By Faith Vara
Formed in 1979 in Grangemouth, Scotland, Cocteau Twins are easily one of the most influential groups to emerge out of the ‘80s indie scene. As the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Robin Guthrie, vocalist Elizabeth Fraser and bassist Will Heggie (later replaced by Simon Raymonde), Cocteau Twins created some of the most outstandingly dreamy music of its time, and can even be noted as the pioneers for the dreampop movement.
What’s often startling when you first encounter the group’s music is how utterly unlike anything else it was then, and still is now. Consisting of heavily reverberated guitars, tape loops and drum machines, their musical compound transports the listener to an enigmatic trance filled with some of the best sounds ever heard.
Fraser’s fragile, siren-like voice emerged and receded, her words almost always indecipherable and frequently acting as another instrument in the mix. There’s no doubt that this band is something unique, so here are five tracks to help orient you to their vast musical landscape:
“Wax and Wane” (1982)
Cocteau Twins’ early music consisted of sounds much different from what they would later be known for. Garlands, the group’s first album, offers a much darker post-punk approach that closely resembles the sound of Siouxsie and the Banshees. The stand-out track of this album, “Wax and Wane,” mixes a disorienting layer of reverb with Guthrie’s post-punk-influenced guitar riffing and Fraser’s desperately haunting voice. The use of drum machines also gives the song an undeniable new-wave feel. Although this isn’t the lasting Cocteau Twins sound that fans would come to love, it signalled that the group had a clear power when it came to making music.
“Sugar Hiccup” (1983)
A year after releasing their debut album, Cocteau Twins released their second album, Head Over Heels. This album, which includes the track “Sugar Hiccup,” began to establish their signature sound that would later make them famous. While the majority of the band’s discography is best listened to in the sanctity of your own room, “Sugar Hiccup” can be seen as a nice change of pace in the group’s catalog. The change of production displayed in this track can be instantly heard when enormous-sounding drums and guitars hit your ears right as the song starts. Every instrument rings out immensely and continues to grow fuller all the way through the song’s end. The best part is that the song’s repetition never grows tiring, but instead mesmerizing.
Another year meant another album for Cocteau Twins, and 1984 presented Treasure, which many claim is their best work. Opinions aside, there’s no doubt that break-out track, “Lorelei,” is one of the group’s most sound-defining releases. This is yet another anthem that sounded like it should be filling stadiums, but strictly all within the band’s own sonic terms. Although the group had never released music that widely appealed to the mainstream audience, “Lorelei” is probably where the band comes closest to ‘dance’ music. With a simply infectious drum cadence and waning synth lead, Fraser’s vocals fills all of the empty spaces left and creates a mood that confuses just as much as it sucks you in.
“Carolyn’s Fingers” (1986)
Skipping ahead to 1986, the band was likely conserving their strength, as Blue Bell Knoll – the first full band album since Treasure three years earlier – was as great a leap as Head Over Heels had been. A definite change of sound can be heard on the track “Carolyn’s Fingers,” where Guthrie’s musical approach becomes more poppy (in their famously unconventional way, of course). This track delivers an array of layered vocals, each more irresistibly hooky than the one before it, and incorporates dreamy and lush guitars that would later guide artists like My Bloody Valentine.
“Heaven or Las Vegas” (1990)
What Blue Bell Knoll started, the trio’s next album took to the highest level. Heaven or Las Vegas is a staple album for dreampop fans everywhere, and the title track of this album is no different. This track captures the lushness of their effect-loaded guitars, and seamlessly runs through its five minutes with an infectiously atmospheric tone, making it one of their most wonderfully crafted, experimental pop songs. Even though the lyrics are difficult to decipher by ear, the track has a positively romantic quality to it. A Cocteau Twins love song? Perhaps, but no matter what Fraser is singing about, you’ll be weak in the knees from the first line.
Although Cocteau Twins broke up in 1997, they managed to leave behind a treasure trove of material that many bands can only hope of achieving. The dreampop sub-genre was pretty much entirely created by them, and their lasting sound continues to influence artists that adore lush guitars and all of its hazy wonderment.
Featured image via Cocteau Twins + artist website.