISBN 0-8147-4727-2
  2. Simon Reynolds: "Pop View. 'Dream-Pop' Bands Define the Times in Britain", The New York Times, December 1, 1991
  3. Cam Lindsay: "Like any genre, 'shoegazing' has many parents; most date the first traces back to the drugged-out noise and motionless performances of the Velvet Underground. More obviously, the groundwork was laid in early '80s Britain by The Cure albums 'Faith' and 'Pornography', by the swirling buzz-saw noise and anti-social behaviour of the Jesus & Mary Chain, the ethereal textures of Cocteau Twins and the hypnotic drones of Spacemen 3." Sound of Confusion. How Shoegaze Defied Critics and Influenced a Generation,, August 2008.
  4. 1 2 Danny Housman: "Elders of the Ethereal genre", Cocteau Twins album review, CMJ New Music Monthly, p. 30, May 1996
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Glasnost Wave magazine, issue # 42, p. 32/34, genre classification of the bands Trance to the Sun ("Ghost Forest"), This Ascension ("Light and Shade"), Soul Whirling Somewhere ("Eating the Sea"), Cocteau Twins and Lycia, Germany, April 1994
  6. Thomas Wacker: Projekt Records label portrait, Black music magazine, issue # 7/97, p. 66, Spring 1997
  7. Encyclopedia Gothica. An Encyclopedia of the Gothic subculture: "Ethereal Darkwave", Terminology, June 1999
  8. 1 2 Propaganda: Projekt: Ethereal Gothic, advertisement, issue # 19, p. 19, New York, September 1992
  9. Hyperium Records: "Ethereal, Gothic & Dark Ambient", CD order form, booklet insert of the Beneath the Icy Floe v. 3 compilation (German pressing), released in 1995
  10. Discogs: Cover of the Projekt: Gothic compilation (see tagline), released in 2002
  11. Reesman, Bryan (April 1999). "The Scene Is Now: Dark Wave". CMJ New Music Monthly (68): 48. Female vocals, both wispy and operatic, have become fashionable, particularly in the Ethereal subgenre.
  12. 1 2 3 Alicia Porter Smith: A Study of Gothic Subculture: An Inside Look for Outsiders, Description of Relevant Music, July 1997, retrieved: April 23, 1999
  13. 1 2 3 Michael Fischer: "The ethereal romanticism of this EP makes for the closest thing in pop to a music for Gothic cathedrals", Cocteau Twins review ("Love's Easy Tears"), The Michigan Daily, p. 7, March 23, 1987
  14. Beautiful Noise: Robert Smith (The Cure) describes the Cocteau Twins' sound as "ethereal" and "romantic"
  15. CD Review magazine: "The Cocteau Twins' calling card — ethereal soundscapes marked by offbeat, haunting female vocals — was unique back in the early '80s.", Cocteau Twins album review, p. 44, issues # 1-6, 1990
  16. 1 2 Rick Poynor: Vaughan Oliver. Visceral Pleasures, p. 75, Booth-Clibborn 2000, ISBN 1-8615-4072-8
  17. Fred Perry Subculture: "...the 4AD roots lay within a sub-set of post-punk, and it is this period in the 80s where 4AD have developed a cult status. The label, alongside its artists, nurtured and raised a new and defined sound, predominantly ethereal and dark...", Book presentation of Martin Aston's Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, September 2013
  18. 1 2 Staci Bonner: "In 1982, they hand-picked their record label, 4AD — a company that had corralled all that was gothically ethereal...", Interview with the Cocteau Twins, Reflex magazine, September 1988
  19. Colin Larkin: "... the label which, more than anyone else, was capable of handling their brand of ethereal, dreamlike elegance.", Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, p. 1156, Guinness Publishing 1992, ISBN 0-85112-939-0
  20. 1 2 3 Oliver Köble: Vollendete Gothic-Ästhetik, interview with William Faith of Faith & The Muse (and Tess Records), Glasnost Wave magazine, issue # 44, p. 11, Germany, November/December 1994
  21. Ben Sisario: The Pixies' Doolittle [series 33⅓, # 31], p. 17, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, ISBN 0-8264-1774-4
  22. Option music magazine, p. 102, Sonic Options Network 1988
  23. The Cavalier Daily: This Mortal Coil album review ("It'll End in Tears"), p. 8, November 7, 1985
  24. Michael Fischer: Cocteau Twins album review ("The Pink Opaque"), The Michigan Daily, p. 7, April 9, 1986
  25. Record-Journal: Cocteau Twins review, June 15, 1986
  26. Andy O'Reilly: Interview with the Cocteau Twins, Lime Lizard magazine, October 1993
  27. Uncut music magazine: Ether Madness, A collection of Cocteau Twins reviews
  28. Discogs: Cover of This Ascension's Light and Shade album, Ophelia motif, released in 1991
  29. Discogs: Cover of Faith & Disease's Jardeu Blue 7-inch single; photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron – associated with/influenced by pre-Raphaelite art, released in 1993
  30. Simon Reynolds, SPIN magazine, p. 56, April 1992
  31. Bret Helm: "Interview with Mike van Portfleet (Lycia)", Friday on the Turntable, June 20, 2013
  32. 1 2 MTV News Staff: "In 1983, Heggie left the band, and the group recorded Head Over Heels as a duo. The album was highly improvised and is the first recording to feature the Twins’ signature sound — Guthrie’s lush guitars under Fraser’s mostly wordless vocals. The group became a trio again when bassist Simon Raymonde joined in 1984. Later that year, they released Treasure, an album that hit #29 on the U.K. charts and cemented the band’s ethereal sound.", Cocteau Twins short biography, January 4, 1998
