6 min read

The Wormholes’ Place in Alt Rock History is Finally Secured

A new anthology crystallizes the 1990s Ringsend band's legacy

The Wormholes formed in Ringsend in 1991, the year Dublin was inaugurated as European Capital of Culture, the Government allowed United States military aircraft bound for the Gulf War to refuel at Shannon Airport, and the Birmingham Six were freed.

The band’s origin story is as typical as it proved to be inspired: three kids from working class backgrounds united to write songs that sounded like some of the music they loved. Only 15-years-old at the time, Graham Blackmore was a talented guitarist with a penchant for American indie rock, who found musical kin in twins David (drummer) and Anthony Carroll (bass). At 21, the brothers were significantly older than Graham and actually huge metal heads. But a shared appreciation for influential Washington D.C. post-hardcore band Fugazi was enough to convince them to throw in with the kid frontman.

What followed was a decade of writing and performing music that would have fit comfortably in the American alternative rock boom of that era. But The Wormholes’ story is also punctuated with imperfect timing, unfortunate label shenanigans, and plenty of other dead ends. This, too, is entirely typical—destiny doesn’t always demand that masters get all due success. Still, the bands’ relative anonymity in Irish music history feels particularly egregious. They simply did not get the right break and the right time.

Now, a new compilation assures their legacy. You Never See The Stars When It Rains 1994​-​99 has been assembled by Allchival, the reissues-focused imprint of Dublin’s All City Records. At 78 minutes, the collection would fill an old CD-R indie kids with burners might have made their friends back in the day, giving the band’s five-year recording career the sweep it deserves.

Let’s go back to the start of the story, to Ringsend in the early 1990s. The Wormholes began life under the name Wormhole, a moniker that jives more with the often idiosyncratically styled American indie and college rock bands they might have considered their peers—think names like Mudhoney, Slint, etc. By mid-1993, the group had enough material to form an album. They just needed a wise convoy to help lead them down the path.

Enter Eamonn Crudden, who became Wormhole’s first manager and greatest champion. Crudden first spied the band playing in Fibber Magees. Such was his belief in Blackmore and the Carroll twins that he’d later establish a label called Dead Elvis and make Wormhole’s debut album, Chicks Dig Scars, its inaugural release. The album came out in May 1994. 500 copies were produced on CD. If you crossed paths with the band at the time, you could buy one out of a plastic bag.

The quality of Chicks Dig Scars led to an exciting deal with Roadrunner Records in the UK, a primarily metal label trying to branch into other arenas. There were some highlights during this period. Chicks Dig Scars received a wider release. The band supported The Fall in 1995 on Mark E. Smith’s request (or so they were led to believe) and the label funded sessions for the next album, Parijuana. Yet they were let go from Roadrunner in 1995, before the record could materialise. Maybe it was the departure of a supportive A&R, or the rise of Britpop that made their dark-edged, Americanized sound feel unfashionable. Whatever the case, the group left with the Parijuana master tapes and a sense of limbo.

The story easily could have petered out right there. Instead, the band, now operating as The Wormholes to avoid being confused with a U.S.-based band, recruited cult post-punk musician Stano to produce Scorpio: The Album, which was recorded in a single day and released in 1997 on specially established imprint Chunkin’ Bronchii’. Two years later, the Parijuana recordings finally surfaced on a reactivated Dead Elvis, now pointedly titled Parijuana: 4 Years in Captivity.

​​It would have been a neat end to The Wormholes’ story and, indeed, Blackmore quietly departed the band at some point. But Anto and Dave drafted in a new member, Fergus Cullen, and continued to gig in Dublin, winding up around the mid-2000s. A full-blown revival looked on the cards in 2019 when the original line-up re-entered the studio with Stano. Tragically, Dave suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with cancer, age 49. He died three months later.

With the release of You Never See The Stars When It Rains 1994​-​99, it’s tempting to consider the band completely out of time and context. But we have to talk about how timing always seemed to be against them. The UK music press were fully invested in the Britpop phenomenon when The Wormholes were tweaking their out of tune guitars in a Roadrunner Records studio. As fate had it, two years after the Dubliners were dropped from the label, Blur made a sharp stylstic turn by putting out a self-titled album that drew from many of the same influences that The Wormholes indulged in. Had they still been around the UK scene then, maybe things would have been different. It’s similarly easy to picture a nascent Pitchfork covering them in the mid-to-late ‘90s had one of their CDs landed in the hands of the right editor. Who knows.

The songs on You Never See The Stars When It Rains 1994​-​99 are assembled roughly in chronological order of recording. Side A of the double disc vinyl release is made up of six cuts from Chicks Dig Scars. One of the strongest sections of the compilation, it underlines how fully formed the band were when they arrived.

Neo-psychedelic opener “Leave The Blanket In” begins with jarring music that sounds like it’s emanating from a big top circus 100 meters away. From there, a dream pop classic emerges. There are fuzzy guitars, neat drumming, lead vocals buried way down in the mix. Yet the song is melodic and satisfying. Like My Bloody Valentine, one of The Wormholes’ greatest strengths was an ability to stuff pleasing melodies between the fuzz.

It’s followed by “12.00 Am” (not the rough original, but the version recorded for the Chicks Dig Scars re-release). Here, the chipped guitar strums and “woo woo” chorus are particularly reminiscent of one of the band’s core influences: Pavement. On “Tryen Alone”, the vocals even have some of Pavement lead singer Stephen Malkmus’s sardonic quality.

Following the six track sample of their debut, the rest of the set conjures more moods, tones, and experimentation. “White Coat Illyad”, from the Lay it On EP released in 1995, is a beautiful highlight. The guitars and piano are sorrowful, underscoring a melancholic performance by Blackmore that’s punctuated by some haunting backing vocals.

Interestingly, the Parijuana recordings are among the most experimental and belligerent on the compilation. It’s as if hooking up with a more powerful label made the band care even less about their commercial appeal. To speculate wildly, it’s not difficult to picture the bigwigs at Roadrunner being made nervous by these recordings.

Take the defiant “We Can’t Play For ShitE”, a five-and-a-half-minute freestyle of cacophonous feedback, tambourines, tuneless riffs, and pulsing electronics. There’s “Mission Hall”, which features a piano fluttering in the distance, as if being played in the next room, while the beating percussion sounds like a bowling ball steadily rolling down a flight of stairs. The thumping “Blame Superstition” evokes punk-era rebellion, declaring “kids rule the streets at night”.

Later cuts saw more expansion of their sonic territories. The grinding “Bee Mee” draws more from the Sonic Youth end of the alternative canon. They were also comfortable slipping into Brian Jonestown Massacre-style 1960s rock revivalism – see “Go Under.”

A couple of unreleased tracks make this extra essential for hardcore completists who kept their old Wormholes vinyl and CDs. For those long-time disciples, this revival will be particularly sweet. Because if there was any justice in Ringsend, The Wormholes would occupy a similar space as some of their U.S. alt rock heroes. As things turned out, the only competition they’re in league with is the greatness they deserve to claim for themselves.

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