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Whirlaway makes its entrance in a wash of loud guitar atmospherics and a flash of psychedelic lighting effects. Singer Adam Rosenberg takes center stage, bathed in the glow of a red light that spills over the stage to cover the rest of the group. A projection of multicolored bubbles appears to melt on the ceiling above his head. Drummer Steve Copeletti stares off into space, tapping a powerful, steady beat as a red laser light in the shape of a flower quivers on the screen behind him. In the shadows to the left of Copeletti, bassist Mike Johnson tosses his head, flinging his moppish hair as he pounds thick, droning notes from his four-string. Guitarist Matt Cohen stands to Rosenberg's right and lightly strums his instrument, layering on the blissful noise.
Is it the late-'60s acid-tinged era in California? Maybe it's the early-'90s "shoegaze" period of Britpop in London? No, this is Shakespeare's Pub in Fort Lauderdale, and Whirlaway is part of an obscure national scene that has continued to evolve psychedelic pop into the 21st Century. An English music journalist coined the term shoegaze nearly a decade ago after noting that many of the musicians who played this music often stared at their feet while performing. Yet while the U.K. bands who created this subgenre have either broken up (Ride, Slowdive, Kitchens of Distinction) or sold out their heavenly wash of noise for a more digestible pop sound (Lush, the Boo Radleys, the Verve), North American bands like Whirlaway, Atlanta's Seely, and Canada's Sianspheric are still pumping out intimate, effects-drenched work.
Though its members bristle somewhat at the shoegaze label, Whirlaway last month released a record that stands as a solid contribution to the world of 21st-century loafer-lookin': a full-length CD titled Letting Go. The CD, the group's second, features longish songs that amble along on lazy rhythms among swirling guitar lines. "Transport" is a majestic, melancholic masterpiece, opening with the droning of what sounds like a cello stuck on pause. A glistening guitar line hovers above it. Singing in a breathy voice, Rosenberg describes a surreal, slow-mo image of a person falling through space. Johnson contributes a mournful organ melody before Copeletti's drums kick in. For several verses the rhythm section pauses and lets the guitarists take over with driving, mournful hooks against trembling guitar effects and zipping riffs that recall Spiritualized's orchestral mastery. Halfway through (at four and a half minutes), the song changes key, building on a threatening bass line. Rosenberg calls out "I don't know what went wrong," as effects layer upon one another until the song's noisy finale of tremolo, feedback, and multitracked vocals, which simply dies out. Save for the deceptively upbeat, psychedelic opener, "Brokenrocket," Letting Gois a gut-wrenching work filled with slow beats and heavyweight guitar bursts that seem to shoot from fuzz boxes on the floor into the sky, exploding and fading like fireworks.
Whirlaway rose from the ashes of another South Florida band called Dour, which included Copeletti, Cohen, and Rosenberg, along with lead singer and bassist Charlie Gleek. When Gleek left the band in 1997, Rosenberg, who was originally hired as a supplemental guitarist and backup vocalist, took over. The band also needed a bassist to carry on, so they held auditions for several weeks. Nobody jelled with the group until Copeletti brought in old high-school chum Mike Johnson. He joined the reconstituted Dour the day after he first rehearsed with the band, and the new group changed its name to Whirlaway. "It was nothing like the old project," explains Cohen, "and we just wanted a fresh start. When we started the new project, we didn't keep any of the old songs. It was all new songs, a completely different project."
The band patiently developed its sound during a series of local shows, never leaving the state of Florida. After experimenting in the studio, the group released its first record, a four-song EP titled A Soundstream Broadcast, in 1999. It was also the first CD release by the Miami-based independent label Spy-Fi Records. Ed Artigas, a local who created and co-manages Spy-Fi, found in Whirlaway the perfect candidate for his label's first offering. "We had been friends for a long time," explains Artigas. "I saw their transition from their previous band into Whirlaway, and I really liked what was going on."
The band's relationship with Spy-Fi proved fruitful. Whirlaway received national buzz through college radio play and received favorable reviews and reverential profiles in both national and international 'zines. Magnet, a popular bimonthly altrock magazine, even chose a track from A Soundstream Broadcast for inclusion on one of the sampler CDs that comes with each of its issues.
But the members of Whirlaway did not feel the recognition garnered by A Soundstream Broadcast until the group's week-and-half-long tour of the East Coast last month. The tour provided the band with its chance finally to peek beyond Florida's borders and see how its material stood up in other environments, such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. The band members took copies of their freshly minted CD with them on tour, selling between 50 and 75 copies on each of five tour stops. The band held its official CD-release party at Shakespeare's May 11 after returning from the tour.