  33. Bradley Bambarger: "The Cocteau Twins debuted in 1982 with the dark post-punk strains of "Garlands" and broadened their distinctive sound over a string of releases on 4AD. A mid-'80s burst of innovation brought forth the best of these: the "Head over Heals" and "Sunburst and Snowblind" EP from '83, the seminal album "Treasure" from '84, and the compilation "The Pink Opaque" from '86.", Billboard magazine, p. 14, April 1996
  34. Peter Buckley: The Rough Guide to Rock, p. 212, Rough Guides 1999, ISBN 1-8582-8457-0
  35. Liisa Ladouceur: Cocteau Twins, Encyclopedia Gothica, p. 45, ECW Press 2011, ISBN 1-7704-1024-4
  36. 1 2 Heather Phares: "The Glee Club are a dreamy Irish band that follow in the tradition of the Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen and many other mid-'80s Goth-Ethereal bands. Although they missed the genre's high point (about 1986-87)...", The Glee Club review ("Mine"), The Michigan Daily, p. 7, September 9, 1994
  37. 4AD: "The studio-based outfit comprised East London duo Alex Ayuli and Rudi Tambala, who described their music as "dreampop". After releasing their debut EP on the One Little Indian label, they moved to 4AD in 1987 and issued the Lollita 12", which was produced by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins." A.R. Kane short info
  38. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Not all Gothic rock really rocks. The Ethereal side of this gloomy genre can be explored ... with Toronto's An April March, Siddal, from Richmond, Va., and Pittsburgh's own Underflowers.", p. 3, March 8, 1996
  39. Description from the official homepage of Siddal; see also their official MySpace site concerning influences.
  40. Jim DeRogatis: Kaleidoscope Eyes. Psychedelic Rock from the 1960s to the 1990s, p. 218, Fourth Estate Ltd. 1996, ISBN 1-8570-2599-7
  41. SPIN magazine, Advertisement, p. 111, December 1989
  42. Michael Barclay, Ian A. D. Jack, Jason Schneider: Have Not Been the Same. The CanRock Renaissance, 1985-1995, p. 538, ECW Press 2001, ISBN 1-55022-475-1
  43. FACT music magazine: Slowdive FACT mix # 430
  44. Glasnost Wave magazine: Interview with Slowdive, issue # 29, p. 8, September/October 1991.
  45. New Musical Express: Ethereal Gone Kids, Interview with Slowdive, June 8, 1991
  46. Tom Murphy: Interview with My Bloody Valentine, Denver Westword Music, April 23, 2009
  47. Option music magazine, p. 113, Sonic Options Network 1987
  48. 1 2 Nancy Kilpatrick: "Projekt bands like Love Spirals Downwards and Lycia are among the most popular of this subgenre. ... Tess Records bands like Faith & The Muse, This Ascension, and Autumn dropped the obscenity and blasphemy in favor of the more 'ethereal', Romantic stylings becoming popular in Europe.", The Goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined, p. 90, St. Martin's Griffin 2004, ISBN 0-312-30696-2
  49. Ben Greenman: ″Bedazzled Records: Ethereal and Ambient Pop artists″, Netmusic. Your Complete Guide to Rock and More on the Internet and Online Services, p. 321, Random House Electronic Publishing 1995, ISBN 0-6797-6385-6
  50. Bryan Reesman: The Scene Is Now: Dark Wave, CMJ New Music Monthly, issue # 68, p. 49, April 1999
  51. Scarlet Mother on YouTube ("Stained Glass")
  52. Autumn's band page on CD Baby
  53. Faded Sympathy's band page on SoundClick
  54. SPIN magazine: "Entrancing. Engulfing. Ethereal.", advertising for "Idylls", Classifieds, p. 115, December 1992
  55. Thomas Wacker: Interview with Love Spirals Downwards, Black music magazine, issue # 7/97, p. 70, Spring 1997
  56. Christian Peller: Album review of "Bloweyelashwish" by Lovesliescrushing (described as "Ethereal Noise"), Aeterna music magazine, issue # 4/94, p. 24, Summer 1994
  57. Breda Maßmann: "Ethereal Wave & Heavenly Ambient", review of Lovesliescrushing's album "Xuvetyn", Entry music magazine, issue # 5/96, p. 46, October/November 1996
  58. Mercury's Antennae on Facebook
  59. Official Ostia website
  60. The Sensualists' band page on Bandcamp
  61. CD Universe: Album review of Siddal's "The Pedestal"
  62. Stare's band page on Carpe Mortem Records
  63. Stare's band page on SoundClick
  64. Gothic Paradise: Tearwave, Biography & Reviews
  65. Glenadel; Lorentz; Leguay; Steing; Tale (2004). Carnets Noirs [La scène internationale] (in French). K-inite. p. 170. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  66. Guillemin, Wim (22 February 2015). "The Breath Of Life". Peekaboo. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  67. Stefan Mensing: This Burning Effigy, Astan music magazine, issue # 9, p. 36, March/April 1999
  68. Simon Reynolds: "But by the '90s, Pink Floyd's blurry sound and androgynous aura were resurrected by a mini-movement of British neo-psychedelic bands known as 'shoegazers' or 'dreampop'.", The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll, p. 172, Harvard University Press 1996, ISBN 0-6748-0273-X
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