The transition from the pop decadence of the ’80s to the grunge and indie rock renaissance of the early ’90s allowed countless artists the opportunities to stretch their sound and experiment with some off-the-wall production. A sense of liberation and freedom spread across the musical spectrum, a result of the changing of the guards from one decade to the next. Musicians who had spent many years wading through a specific aesthetic broadened their approach and took some risks in calculating a trajectory into the early years of the ’90s.
Among those looking to redefine their individual melodic proclivities was a Scottish rock band called Cocteau Twins. Initially composed of guitarist Robin Guthrie, singer Elizabeth Fraser and bassist Will Heggie (although Heggie would later be replaced by multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde), the band made a name for themselves through their unique blend of dreamy pop theatrics and fuzzed-out goth rock. They successfully balanced between these two extremes and created a foggy pop-rock subsidiary that paved the way for recent bands like Beach House and Wild Nothing.
Formed in 1979 in Grangemouth, Scotland, by Guthrie and Heggie, the duo would eventually meet and befriend Fraser at Nash, a local disco that they all frequented. Culling their sound from a collection of influences that included Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sex Pistols, and The Birthday Party, the band found the inspiration for their name from a song (“The Cocteau Twins”) from fellow Scottish band Johnny and the Self-Abusers (a band that would go on to be Simple Minds).
The band’s debut, “Garlands,” was released by 4AD in 1982 and developed a fair measure of success, giving the band both the financial means and critical uplift to send them out on the road in support. They recorded and released a follow-up EP, “Lullabies,” later that year, and its success helped cement them as one of the mantle bearers for a dark post-punk perspective. Garnering comparisons to bands like Gene Loves Jezebel and Bauhaus only further gave credence to their continued critical adoration. They shared a second EP, “Peppermint Pig,” in 1983 to further critical acclaim.
After “Peppermint Pig” was released, Heggie departed the band on good terms, and Cocteau Twins carried on as a duo. They recorded their sophomore LP, “Head Over Heels,” and, in its wake, the post-punk influence of their early work began to wane. The songs on “Head Over Heels” are steeped in the characteristic mash of Fraser’s operatic voice and Guthrie’s distortion-laden guitar rhythms. The band then lent their talents to 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell’s This Mortal Coil project. Helmed by Watts-Russell and John Fryer, This Mortal Coil brought in a wide roster of guest musicians to perform various songs and spent a good deal of time covering ’60s and ’70s psychedelic and folk acts.
One of Cocteau Twins’ most recognizable songs, a cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” was actually recorded under the auspices of This Mortal Coil-although for all intents and purposes, it remains a Cocteau Twins track. It was during these studio sessions that Fraser and Guthrie were introduced to musician Simon Raymonde, who joined the band toward the end of 1984. With the band a trio once more, they recorded and released a string of lauded records and EPs that (along with a few other bands) helped define the ’80s dream pop aesthetic.
In the next few years, the band skirted around on a few labels before settling back down with 4AD to record and release their most commercially successful album, “Heaven or Las Vegas,” in 1990. Along with many other bands at the time, this change in musical ideology-the confusion and liberation that accompanied the shift from one decade to the next-gave the band a newfound freedom and inspiration, resulting in a record that still clung to the tenets of their past while looking to an unseen future in the ’90s. Dense and ethereal, this album is a culmination of sorts, a definitive statement from a band who had finally found the perfect balance between the past and the future.
With songs such as “Iceblink Luck” and the tremendous title track, this album was unlike anything the band has ever attempted. This surge of confidence and determination can be heard in both the musical arrangements and the lyrical content courtesy of Fraser. Many of the songs deal with the feelings and events surrounding the birth of her daughter, Lucy Belle. Both Raymonde and Guthrie were likewise pleased with the way “Heaven or Las Vegas” turned out, with Guthrie later revealing, “We like it better than all our last records.”
The band’s ease with these sounds marks a dramatic departure from earlier releases, which feel as if the band were still trying to catch up to their inspirations. Those records have aged wonderfully but don’t attain the magnificent highs that litter every corner of this record’s landscape. Songs such as “Cherry-Coloured Funk” and “Pitch the Baby” reveal the dense and theatrical motions inherent to their work at the time. It isn’t just an issue of maturation-it is a sense that anything was possible and that the band could reach out and pluck their desires from the sky like wayward stars.
With “Heaven or Las Vegas,” Cocteau Twins didn’t merely reshape their own influences; they reshaped an entire genre of music. The borders of pop and rock music became wholly intangible and malleable. They meander through this murky and fuzzed-out dream pop world where guitars burst in the evening air and voices echo for miles in every direction. These songs are darkly hued and mesmerizing, possessing an intense emotional center that gives every second individual weight and revelation. “Heaven or Las Vegas” is a testament to the viable marriage of inspired creativity and intimate self-analysis-it’s a perfectly presented treatise on the merits and purpose of pop and rock music.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.