Review Summary: Part One of Nine: Democracy
Stellar production, wails of guitars, brain-melting solos, and monstrous drumming. All of these are Smashing Pumpkins hallmarks, yet the band's debut record Gish is a true irregularity in their catalog for many reasons. The record embraces psychedelia rather than shoegaze and arena rock, acid rather than heroin, and the band seems to be functioning as an actual unit. It's easily the most fun record the band ever released, something very easy to listen to while at the same being incredibly powerful music. The music found on Gish doesn't exactly possess the depth and raw intensity of the group's later material, which may make my rating seem unjustified. However, what Gish does possess is integrity. Just one listen through this album evokes the image of four aspiring, ambitious musicians, thrilled to be making their own record and desperate to hit it big. The Smashing Pumpkins' music is and always will be polarizing (specifically their less beloved albums) but it has always been brutally honest, and for proof of this one needs to look no further than their debut.
First and foremost, the guitar work on this record is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Neo-psychedelic masterpieces like album opener "I Am One" and "Snail" contain hooks drenched in effects, with the former throwing two absolutely blistering solos as a bonus. The multi-tracking of the guitars is used for multiple purposes, both to achieve a fuller sound and make the guitars bounce off each other in the mix to create a giant melting pot of melody. Corgan and James Iha use dynamics to their advantage, such as when their solos are separated by a quiet bass break in "I Am One" or the sudden and jarring crescendos in songs like "Bury Me" or the masterpiece known as "Siva". "Siva" takes advantage of this songwriting tactic with the most success, containing a masterfully constructed ambient bridge after the first chorus that suddenly collapses in on itself when drummer Jimmy Chamberlin ramps up the dynamic and Billy takes over with a cacophonous, shredding solo. While the guitarists are not virtuosos, they can make their instruments sing with the best of them, and Corgan is strong enough of a songwriter that any riff or solo will have at least some redeeming value. Gish is the epitome of this songwriting style, with all the riffs containing a signature sound unlike anything else in the burgeoning alternative rock scene. The guitar work is extremely varied to boot; compare a shredding tune like "Siva" or "Snail" with the pensive beauty of "Suffer" and "Window Paine". The solos are not jaw-dropping, but they contain what makes all the other riffs and leads amazing which is character. You can hear all the hard work that went into these songs in every note, notes that were played by two (at the time) friends desperate to prove themselves to the world.
The bass on Gish has much more presence in the mix, as well as contribution to the songs, than any other Pumpkins record from the band's original run. "I Am One", "Bury Me", and the beautiful "Crush" all contain bass lines that are not particularly complicated but were written and composed absolutely perfectly. The way the bass forms a solid backbone on these tracks, as well as riffing like crazy on the more drawn-out and unstructured tracks ("Window Paine") is uncanny, and a true anomaly in the band's catalogue. While the bass was prominent on Oceania, it never sounded like this at any point. By the year 2014, it's become a well-known fact that Billy played every instrument on this record, save for a few of Iha's leads and the drumming. Obviously, this includes the bass, which Corgan plays with finesse and undeniable musicality. His bass lines provide the curious post-punk influences that would slowly become more integral to the band's music on albums like Adore.
Despite Billy playing and writing every single bass part on this record, this doesn't mean touring and eventually studio bassist D'Arcy Wretzky contributed absolutely nothing to the recording process. Closing track "Daydream" features vocals by Wretzky over a quietly humming acoustic and the first of many lovely string arrangements Billy would go on to write. The track isn't a closer as much as it is a postlude to bring the listener down from the aftermath of the dizzying "Window Paine", yet Wretzky convinces the listener of the track's merit with her stellar vocal performance. Billy then follows this up with his own postlude, a hidden track entitled "I'm Going Crazy" that has about ten times less merit and was obviously an ego trip in song form, with Corgan leaving his mark on what should be D'Arcy's shining moment as a member of the band.
As stated earlier, Billy played nearly every instrument on this record except for the drums, which he probably would have played if he wanted to due to Jimmy Chamberlin's drug-induced unreliability. However, Chamberlin has such a distinct, powerful and amazing drumming style that Corgan held back and let him do his thing, something that works to the record's benefit. Some of Gish's most stunning musical moments come courtesy of Jimmy, whether it's the crescendos that rise like mountains or astonishing chops and fills he displays on the eight tracks throughout the album (there are no drums on two of the tracks). "Tristessa" in particular contains an absolutely brilliant drum track, showcasing Jimmy's signature left-foot obstinate grooves and extremely quick and steady single-pedal chops. He manages to top the main riff's groove with some of the swiftest and straightest fills he's ever put to record. He displays similar prowess in "Siva", "Rhinoceros" and "Bury Me", specifically THAT snare fill. "Window Paine" and "Suffer" showcase his ability to lead a band, while "Rhinoceros" and "Snail" show the listener Jimmy's rock solid timekeeping and feel. With no background he's amazing, but when you read into his style of playing or watch live performances, he suddenly becomes one of the all-time greats.
All of the previously stated components of this record make Gish a near-perfect record in my book. It certainly has some flaws, specifically the hidden track, but the sheer magnitude of all other songs on the band's debut disc assures me that this one of the best debuts of the era. Gish is a picture of a still-democratic band, although Billy made his authoritarian stance known to his bandmates the further they got into recording and touring. James Iha slowly became more and more alienated, D'Arcy became more irritable, and Jimmy somehow got even more strung out. Somehow, this would push Billy to write the greatest album ever made two years later, although I'm still not sure how. Regardless, Gish captures an entire time period for four people destined to reach astronomical heights as a band but all-time lows as friends and co-workers.