Lilys: In The Presence of Nothing (1992)

July 26, 2013


Roll: 4-1-1
Album: Lilys, In The Presence of Nothing

Everybody has this experience. There’s records that used to be your favourites you just can’t listen to anymore. Not because you overplayed them, but because they conjure a painful memories of a specific time in your life. They place you back to some bitter situation as surely as if you’d been teleported in some infernal time machine. For me U2‘s Achtung Baby (1991) and Depeche Mode‘s Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993) both play like soundtracks to a rich and varied selection of bad memories surrounding my first serious girlfriend, Tikki. To this day, the opening guitar noises of “Zoo Station” fill me with an odd mix of dread and nausea.

Other albums, such as Lilys’ 1992 shoegaze classic In The Presence of Nothing remain unmarred by such associations. Perhaps because by the time I’d immersed myself In The Presence of Nothing, the halcyon days of constantly listening to those U2 and Depeche Mode tapes together were long past us.

As things got worse, as simple communication became a minefield of passive aggression and resentment, I retreated further into my own private headphone world. And if  I wanted an album to sweep me away into the depths of oblivion, there aren’t many better suited than In The Presence of Nothing with it’s swells, swirling eddies and multiple layers of fuzzy haze.

Somewhat ironically, it was Tikki who discovered the album for me. At some point around ’92, when things were still pretty good between us,  we were shopping in Nanaimo’s Fascinating Rhythm record store (in their first Country Club Mall location). They were playing In The Presence of Nothing on the overhead and, though it now seems out-of-character, Tikki said to me, “This is the kind of stuff I like.”

I hadn’t been paying any attention to the drifting waves of white noise but, of course, as soon as she said that I decided I liked it too.

It reminded me vaguely of the Posies, Teenage Fanclub and House of Love tapes I’d been enjoying but mixed with a little bit of the fuzz-obscured dreaminess I loved about Hüsker Dü‘s New Day Rising (1985). Not knowing My Bloody Valentine except as a name that got dropped in reviews of bands I didn’t particularly like or know (at the time), those were my closest reference points. And maybe not knowing its direct lineage made In The Presence of Nothing all the more mesmerizing that afternoon. It was dense and shimmering and soft and harsh and melodic and magical and like nothing I’d heard before. It threw the shutters off the windows of noise rock and let in the bright, hazy light in a way Sonic Youth hadn’t been able to do for me.

In an instant, primarily just to impress a girl, I became a shoegazer.

One problem. It wasn’t available on cassette, only CD. Neither of us owned a CD player. I bought the disc anyway knowing we’d eventually get one, oblivious to the obvious signs that things weren’t going to work out between us. Plus, I’d already subconsciously developed the habit of seizing any opportunity to try and please her and give in to every little thing that might have been interpreted as a wish or desire of hers.

I’m not convinced she was actually making any demands of me. Or maybe she was in the hopes I’d stand up to her and prove I wasn’t a push-over. Or, more likely, she was just as oblivious as I was to the clichéd death spiral of our young love.

The great thing about youth—and why people look back upon it with such affection—is you’re blissfully free of all the experience you’re about to tragically acquire. Experience that will cripple you in your 30’s when you stop blindly taking risks because experience has taught you to extrapolate the level of shittiness that can result from any given course of action. You learn to err on the side of inaction. It’s much safer. At least until you hit your 40’s and see just where inaction got you.

Anyway, we eventually did risk buying a CD player, Tikki and I. Even before we disastrously shacked-up we went halvesies on a $99, humorously large, single-disc deck which we plugged into the AUX of her tiny ghetto blaster. We spent a lot of hours hanging out in her bedroom listening to Barenaked Ladies, R.E.M.Sting, and the aforementioned U2 and Depeche Mode tapes pretending we didn’t bore each other to death.

Between us, we owned two CDs. Both were mine, Fine Young Cannibals (1985) and now In The Presence of Nothing. I don’t remember her ever owning any CDs, though she must have in the three and a half years we were together. Nor do I remember her ever wanting to listen to In The Presence of Nothing after that afternoon in the record store.

Which doesn’t surprise me much as it bears little resemblance to anything she did listen to. Her tastes tended towards socially conscious jangle-pop and as our relationship deteriorated mine drifted, literally, Further Down the Spiral. The soundtrack of my life in those latter days was Coil‘s Love’s Secret Domain, NIN‘s Downward SpiralHelmet‘s MeantimePerfume Tree‘s dark, industrial noise-tinged first album, the Judgement Night soundtrack and pretty much whatever Al Jourgensen project Wax Trax! put out that month.

Or as Tikki would say, “Scary music.”

I didn’t think of Coil or Perfume Tree as “scary” but, rather, “immersive” or “transcendental.” Those dystopian soundscapes were my happy place and they kept sounding cheerier relative to my darkening reality. These were the years, having somewhat missed out on teenage angst, I finally began to understand what all the fuss surrounding The Cure and The Smiths was.

The cornerstone of my listening regime was the relatively breezy In The Presence of Nothing so even if Tikki did want to listen to it, she’d first have had to find my Discman. I more than likely had it out with me as I aimlessly walked around the neighborhood (instead of looking for a job) or hid in the bedroom with the  door closed and the lights off, making up for lost teenage moping years at the age of 22. It’s not really any great mystery why the level of respect she had for me was on a continual downward trend.

But I was oblivious to these reasons as I sought out sonic oblivion 53 minutes and 13 seconds at a time.

In The Presence of Nothing begins deceptively quiet as the chiming guitars that open “There’s No Such Thing As Black Orchids” meander through a series of gentle notes before a sudden explosion into full, overdriven melody. The album takes the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of ’90s alt-rock to ridiculous, jarring extremes on almost every track. As well, though obscured by fuzz, reverb and tremolo, it takes psych-pop melodies to an almost ridiculous extreme. The songs are easily has hooky as Teenage Fanclub’s or Matthew Sweet‘s, but with the saccharine edge of those artists’ records muted by the complex layers of My Bloody Valentine/Jesus and Mary Chain/Sonic Youth white noise. It’s a meticulously engineered record setting fiery guitar freak-outs against ecstatic, gauzy dream-pop. The power pop burner that closes the album, “Claire Hates Me“, might be quintessential ’90s alt-rock #1 that never was.

In fact, In The Presence of Nothing might just be thee quintessential ’90s alt-rock album.

More than just Americans jumping on a UK bandwagon, it’s one of the purest artistic expressions of its generation. MBV, JAMC, Teenage Fanclub, Ride, Slowdive, Dinosaur JrPixies, Yo La Tengo, and Nirvana might all have come first, but Lilys took every great idea any of those bands every had and wrapped them up in a tidy package without sounding truly derivative for a second. This isn’t Loveless or Souvlaki repackaged with American grunge muscle, but a true progression of the genre. It’s the pinnacle of shoegaze, rivaling all that came before and never bested. In The Presence of Nothing deserves to be remembered as a shoegaze masterpiece and a triumph of alternative/indie rock.

I’ve been able to listen to In The Presence of Nothing for 21 years without ever tiring of it. It’s been with me in every phase of my adult life and and 21 years of bad (and good!) memories have never dimmed it’s shining glory.



  1. Very nice read!

  2. I’m listening to this album right now, for the very first time. Just in the track 3 and I’m already amazed. Really great!

  3. Wow, that was a really well writen and intimately personal review. I like your style. I’ll check out the rest of your blog now 🙂

    And is it strange that my favorite track on this is The Way Snowflakes Fall? The shoegaze tracks were very good, but this drony post-rock piece was nearly perfect. Wow…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: