Friday, 22 March 2013
Album Review: My Bloody Valentine - m b v
Whatever way you look at it, I really don't need to do this review. The Metacritic page for m b v, the new album from shoegaze pioneers and critic/fan faves My Bloody Valentine currently hosts 44 professional reviews, none of which rank the album below 6/10, and there have been innumerable other professional, semi-pro and in particular fan-written and videoed (see YouTube) insights into this critical hallowed ground. My two cents aren't going to be particularly gripping, or notable, or controversial. But here goes.
When the superlative-enticting Loveless, what was thought for years to be the last My Bloody Valentine album there'd ever be, was released on pre-Oasis Creation Records in 1991, I had yet to be born. So I'm not able or willing to approach this review from any substantial point of longing or nostalgia, or weightily fluctuate between belief and doubt in the skills and intentions of one of modern music's least understood reclusive geniuses; in short, no 22-year wait for me. This idea seems to be the first thing many of these reviews contain. Forgive me for deconstructing a little further, but the other main attribute to these pieces is their willingness to tell the reader a story, as the event that happened to them, in many cases less than a day before publication, needs to be framed as a highly significant cultural event. Do these people imagine that when people bring up the questions "where were you when the Twin Towers collapsed?" or "where were you when the Berlin Wall came down?", they'll be able to pipe in with "what do you remember about when that My Bloody Valentine album crashed the internet and we all sat there clicking the Refresh button waiting to get onto the site at midnight?"?
Of course I'm exaggerating. I doubt any of these people actually think that this new release, of limited commercial interest, will translate to a larger group of people. I can't know the minds of every music superfan, especially those who have properly reached the end of the 22-year journey and are shedding tears of joy and relief as their fingers hit the keys, but I do know that the days of a genuine event in music are most likely over (even if there have been a few noble attempts recently). Lord knows what the band themselves think about all this fanfare. You can't blame them for avoiding the spotlight; the discrepancy between the instant gratification-seeking "Now!" culture My Bloody Valentine have hungover into and the slow-burning, treated and re-treated to perfection formula they've worked from since 1988 seems to be massive. It's a relief then that m b v takes absolutely no interest in the 21st Century, or any concept of time but its own. It is simply, "the new record".
And not for humility's sake either. With little background information of the record we have no idea how much of it is recent material, or how much of it was written and recorded in the years immediately following Loveless. But it's of no importance. As an album in three parts of three tracks each (for argument's sake), the first section is the most pigheaded towards the idea of radical evolution. Which isn't to say it's ugly and unrefined; in fact completely the opposite: it serves as a reminder of the beautiful anguish of the previous record. The first track, "she found now", ensures the album begins not with a bang, but with a whimper, albeit a pretty, droney whimper. It makes sense that this song is sung by bandleader and crucial component Kevin Shields, whose studio experiments redefined the possibilities for guitar-based music; a radical change that has yet to be matched since (to those unfamiliar with My Bloody Valentine, this cannot be overstated). It's true that it shares similarities with another track that bears his lead vocals, "Sometimes", but this is far from a bad thing. It means that the album has a disarming yet familiar start, that shies away from controversy and comforts the listener into staying put for the remainder of the experience. What's most impressive about "she found now" is the sense of rhythm given by one delayed guitar. Given that Shields recorded the majority of the album by himself, with the exception of Bilinda Butcher's vocals and Colm Ó Cíosóig's drum parts, the track has an extra personal feel; and the listener can feel the meaning of the several years it may have taken to record and release it. The rest of the band appear on the next two songs, which feels like the true reintroduction. Bilinda sings in her signature indiscernible vowels over the solid rhythm Colm musters up for "only tomorrow"; her voice at times shifting up and swooping over Kevin's many buzzy guitar layers (I'm becoming increasingly aware that describing m b v's guitar sounds with words is an increasingly moot point, but believe me when I say the first guitar break here is truly awe-inspiring). "who sees you" completes this initial triptych, and furthers the idea of repeating and expanding on simple phrases from the previous track. On this one the guitars sound the most aggressive yet, which contradicts the paradisal softness of Kevin's vocal (subtly backed by Bilinda, to powerful effect). And two more incredible guitar breaks! Forget the time this music has taken to surface: when this formula can be executed to perfection over and over, I'm thankful to be able to listen to it at all.
