HELMET – MEANTIME (1992)

SMASHING PUMPKINS – GISH (1991)

May 28th, 1991, The SMASHING PUMPKINS released their debut album, Gish, on Caroline Records. In 2021, Billy Corgan said, “What’s interesting about ‘Gish’ is that it shows our influences and who we were as people before the real pressure came in.”

Gish is what all great rock debut albums strive to be—packed with powerful dynamic songwriting and introspective passages that give way to fuzz-drenched mania. Soaring guitars and thunderous drums melt into a sublime ambience and gorgeous, gossamer-thin melodies. Nothing sounded quite like Gish or The Smashing Pumpkins circa 1991.

Arriving several months before Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album, Gish, which Butch Vig also produced, was the band’s first shot across the bows of the alternative rock revolution that transformed the music landscape of the ’90s. While Nirvana was essentially a punk band, the Smashing Pumpkins drew influence from shoegaze, new wave, goth, psychedelic, hard rock and even metal.

Sonically, Gish has a deep, textured sound, but like all Butch Vig albums, it feels direct and in your face. The then relatively unknown producer from Madison, Wisconsin, had hit upon a sound that sat perfectly with the more natural aesthetic of rock bands plying their trade in the ’90s. Vig harnessed these bands’ organic sound rather than implementing the previous decade’s overly produced, saccharine, reverb-drenched recording style. The Pumpkins’ sound and Vig’s approach fit like a glove.

Gish was recorded from December 1990 to March 1991 at Butch Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, with a budget of $20,000. Vig and Corgan worked together as co-producers. The extended recording period and larger budget were unprecedented for Vig, who later recalled:

“Billy was very ambitious. He wanted to make everything sound amazing and see how far he could take it, really spend time on the production and the performances. That was a godsend for me because I was used to doing records for all the indie labels, and we only had budgets for three or four days.” This dynamic between musician and producer, egging each other on to achieve something more, is displayed throughout Gish.

Gish is a journey. It’s beautifully paced. Like tracing the patterns of the paisley shirts the band wore at the time, the album’s curves, dips, dives, and peaks are colourful, kaleidoscopic, and laced with a surging ebb and flow of tension and release.

“I Am One” opens proceedings with Jimmy Chamberlin’s strident drums. D’Arcy Wretzky follows with a throbbing bassline. Billy Corgan and James Iha crash in with beautiful, sustained guitar chords and stinging lead lines. Corgan’s vocal sounds dream-like and distant, made even more enthralling by D’arcy Wretzky’s gorgeous backing vocal. The propulsive weight is catatonic.

“Siva” is a raging slab that gives way to an ambient, dream-like section. Other bands may have separated these two sections due to their stark differences. The Smashing Pumpkins’ ability to meld loud-soft dynamics, which feel like natural fluctuations, is to their eternal credit. Nothing seems out of place, no matter how dramatic the change of pace. As honest as a racing heartbeat, slowing to a relaxed murmur, Corgan follows his feelings wherever they take him.

“Siva’s” opening section flows with a joyous menace. Despite its velocity, it swings like a wrecking ball. The song is laced with vicious guitar leads that shoot skyward like shards of igniting fireworks. Its dream-like ambient sections are the sound of an untethered astronaut gliding through space.

Billy has admitted he was “tripping balls” when he wrote the psychedelic goth ballad “Rhinoceros.” Lyrically, he references a mystery girl, an ice-cream party he’s planning for June, and “mustard lies” he wishes to reveal. “She knows, she knows, she knows,” he sings over a crisp jangle that gives way to otherworldliness and sheer beauty. Billy has said that “Rhinoceros” was a real turning point for him as a writer, and it’s easy to see why. The song is invested with all the hallmarks of the Pumpkins sound they would explore throughout the ’90s.

“Bury Me” is a blistering shape-shifter. It starts with D’Arcy’s slithering bass and Jimmy Chamberlin’s pounding drums. Corgan sings “Bury Me in Love” with the band holding up, leaving his voice to hang like an exclamation point before exhaling and returning to the riff. Tight guitar riffs punctuate throughout with some more beautiful, fuzz-laced soloing. It’s a stunning mix of tight, palm-muted riffing, wide-open, big sky chords, stop-start dynamics and crushing rhythms.

“Crush” opens with D’Arcy’s gorgeously weighted, walking bassline hook, which anchors the song throughout. Acoustic and electric guitars shimmer like waves of heat through a summer haze. Continuing the more blissed-out feel, “Suffer” resonates with a slightly more tension-filled ambience. The moments of release are rendered with an understated euphoric rapture. The song’s outro builds an almost Doors-like emotional arch. Billy said, “Even though ‘Suffer’ appears to be a romantic diatribe about suffering, it’s actually a romantic diatribe about growing up.”

“Snail” opens with Billy’s voice reflecting against a solemn electric guitar before unfurling into a widescreen rock epic. Mid-paced and deliberate, “Snail” glides like a psychedelic magic carpet ride through a hazy, fuzzed soundscape. Beautifully dense power chords hit with glacial force as reems of warm lead guitar weave intoxicating countermelodies.

In December 1990, Sub Pop Records released “Tristessa” as a single. It was the band’s only release on the Seattle-based label and featured as their “Single Of The Month.” The song was later re-recorded for Gish. It’s an absolute monster, a grinding, lascivious rocker with a chisel-sharp pop aesthetic.

“Window Paine” opens with a haunting two-note bass pattern as insistent as a ticking clock or a beating heart. Gorgeous tremolo guitars colour the downbeats. Corgan sings, “Window Paine around my heart / Shadows stream around my heart.” Eventually, waves of thick molten guitars rise with each accent, leading to Chamberlin gradually upping the tempo to a frantic race before crashing to an open demise of feedback. Corgan’s voice is left alone, “Do what you’re gonna do / Say what you’re gonna say / Do what you’re gonna do / Yeah, start today.” Chamberlin ignites the hushed tone with thunderous rolls, launching the band into a fevered outro. The song ends with savage, tight whips of guitars, bass, and drums in stop/start unison.

The album ends with “Daydream,” sung by D’arcy Wretzky. The influence of My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins haunts this gorgeous ode to meditative trance. D’arcy’s beautiful, captivating, and earnest singing is just what the song needs, and when the strings seep in beneath the acoustic guitar, the Pumpkins end on a high note.

For any other band, Gish would have been hard to top. Some might say Siamese Dream took up where Gish left off and improved the formula; others believe Gish is beyond reproach and is the band’s finest hour. Either way, what the Pumpkins went on to produce during the rest of the ’90s was nothing short of stunning. Gish is where the journey began. It’s a perfect calling card.

It’s easy to understand why Billy would think the album “shows who we were as people before the real pressure came in”. There’s a joyous naivete to Gish that isn’t there on subsequent releases. In retrospect, it’s remarkable how coherent Gish is. How confidently it shifts between guitar-revving bombast and dreamy soft seductions. It’s also beautifully compact and concise, aeons removed from the bloated double and triple album rock operas that would soon come. Gish is a perfect, timeless album, a beautiful snapshot in time.

Essential…!