From their formation in 1979 to their dissolution in 1997, the Cocteau Twins traveled far above the clouds and well below the radar. In Britain, the group's legendary, uniquely divine ethereal-pop atmospherics earned heaps of critical praise and established a sound and vision for the renowned English indie label 4AD, for whom they recorded six albums during their heyday. In the United States, however, their profile didn't amount to much more than a small-but-adoring fan base well-acquainted with its local college rock station.
Though its album sales were never gigantic on either side of the Atlantic, the band's influence certainly was. Garlands, Head Over Heels, Treasure, Victorialand, Blue Bell Knoll, and Heaven or Las Vegas directly influenced countless artists: My Bloody Valentine, Massive Attack, Madonna, Jeff Buckley, Deftones, and Sigur Rós, to name a few. Now, these albums have been remastered by band cofounder Robin Guthrie and reissued by 4AD, offering yet another excellent excuse for spending several hours with the Cocteau Twins.
So let's begin at the beginning. It's a pretty safe bet that most fans discovered the group a few albums into their career, well after they had earned their reputation for lush, gentle, and skyward-bound soundscapes. Garlands, however, is a surprisingly dark entry into the Twins' world, a strikingly unnerving 1982 debut befitting a trio of post-punk-worshiping teens living in Grangemouth, one of Scotland's grimiest and gloomiest industrial towns. It's not hard to ascertain their early influences: Founding member Will Heggie's upper-register bass lines are indebted to Joy Division's Peter Hook, while Guthrie's distorted guitars -- thick with echo, flanger, chorus, and delay -- create serrated squalls and haunting sonic walls not unlike those sported by contemporaries Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Though singer Liz Fraser (and the rest of the band) would take pains to disavow any kinship with the latter, it's difficult to deny that her chilly unrefined tone and pronounced quavering bear an uncanny resemblance to Siouxsie Sioux's distinctive vocal style, particularly on Garlands' most compelling tracks, "Wax and Wane" and "Shallow Then Halo." The stark unflinching beats, courtesy of a Guthrie-programmed Roland TR-808 drum machine, puts the finishing touches on a forbidding coming-out party that occasionally hints at the direction the group would take in subsequent years. Though the album is an anomaly in the Twins' oeuvre, it's an almost universally discounted chapter in the band's history that merits renewed attention.
Exit Will Heggie (amicably), enter the now-duo's soon-to-be-trademark otherworldliness on 1983's stylistically diverse Head Over Heels. Heggie's departure meant less reliance on the bass -- now played in the studio by Guthrie -- and more on the guitarist's freshly varied and expansive melodies, which evolved quite remarkably in only a year's time. A Garlands-like roughness is still evident on the bristly spine of the opener, "When Mama Was Moth." But Guthrie's effects-laden textures ring and chime more effervescently than ever on the celestial single "Sugar Hiccup." Fraser too displays a far greater command of her instrument; her voice swoops and glides confidently even as she begins her trademark focus on the sound and flow of the words rather than their proper enunciation (e.g., the alleged lyric "Sugar hiccup, while she reels" comes out more like, "Sugar hiccup on Cheerios").
The following year, 1984, brought bassist Simon Reynolde into the fold, and the reconstituted trio celebrated with the breathtaking Treasure, arguably the most realized album of the group's career. From both a songwriting and production standpoint, Treasure represents a gigantic leap forward. Here, Fraser's voice emits a powerful resonance -- so what if her lyrics are 99 percent unintelligible? -- an awe-inspiring emotional range, and a singular style that finally casts aside any lingering Siousxie comparisons. Reynolde proves to be an exceptionally fluid player who is matched by nuanced drum-machine beats to form a smooth and steady underpinning for Guthrie's heavenly, heart-tugging electric waves and bursts. There's not a misstep among the album's ten lovingly composed tracks: From the buoyant majesty of the introductory "Ivo" to the transcendent quality of the epic, gospelesque finale "Donimo," Treasure remains a diverse and timeless wonder.
It's tough to heap as much praise upon 1986's Victorialand, though it certainly has its charms. With Raymonde sitting this one out, Fraser and Guthrie decided to construct an ambient environment with layers of acoustic guitars and serene, gossamer vocals (all tinged with copious amounts of echo and delay, of course). The resulting nine-song, 32-minute album is soothing and spectral, like a stroll through delicate snowfall in Antarctica, for which the album is named. But just as the flakes steadily fill in each footprint, Victorialand ultimately fails to leave a lasting impression.
Blue Bell Knoll arrived in 1988 with high expectations. That's because the band had just inked a deal with Capitol for U.S. distribution (it remained on 4AD in Britain), making the record its most widely available in the States to date. Those major-label dollars found their way into the engineering booth; the album is so exactingly produced that it almost sounds sterile. Then there's the now-predictable formula of densely layered guitar washes, liquid bass, and gauzy, soaring (though strangely dispassionate) vocals employed in the service of disappointingly substandard tunes. The title track caresses and cavorts, "Carolyn's Fingers" possesses a notable melody, and "Ella Megalast Burls Forever" is admirably bittersweet, but for the most part, Blue Bell Knoll seems like the swoon-by-numbers product of a band with its heart (and money) in the right place but bereft of genuine ideas.
Perhaps that's part of what makes 1990's Heaven or Las Vegas a classic that competes with Treasure for best-of-catalog honors. Just when many had given the Cocteau Twins up for creatively dead, the band redeemed itself with lucid dynamic songcraft and a newfound vitality. Astonishingly, Fraser's lyrics come through crystal clear, and she trades in much of the operatic melisma for a more direct but no less accomplished tone. The change reflects less a concession to the mainstream than a sincere desire to enthrall the listener with more than remote intangible beauty.
This nearly flawless disc marked the last recording for 4AD; an acrimonious split with label honcho Ivo Watts-Russell drove them into the arms of Mercury Records in the U.K. (the band remained on Capitol in the U.S.). Sadly, HoLV was also the last truly inspired album they would make. Though the emergence of the Alternative Nation in the early '90s seemed to prime the band for a massive breakthrough, the trio was fracturing from growing families, side projects, drug and alcohol addiction, various psychoses, and years of vicious infighting. By the time they worked through their dysfunctions and got around to making a new album three years later, the momentum had dissipated. 1993's Four-Calendar Café lacked the ardency of its predecessor; maybe the healing process had extinguished the Twins' creative fire.
Three more years would pass before 1996's Milk & Kisses: Though pretty, it was a further indication that the band was cruising on autopilot. Likely sensing as much, the trio quietly gave up the ghost a year later. It was an anticlimactic ending, perhaps, that can't take away from the legacy of the Cocteau Twins' 4AD glory days -- a pioneering era always well worth revisiting.
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