Review Summary: Gish is an ambitious rock album that showcases Billy Corgan's scrupulous songwriting and the band's capacity for greatness.
When talking about the most definitive bands of the glorious 90s, it's almost impossible to go without mentioning the Smashing Pumpkins. Headed by Billy Corgan, the Pumpkins harnessed a stylized, punchy rock sound that became distinctly their own. On their debut album, Gish, the band captures the most visceral and vehement elements of songwriting. At times, this record is heavy and ear-splitting, and, at other points, it is delicate and tactful. Gish is an all-around great album with a fine balance between soft, dreamy ballads and thunderous rockers.
For the band's first effort, Gish is surprisingly layered and controlled. It is on this record where that recognizable "Pumpkins' sound" begins to form. Corgan's voice is not immediately pleasing, but it perfectly matches the tone the band is exhibiting with their forceful guitars and grimy production. While there certainly is variety in the volumes of their songs, most (but not all) of the heavier moments are packed into the first half of the album, which makes the second half feel slightly short of breath at times. Nevertheless, Corgan sounds more meticulous and sensitive as a songwriter when the Pumpkins expose their softer and more tender side. However, even the more subtle tunes have that extra push that elevates them above a typical dream pop sound.
There are moments in which the LP flows beautifully and times where the record feels a bit lopsided. Nonetheless, the best sequence on Gish comes with the journey from "Crush" to "Snail". "Crush" is the first song on the album where the Pumpkins restrict themselves to a more hushed and pacifying sound with ethereal guitars and a whispering bass. The band then transitions nicely into "Suffer", another relatively quiet but deeply sorrowful track. With controlling lyrics such as "All of your struggles beneath your disguise drink from the reasons that hold you alive", the Pumpkins embrace an underlying tension in their music but conceal it with unadulterated instrumentation. Finally, on "Snail" the Pumpkins burst out of their shell once again as a contemplative into gives way to an outburst of multiple guitars and Corgan's strained vocals.
Gish is laden with elements of metal and psychedelic music, and the band presents plenty of clever ideas through these styles. One of the best rockers on this LP is "Siva", a raucous track with a killer riff and spectacular drumming from Jimmy Chamberlin. "Siva" also has a few nice surprises tucked into its weighty exterior, like the brief charming intervals in which the noise comes to a grinding halt and Corgan lowers his voice. On the one-two punch of "I Am One", the guitars take center stage with some immensely solid solos. Just as the Pumpkins know when to tone things down a tad, they also know when to free themselves and let the amplifiers do the talking.
Gish's production keeps the LP sounding refined. The Smashing Pumpkins constantly push their sound to the breaking point, but they never sound extravagant. With a high degree of finesse in their composition, the band approaches each track carefully. Tracks like the dense and captivating "Rhinoceros" serve as suitable representations of the band's future sound. What makes Gish so enjoyable is its open-mindedness, its attention to detail, and its appreciation of tight song structures.
While Gish has its minor shortcomings, the tracks on here present a valuable glimpse of the blooming rockstars that left an indelible mark on the 90s. From the ear-piercing guitar solos to the swirling psychedelic and ruminative textures, Gish is a diligent musical statement. Back when the Smashing Pumpkins were unripe, they displayed some of their most interesting traits. Filled with ambition and dexterity, Gish is well worth the ride.
I Am One