As I’ve noted before, being back in London over the past three years and more has meant that I’ve been able to see, at last, a number of bands I never thought I’d have the chance to see. Needless to say, MBV are one of those bands, having somehow missed the various shows in recent years since they resumed activity (I was too young the first time around, of course).
2013 has so far been an odd year as a fan of the band, too, more than anything because Kevin Shields has finally seen fit to release an album, after twenty two years. Surely one of the longest periods between albums ever – especially as the band never actually split up, as I recall – what was most remarkable about it was that it had lost none of the magic. No, really. Ok, so it isn’t quite the jaw-on-the-floor-for-forty-five-minutes that Loveless was, but m b v has some genuinely astonishing moments, and they also both share the wonderment of trying to work out exactly how they are going to replicate any of it live.
The answer, as I expected it to be, is VERY LOUDLY. Seriously, this was the loudest gig I’ve ever attended. Louder than Motörhead at Brixton in ’98, louder than Swans last November, and also louder than Sunn 0))), too.
But crucially, it wasn’t painful (except for a few seconds, more of which in a minute), instead being broadly very loud, very clear, and a somehow gloriously chaotic take on their recorded output. While all the effects are present and correct, from the woozy, sighing guitars that dominated set-opener I Only Said, to the torrent of processed riffage at the heart of Only Shallow, it all felt a bit looser and less controlled than I am used to.
My Bloody Valentine setlist
I Only Said
When You Sleep
You Never Should
Cigarette in Your Bed
Come in Alone
Nothing Much to Lose
To Here Knows When
Feed Me With Your Kiss
You Made Me Realise
Not that this was a bad thing – the formidable force of the whole set was an utter joy, and confirmed to me that listening to the band this loudly is the best way to go. Particularly for some of their best-known and most cherished songs, including the dreamy, sultry glory of To Here Knows When. Frankly it was fucking amazing, the phasing, ultra-distorted guitars carrying the song along with Belinda’s drowsy vocals finally truly audible.
That was perhaps the one niggle. In the race to turn the volume up and up and up, the vocals got lost in the maelstrom, but with MBV, the vocals never felt that important anyway – they were usually just another texture in amongst the others (let’s be honest, you are hardly going to sing along with the words – I at least normally hum along with the melodies), so to hear the balance finally nailed during that song was rather wonderful.
Despite the volume and the terror that their music invokes at points, though, it is quite amazing how they manage to imbue most of their songs with such gentle, playful sensuality. The dual vocals of Kevin and Belinda always sound like the hushed pillow talk of two lovers, a trick the xx pulled off with much more subdued music, but the juxtaposition of that sensuality against the utter hurricane of sound they create around it is seriously astonishing.
And yes, they play You Made Me Realise, and during the ten minute “Holocaust” section (more pure noise than most supposed noise acts) it got seriously uncomfortable, but more amazing to me was seeing them suddently snap out of the noise and straight back into the song itself, without missing a beat. Confirmation, as if I needed it, that this band are not just all about sonic trickery. But better still was what closed the set, after that – the spectacular new album closer wonder 2, one of only three new songs played all night. Colm Ó Cíosóig came forward from his drumkit, took up another guitar, and the scorching noise of four guitars, many effects pedals and gentle drum’n’bass behind it became a wondrous, noisy symphony that felt like the natural way to end the show.
Shoegaze is not something loved by everyone – and indeed is mocked somewhat in some quarters – but this was proof indeed that to do this style justice you need more than floppy fringes and a bank of effects pedals. There are gorgeous tunes after all in amongst the chaos, maybe it just needed the extreme volume for me to fully appreciate some of it and do it justice.