Humans have an instinctive love of comforting hums. No matter how much thrash metal, free jazz or 100 gecs you listen to, we still have a built-in appreciation for beautifully hushed sounds. New York singer/songwriter Joe Stevens excels at this particular sensation, and though his music is undoubtedly an homage to shoegaze and drone-pop artists of yesteryear like My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab and Swirlies, his music still mines plenty of magic.
Stevens records under the name Peel Dream Magazine, and he debuted the project in 2018 with Modern Meta Physic, a minimal record filled with various background hisses, synth loops and pillowy vocals. Modern Meta Physic feels like you’re being swaddled and slowly rocked to sleep, but instead of fully going under, you’re in a half-awake daze with heavy eyelids and a staggering tranquility. You’re still lucid enough to hear murmurs from the TV (“Wood Paneling”) and non-descript static and whooshes (“Levitating Between 2 Chords”), which also make the album a hypnotic affair.
Stevens’ new follow-up Agitprop Alterna isn’t as minimal as its predecessor, but it still thrives on glorious drone and his reassuring whispers. The opening track “Pill” would undoubtedly rouse the aforementioned dozing infant thanks to the Kevin Shields-like overdrive and the resulting sonic force, and these stretches of fuzzy, cheek-fluttering guitars definitely make their presence known throughout the album, but particularly on this song and the penultimate “Eyeballs,” with its heady, plug-and-chug distortions. Peel Dream Magazine are usually good about blending their influences, but “Pill” unapologetically utilizes the My Bloody Valentine playbook—the vocal echoes sound eerily similar to Bilinda Butcher’s wispy exhales on “To Here Knows When.”
Stevens’ use of additional musicians is one reason why this album sounds bigger than his debut. He brought in musicians from his rotating live band—including former member and vocalist Jo-Anne Hyun and current drummer Brian Alvarez—and right off the bat, the male-female vocal interplay is a huge boost. On “Emotional Devotion Creator,” Hyun’s feathery voice is the driving force—even though all Peel Dream Magazine vocals are happy to play second fiddle to the pervading drone—and on “It’s My Body,” Hyun’s voice fluctuates between lead and backing, always blending effortlessly with Stevens’ rich hums.
Peel Dream Magazine doesn’t bring an overwhelming discordance that other drone artists sometimes cultivate. Instead, they provide relaxed organ or synth loops with simple, sometimes drawn-out notes that often play off of their pummeling guitars. “NYC Illuminati’’ features blustery guitars and gurgling synths, but there’s a plodding organ that pushes the song into meditative territory. In a nod to their debut, Peel Dream Magazine offer a sequel with “Wood Paneling, Pt. 2,” but it’s a much more developed lounge-pop number than part one. While Modern Meta Physic was rather percussive and stripped-back, the band has now fully fleshed out their avant-pop tendencies, especially with their keyboards. “Permanent Moral Crisis” leans on largely static, feedback-heavy keys, “Brief Inner Mission’’ offers watery twinkles, and “Do It” dips into space-age beeps and boops.
Agitprop Alterna is sly in the way it achieves a dense sound while appearing relaxed and the way it never tires despite the lack of dramatic song arcs. Even though these songs don’t really transmute or contain any codas, it still feels like you’re riding an intoxicating wave, clinging to it for guidance and finding wonder in its uniquely-tinted guitars and synths. It’s a vaguely psychedelic album, but its floaty pop songs balance sheer power with escapist grooves.
While its songs act as a nurturing hammock, it’s not a record about hiding away—it’s a fierce celebration of individualism and the sway of one’s actions. It observes how people respond differently to various stimuli, often the kind that requires push back and reclaiming of metaphorical territory. “Eyeballs” is a musing on existential surrender (“Half us are a, a sufferer, so far, ‘que sera’ / I rust, I must, I rush to stardust”) while “Escalator Ism” questions long-uncontested consumerism (“All too new, perfume showers / Afternoon, shop for hours”), and “It’s My Body” functions like the album’s central thesis (“Manipulator, not today / You all too often have your way”).
Agitprop Alterna is far more elegant and thoughtful than your average shoegaze album. It pulls from a wide variety of moods and sounds, but its textures are always a source of joyful awe. Even in its robust organ drone or guitar storms, Peel Dream Magazine always offer a place of solace. Joe Stevens switches between vigor and restraint with poise, and his appeal goes far beyond the avant-pop and shoegaze worlds. If you’ve ever found peace from a sensory experience of any kind, you’re already primed to enjoy Stevens’ reassuring chimes and thrums.
Lizzie Manno is an assistant music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno