The Persistence of Chorus Effects in Modern Indie Pop

Steve Lacy (2017), Photo by: Kevin Winter/Getty Images. Cate Le Bon (2014), Photo by Martin Hearn. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0, Mac DeMarco (2017), Photo by: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

The shimmering echoes that ring out from a guitar combined with a chorus pedal is one of the most recognizable tones of modern pop and rock—and yet it can be difficult to pin down exactly why.

In the 1980s the chorus effect came to define an era. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" by Metallica opens with a haunting riff, awash in thick shuddering chorus, familiar to anyone who ever dipped their toe in the pool of mid-'80s power ballads. The Smiths' jangle pop spangled with layers of delicate leads that set a precedent for indie rock to come.

While these groups inhabited opposite ends of the spectrum musically, they both tapped in to chorus to give their guitars that warm honeyed feel, popularized first by Boss's CE-1 and then the CE-2.

Eventually chorus oversaturated the airwaves—and the pedal market, for that matter. From the mid-'90s through to the 2000s it grew out of favor and out of touch. To some it still has a dated feel, but for many artists of the past decade the stigma of 1980s glitz has shed away, and chorus has made a massive return to pedalboards everywhere.

Steve Lacy - "Some"

One modern-day devotee is the barely 21-year-old songwriter, producer, and artist Steve Lacy. A prolific wizard of grooves, Lacy has been sprinkling chorus into his tone potions since his early days of high school. As a noted Prince fan, Lacy is unafraid of cranking the chorus and articulating marble-smooth leads over the funkiest of tracks. With his new album, Apollo XXI, released in 2019, he steps further down the rabbit hole, crafting effortless tunes that swirl in a cloud of chorus.

Prince songs like "Raspberry Beret" and of course "Purple Rain" seem like obvious references for Lacy, with icy Linn LM1-esque beats counterbalanced against sensual guitar licks. (It should be noted that, in the same way the Prince often crafted chorus tones not with a chorus pedal but his VB-2 Vibrato, Lacy also eschews the obvious, often using just the stock effects and presets in Apple's free GarageBand DAW.) Still, Lacy's songs breathe with a warmth indebted to the R&B of the '80s and '90s. Chords are bent around basslines, and lend an ebb and flow to his melodies.

On The Internet's "It Gets Better With Time," from last year's Hive Mind, Lacy strums a few chords before letting the last notes billow through a chorusy breeze. There is a minimalism to his style that never feels lacking, where the guitar leaves space for the vocals or keys, without feeling vacant. His songs are both timeless and of the now.

Lacy has recently contributed to Vampire Weekend's new album, and his songwork with them has shades of Paul Simon's Graceland while simultaneously setting guide posts for pop of the near-future.

Another artist Lacy has cited as a heavy influence is the proverbial prince of seasick guitars, Mac DeMarco. The Canadian jangle wrangler may not have been the first guy of the 2010s to step on a Boss CE-2 (or Ibanez CS9) but he certainly has become the most prominent. Around 2009 and 2010, a number of groups were gazing back to the time of C86 and lo-fi, tape-warped pop of the '80s. Ariel Pink, Beach Fossils, and Wild Nothing were all early purveyors of this revived sound, but DeMarco, who joined the scene a few years later, really took lo-fi to another level.

Mac DeMarco - "Cooking Up Something Good," Live on KEXP

From the first few notes of "Cooking Up Something Good" off 2 there's an unmistakable warble to his guitar tone that has become quintessentially Mac DeMarcian. It sounds as if his guitar were recorded to tape and then left it out in the sun too long.

The persistence of slightly off-ness can be intrinsic to a chorused-out vibe, and Demarco tends to slather it on like the perfunctory spreading of schmeer at a bagel store. To a casual listener Mac could be construed as a noodling pseudo-folk goofball, but it becomes apparent that his songwriting and style of playing have an undeniable depth to them. Like Lacy, he's too good to be bad, even when the notes seem like they're about to slip off the page.

DeMarco's effect processing, he's claimed, has remained limited, kept to a CE-2 for live settings and dialing in the chorus sounds of an Alesis Microverb 4 for past studio recordings. His most recent record, Here Comes the Cowboy, veers away from the dripping, picked-guitar style but still feels unquestionably his own. Lead single, "Nobody," is focused around a wavering Juno-like synth pad that sounds like a toy Groan Tube being tracked through a low-rate stereo chorus. Even if his Boss pedals are growing cobwebs, he hasn't lost that loving feeling for chorus-churned modulation.

Continuing in the vein of bizzaro but beautifully quavering pop, it bears mentioning Cate Le Bon, the Welsh master of geodesic timbres. Le Bon has been sculpting stunning off-kilter pop for the better part of a decade, and her most recent album, Reward, is her most powerful collection to date.

Cate Le Bon - "Daylight Matters"

In its basest form, it's a record of druggy, baroque-pop infused with slippery chorus-laden guitar and chunky piano. Reward is a record that feels very in-touch with groundbreaking 1980s releases from experimental art-pop label, 4AD. Le Bon's album, out with Mexican Summer (a sort of modern day 4AD), touches on a lot of hallmarks from 4AD greats such as Cocteau Twins, His Name Is Alive, Red House Painters, and This Mortal Coil. What these groups had in common was an affinity for 1960s singer-songwriters, a penchant for strong writing, and a tonality that leaned toward romantic melancholia.

This is perhaps what bridges the gap between acts of the 1980s and artists like Le Bon today, who are less interested in dialing in the nostalgia, but rather tapping into feelings of listless yearning that chorus so effectively evokes. For the Cocteau Twins' primary songwriter Robin Guthrie, chorus was almost another instrument, able to glimmer like the shores of a dream and counterbalance the ethereal vocals of singer Liz Fraser. For Le Bon's mid-tempo single "Daylight Matters," she bellows the lyrics, "Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, But you're not here." All while a crumbling guitar riff gorgeously shudders through a chorusy haze.

For some people, chorus produces the sort of groan-worthy soap-opera-soundtrack chords they'd just as well forget altogether. But for artists like Cate Le Bon it can act as a needle, stitching together themes of lonesomeness and deep romanticism. Famously, the heavy sampling and meticulous editing that went into recording Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," involved running the lead guitar through an Eventide H3000 stereo Rich Chorus program, producing one of the most recognizable and romantic guitar lines of all time. (Fulltone even makes a new rackmount unit—That 80's Rack Chorus— with the same delay chips found in the famous Tri Stereo Chorus effects of that era.)

Many other rising indie stars continue to bring new life to chorus pedals and processors. Men I Trust, a three-piece band from Quebec that dabbles in dream pop, have some of the slinkiest chorus-glazed melodies of recent memory. They have a new record due out this year and have preceded it with one infectious single after the next. Another notable chorus peddler is Thom Giles, the man behind the group Vesuvio Solo and, more recently, Blue Material. Whatever the project, Giles expertly brews up careful batches of sleazy pop that sound like disco singles recovered from a dusty crate in a forgotten attic.

Whether chorus rings your bell or not, you can be sure to spot a heck of a lot more of it on future releases from this year and the next.

These are just some examples of modern chorus excellence. Let us know your favorites in the comments below.

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