Arts and Entertainment

Channels: Bringing Shoegaze into the Digital Age

Brooklyn band Punchlove emerges from the shadow of their basement with Channels, a digital experimentation upon the Shoegaze genre.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Drifting somewhere in the gray area between indie and alternative rock is shoegaze, a gentler approach to grunge music’s aggressive guitar riffs and texture. Characterized by its melancholic, almost unintelligible vocals and frequent use of effects pedals, shoegaze’s layers create a hazy, dream-like state in its music. Rising shoegaze band Punchlove’s debut album, Channels (2024), both embodies the genre and expands on it through digital experimentation. Originating as a Brooklyn bedroom project during the COVID-19 pandemic, Punchlove’s music takes inspiration from the indie pop prevalent in the early 2020s, reflecting the feelings of isolation and social instability caused by the virus. Channels is fractured: full of crescendos of loud, layered riffs and cut in with intervals of gentler strumming, quick stabs of synthetic sounds, and similarly ever-adjusting vocals. These electric sounds layered over powerful instrumentals paired with lyricism depicting a heart-aching longing for the past, produce both a pleasant homage and a refreshing new take on the shoegaze genre.

As the first track on Channels and just under a minute long, “Locusts” immediately sets the tone for the rest of the album. Distorted voices are layered over quiet talking and sounds of life in the background; static-like noises, high-pitched chiming, and deep, irregular hits of bass. Rather than overwhelming the listener, the cacophony of sounds amalgamates to give off an ethereal impression. This instance of an exclusively instrumental track is repeated with “(65536),” ending with a drawn-out, fuzzy guitar and synthetic percussion violently clashing together before fading into “Birdsong.” This further establishes the album’s electronic aesthetic, shifting between a wide array of sounds as if they are glitching, flickering between stations on the TV. 

Channels lyrics revolve around the theme of ruminating on one’s youth, both with nostalgia and bitter regret. This is especially prevalent in “Screwdriver,” in which singers Ethan Williams and Jillian Olesen recall someone they once knew, though it’s unclear who exactly this person was to them. They know the other has changed, describing seeing them through a “nadir’s haze” under “half-baked holy hues,” but recognize them as the same person they’d grown to love, as it “still looked like you.” However, they’re aware that this semblance of familiarity is a lie, going on to call their memories of them a “minefield.” To even think about them is a harmful experience, the reason for which is elaborated on in “Guilt,” where it’s implied that Williams and Olesen were the ones who initiated the divide between them and the person. Their unspecified actions “laid the flames / That put the smoke in my lungs / And I’ll asphyxiate / On all the things I’ve done.”

Williams and Olesen draw on feelings of their own tumultuous journey through life to weave a fictional narrative highlighting the contrast between a person’s past and present in their music. Rather than having one linear storyline to their album, Channels is instead a collection of several different experiences, the glitchiness of their tracks emphasizing this explosion of emotion. In an interview with Washington Square News, Punchlove explains that as a band of college students, they all needed time to “figure [things] out and get a little comfortable in [their] adulthood.” All the discomfort and chaos that came with that transition manifests in a few of the first tracks, which are “a little bit more phonetic. You listen to the top of the album and it’s so claustrophobic.” They instill a sense of fear and sorrow regarding previously loving relationships gone sour and places of comfort turned harsh reminders of what they’d lost. This motif is emphasized in “Corridor,” when they discover that the keys to the apartment they’d created so many memories in “no longer fit,” alluding to the idea that too much about them has changed to suddenly try returning to their old life. “Dead Lands” expands on this, focusing more on their present situation. It’s revealed they’re struggling to cope with the reality that “nothing / will stay the same,” and they don't understand how they got lost in “the dead lands / I’m so far from where I’d planned.”

Punchlove’s status as a relatively new basement band warrants occasional dips in their production quality, but the shoegaze genre thrives on their fuzzy, muffled vocals resonating across a wide space—hence, several tracks on Channels take advantage of this spatial quality. However, at times, Punchlove’s singing takes amateurish turns with messy, raw harmonization closely resembling indie rock, gaining volume but maintaining a delicate tone that doesn’t necessarily sound better. The childish airiness of their voices can seem violently out of place against their harsher instrumentals. The change unfortunately highlights the album’s poor production quality, to the extent that it would sound better if it were instead overpowered by the guitars. 

The motif of simultaneously loud and muffled guitar layered over slow drumming and low, indiscernible singing stays relatively consistent throughout the album, most notably in “Pigeon.” Exceptions to this occur in the album’s sporadic sections of quieter playing, juxtaposed by synthetic beats and a more upbeat feel in tracks such as “Birdsong,” though this only contributes to the album’s digital vibe. Intermittently, Punchlove implements influences from its Indie Pop history, combining acoustic guitar with electric tingling. However, it’s only in “Corridor,” the album’s final track, that this juxtaposition feels patchy and out of place, making for a more anticlimactic ending than possibly intended.

While the glitchy, fragmented atmosphere Channels embodies feels more like a randomly constructed composition rather than a deliberate artistic decision, Punchlove has proven itself a worthy contender in shoegaze’s recent resurgence. The smooth transitions between select tracks, paired with thoughtful lyricism and a perfect blend of conventional and experimental instrumentation, make this album both a pleasant narrative experience and an exciting glimpse of what’s to come in Punchlove’s future.