My Bloody Valentine
Roundhouse, London, UK
What is most striking about My Bloody Valentine’s return to the stage this June – after 16 years of silence – is that they can only be compared to, well, My Bloody Valentine. Those heavy, woozy, chocolate-thick guitars; voices that drift in and out of an overdriven, distorted sound haze like distant figures emerging through shimmering heat; the throbbing, heavy-duty bass and jackhammer percussion – it still sounds as singular as ever, which in an era of guitar music that can feel like the result of an archeological trawl through rock’s back pages, is really saying something. The band’s studio sound is muscular but nuanced by a variety of texture and tone; charged with pent-up force like the air before a summer thunderstorm – in its own peculiarly sensuous way, their music is deeply romantic, even sultry. Their ability to utilize the basic physics of sound in order to give the impression that you are listening to vast orchestras of musicians is astonishing in its elegance: it’s often assumed that they created their style by multi-tracking many layers of guitars or using fancy effects units. Yet, for the most part, the My Bloody Valentine sound is nothing more complicated than a few cheap Fender Jaguar guitars fitted with loose whammy-bars and fed through a number of carefully rigged amplifiers. Their lyrics and song titles are uncomplicated or occasionally vaguely suggestive – ‘Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)’, ‘Touched’, ‘Swallow’, ‘Honey Power’, ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’, ‘Cupid Come’ – and the vocals mixed softly into the overall texture, rather than demand the listener strain to decipher the words.
But one could drone on for hours about the artful innovations My Bloody Valentine made in guitar music and miss the fact that their music is very straightforward too: full of sun-kissed melodies and uncomplicated, shamelessly thumping rock outs. Fans of fey, jangly indie pop could enjoy the wistful harmonies and the band’s floppy-fringed sensitive student image, whilst those with more experimental tastes could dig the pitch-bending, textured guitars and ear-bleeding volume of their gigs. In the intervening years since the band’s two LPs were released – Isn’t Anything (1988) and Loveless (1992), reissued and repackaged this summer by Sony-BMG – their reputation has become as monumental as their sound and the stories that surround their slow, notoriously profligate and maddeningly perfectionist recording methods have become a kind of British indie equivalent of the Brian Wilson story. In his recent review of the album reissues on The Quietus website, Taylor Parkes argues that My Bloody Valentine ‘poisoned British guitar rock for more than half a decade (and left a legacy of laziness from which it’s never really recovered)’. This sounds like a harsh accusation, yet, as he elaborates on Simon Reynolds’ Blissblog, My Bloody Valentine made a kind of ‘sculpted noise’ ‘subtly and with great skill to create new atmospheres, while a thousand bands that emerged in the next few years just blasted away with a bunch of effects pedals and hoped for the best’. Parkes extends his theory beyond the ‘shoegazing’ bands who My Bloody Valentine initially spawned – Ride, Slowdive, Chapterhouse – even to bands such as Oasis: ‘very much a post-Valentines band, but with all the avant-garde stuff stripped away. They very definitely stole the big billowing guitar sound from Isn’t Anything while missing the point. They played neat Beatley songs which were too slight to stand up by themselves, so they reached for the blizzard-of-noise to give themselves a lift.’ To this I’d also add bands such as the unbearable Icelandic group Sigur Ros – the closest post-rock has come to sheer kitsch – who have turned My Bloody Valentine’s storm of dreaminess into a sickly ‘epic’ package, an over-rich sticky pudding of big guitars and cheap compositional tricks that have unimaginative broadsheet journalists reaching for adjectives such as ‘cathartic’ or ‘transcendent’. The US underground music scene may, over the last few years, have produced a number of bands who have radicalized the live gig experience – most notably Sunn0))) and Lightning Bolt – but no one has quite yet come up with a sound as distinctive as My Bloody Valentine achieved in the studio. This summer, for instance, the album Nouns by current darlings of the US underground, No Age, was released, sounding in places distinctly like an homage to Loveless.
The profile of My Bloody Valentine’s once reclusive frontman Kevin Shields has increased steadily over the past few years. He has worked with a range of artists, from Primal Scream to Patti Smith, and on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), a film which went some way to introducing bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain to a broader audience. Yet despite the perennial rumours about a possible third album, many were still surprised when it was announced last November that Shields, guitarist Bilinda Butcher, bassist Debbie Googe and drummer Colm O’Ciosoig would be playing a June gig at London’s Roundhouse. (Even in this era of reunion gigs and perpetual exhumation of rock heritage, it seemed My Bloody Valentine’s reputation for working at a glacially slow rate would condemn them to the history books, a landmark from the glory days of 1980s alternative music.) Tickets were snapped up the instant they went on sale, and more dates were added to answer demand, until five consecutive nights had sold out, in addition to gigs in Manchester, Glasgow and a small US tour. Tickets for a warm-up ‘rehearsal’ at London’s ICA could be found on eBay going for upwards of £300. All of which would’ve been small beer if this had been Arctic Monkeys we were talking about rather than an unglamorous, experimental Irish/British indie band from the early 1990s. But these are the days of YouTube and illegal downloads: the age of the LP as hallowed reliquary is long gone, and event culture – the flesh and blood experience – is in the ascendant once again. And this was, after all, the chance to see My Bloody Valentine: an opportunity which many who missed them the first time round (myself included) had thought was about as likely to happen as Thomas Pynchon doing a week-long poetry jam in Borders.
