Twenty-five years later, the earth is still reeling from the spectacle of Smashing Pumpkins’ early Nineties triumph, a keening feedback-drenched rainbow that melded dream-pop gauze and arena rock bluster, Joy Division emotions and Cheap Trick aspirations. Generations of zeros-turned-heroes followed after 1993’s Technicolor guitar-army bubblegum Siamese Dream, 1995’s bloated but pointed teenage symphony to angst Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and even 1998’s less-heralded techno-gloomster Adore. You can still hear them in arena spaceboys like Muse and 30 Seconds to Mars, alterna-poppers like Tame Impala, Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Grimes, even avant-garde drone artists like Kelly Moran.
Yet no amount of Adore-ation can excuse the absolute maelstrom of inconsequential material that Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin have made in the 18 years since they’ve played on a Smashing Pumpkins record together. Touted as a “reunion” (bassist D’arcy Wretzky either opted out or wasn’t asked), complete with an arena tour, Shiny and Oh So Bright follows nearly two decades of false starts, barely remembered projects and total missteps, solo or in tandem: Corgan’s industrial album, Iha’s indie-rock album, Chamberlin’s jazz fusion album, Corgan’s piano album, the glossy rock of Iha’s A Perfect Circle; the even glossier rock of Corgan and Chamberlin’s Zwan, the long-forgotten arena-punk gnash of 2007’s Zeitgeist, the inspired Pumpkins gems left drowning for attention in the sprawling Teargarden by Kaleidyscope multi-album project, Corgan’s 5-LP improvisation for modular synth.
For decades the talking points were about Corgan’s megalomaniacal reign, shimmering guitar taffy and singular vision. Plus, of course, Chamberlin’s precise drumming that bursted with jazz flurries instead of shoegaze’s metronomic pulse. On the 10th album under the Smashing Pumpkins name – eight tracks with no “Silverfuck” opuses, the leanest album-length statement Corgan’s ever made – it’s apparent that the magic of Smashing Pumpkins was maybe just a time, a place, a hungry generation and four paisley-clad Chicago kids that wanted something bigger than being the next Naked Raygun.
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That magic does come back in small flickers. Album highlight “Solara” sounds like a grunge makeover of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed”; closer “Seek and You Shall Destroy” rides a lean Helmet groove to a sunnier shores; and “Marchin’ On” is like Badmotorfinger-era Soundgarden with strings and some inspired guitar noise. Still, even parts of these songs feel like any member of the axis of Nineties second-tier alt-rock bands – Spacehog, Everclear, Silverchair, Ruth Ruth – had they hooked up with a monster drummer spilling sextuplets or bonkers tom-tom fills.
Elsewhere, the band seems to remake the martial throb of their hit “1979” three different times. The first two sound like they’re playing catch-up with the Killers (“Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)”) or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (“Travels”) – both tunes lacking any the dynamic push and pull or torrents of candy-colored noise that made the Pumpkins great. The third, “With Sympathy” sounds like the Pixies if they decided to sound like Echo and the Bunnymen.
Throughout, Corgan sounds like he’s fighting some kind battle between Earth and Stars, body and soul, his lyrics sounding somewhere between Percy Shelley and Robert Plant; the album is full of omens, soldiers, serpents, owls, jackals, sling and arrows, a “poet’s gun,” a “shadow’s wind,” and “the thunderstuff of shorehoused sighs.” Juiced by strings, synths and choir vocals, the music rarely touches that majesty, whether the Spiritualized lite of “Knighs of Malta” or the meandering “Alienation.” Save the few fire-breathing dragon moments of Lollapalooza-era churn, it’s the Smashing Pumpkins in name only, and that ice cream truck has long left the gas station.