To a certain extent, the nostalgia driving box office sales for the Valentine’s comeback gigs highlights those areas of the late-1980s British underground often overlooked by the orthodox history of the period that places the hedonism of Acid House at the centre of developments in youth culture. My Bloody Valentine, although not uninfluenced by dance music, symbolize the introspective alternative to the then burgeoning rave scene, and remind us that for some people in the late 1980s, the sub-culture was not just that of all-night warehouse raves and weekends driving to Shoom in London or the Haçienda in Manchester, but of having backcombed hair and wearing paisley shirts bought from Oxfam; reading Melody Maker and wishing The Smiths hadn’t split up; tuning into John Peel on Radio 1; standing in beer-stained pub venues in provincial university towns drinking snakebite-and-black whilst watching Ride or The Pastels shamble around on stage.
(All this talk of their influence puts me in mind of Brian Eno’s theory that the Velvet Underground may never have sold that many records, but everyone who bought one went on to form a band. Were you to have climbed up onto the stage of the Roundhouse last weekend prior to the Valentine’s set and asked anyone ‘who is not currently, or has never been at any point between the years 1988 and 2008, a member of, or closely associated with, an indie, electronica or post-metal band’ to raise their hand, I doubt whether a single arm would’ve so much as twitched.)
Never the most charismatic of bands to watch on stage, hearing My Bloody Valentine play live is nonetheless, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, ‘like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick’. In the early 1990s, their reputation was for being one of the loudest bands on the planet, a title now perhaps held by Sunn0))), and a comparison I overheard a number of people making at the Roundhouse gig. Yet where Sunn0)))’s mastery of extreme volume is framed by the theatrics of heavy metal and the austerity of Minimalist composition, My Bloody Valentine’s is more like that of old-fashioned psychedelia in the tradition of Pink Floyd or Soft Machine; catchy melodies brought to you by way of huge Marshall amplifier stacks packing brute volumatic force. The psychedelia comparison doesn’t just stop with the decibel levels. There’s the band’s light show, a combination of celestial, technicolour patterns and rapid-fire found footage which looked like it had been culled from a 1960s Roger Corman flick. And it’s there in the Loveless-era tracks, influenced by early-1990s dance music: the bouncy drums propelling the song ‘Soon’ for instance, or the processed, sampled guitar sounds that can be heard throughout the album. (During the Roundhouse gig a few people of a certain age could be spotted dancing as if to some techno track rather than an explosive guitar band.)
Each song the band played was received by the audience as if like a long lost friend – the dreamy opener ‘I Only Said’, the spooky ‘Lose My Breath’ (the delicacy of the LP version given a bass-heavy gravitas by the volume at the gig), a rendition of ‘Soon’ that sent the crowd into paroxysms of delight, and the heavy, pummeling ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’. The nuances of My Bloody Valentine’s recorded material was buried in the sonic density of the live mix, yet what was lost in subtlety was made up for by sheer physicality, especially noticeable in the bone-shaking bass of ‘Only Shallow’, and the machinegun drum rolls on ‘Nothing Much to Lose’.
The most intense moment, however, was saved for last. Their near-legendary set-closer ‘You Made Me Realise’ features two minutes of song segueing into 20 minutes of ferocious, squalling feedback. Journalists reviewing My Bloody Valentine in the early ‘90s used to refer to this as ‘the death chord’, and now I understand why. As the final vocal cadence of the chorus died away, with Butcher and Shields dueting the line ‘you made me realise’, a single projected white line traced its way across the stage backdrop like a flat-lining life support machine. The sound began to swell and I could feel the air being pushed from the speakers against my body. Noise roared around the auditorium. Looking up at the ceiling of the Roundhouse, it seemed as if we were beneath a giant rocket engine about to consume us in a fireball. Some audience members had their eyes closed, smiling beatifically as they basked in the jet-engine scream that blasted through their bones. Many were wincing, hands in a vice-grip around their ears. One man, sat high up in the theatre circle, had his head tilted horizontally and was repeatedly banging it against the balcony rail. A woman barged past me, heading for the auditorium exit looking as if she were about to vomit. Some were laughing in disbelief at the audacity of the band’s gesture. Others seemed strangely numbed: their immunity to the sonic atom bomb detonating in front of them a mystery until one noticed the small rubber plugs wedged in their ears. On stage the four figures were drenched in purple, blue and pink light; shrouded in dry ice which might just as well have been smoke pouring from the ranks of overdriven Marshall amps, or from the guitarists’ fingers as they shredded fingers against strings. This was ‘the death chord’. The end of the gig, the end of your ears. The final reckoning. This was My Bloody Valentine.