The album then decides to break and do something entirely new for the band with its second act. The following track "is this and yes" has no guitars whatsoever, instead led by organic, astronomic keyboards and Bilinda's unusually forefronted vocals. Colm's bass drum is the only other addition to the song, which sounds like it was recorded inside the moon. It's definitely pretty, but to finally delve into criticism there is an issue with its length. Some reviewers feel as though it goes on for too long, like an unscheduled meander through the galaxy, but I'd say the opposite is actually true: I feel that given a couple minutes more it could stumble across something even more spacious and ultimately worthwhile. "if i am" is a little stronger, bringing Kevin and Colm back to the front; with the former dipping his guitar in gracious amounts of chorus, tremolo and flange, but struggles to make a mark when compared to the high quality of material elsewhere. I'd also say something about Debbie Googe's bass here like everyone else, if only because I've neglected to mention her involvement so far (whatever it was), except it really doesn't make a huge impression on me personally. The next track "new you" is a great improvement, especially because it allows for the return of Colm's heart-stopping drum breaks and those floaty, flute-y keyboards. Again Bilinda takes the trophy home for the sensuous doo doo doo's during the outro. Overall this segment of the album was the one that impressed me the least; the vanilla segment of this most Neapolitan record, but chocolate takes m b v somewhere entirely more adventurous and alien.
The opening guitar squeal of appropriately named "in another way" is so unexpected, uncharacteristic and perhaps a little tasteless that more than one reviewer has mislabelled it as the sound of "bagpipes". Three seconds later all is redeemed however when Colm's thunderous drums break through the clouds and lead a pack of loud, lively guitars onto the ravaged earth. It's maybe the most, well, punk rock-sounding song My Bloody Valentine have released since "You Made Me Realise". Thankfully vocals are kept to a minimum, leaving it to the other instruments to jam it out. It gives the feeling that the rulebook has truly been thrown out, for better or for worse. What follows is essentially a three-and-a-half minute studio experiment, "nothing is"; an exercise in rising intensity created using Kevin's choppy, buzzing guitar and Colm's very loud, booming drums, again using that weird "live looping" technique. It may come off as a little banal or worthless, but really I find it difficult to fault. Up to this point, m b v has been arguably everything that was demanded of it: a continuation of the sounds and experimental, involuted and ethereal (ugh) nature of Loveless, yet simultaneously a progression. Yet unbelievably the bravest, and possibly strongest track of the whole album was saved for last: "wonder 2". "Soon" this ain't; instead it's the heaviest song My Bloody Valentine have put their name to. The drum and bass-inspired rhythm section is a dead giveaway that Kevin at least began working on it during the 90s; only he could have paired it with the sweeping, aeroplane engine flanger effect and other assorted propulsive noise. As ever the structure is simple, the lyrics are a non-starter, but the texture is beyond anything you've ever heard. Imagine if it had been released during the 90s - it would have been copied a hundred times over by now.
This is the thing about My Bloody Valentine as a whole to me. "Texture" is the most important word. If music were texture alone I believe that Loveless would be the greatest album of all time, and I'm not the only person to think that. And certainly on that album its undefined, boundless, androgynously sexual, violently pleasurable multitude of textures were aided immensely by songwriting, structure, timing and above all inventiveness, which essentially when combined with its critical reception, influence and unintentional legendary status makes it the perfect album in this regard (the phrase "painted themselves into a corner" comes up more than once). After rumours of long bouts of depression and creative drought, Kevin Shields didn't ever need to follow Loveless up; it seemed to many to be an impossible task. Above all it shows a dedication to his role as a musician: many of his peers released great albums during their time, but furthered themselves with work that shattered the illusion of unapproachable, godlike craft. In this regard even a terrible album would have sufficed in allowing My Bloody Valentine to continue making music. But that's not what m b v is. It's not Loveless, but it's not weaker than a 6/10. It's a very reflexive listen, and if it succeeds at anything else it will hopefully bury the idea that an important album needs to be exemplary of its time. It's not of this time, or any other. And I enjoyed it very much.
Purchase m b v on a variety of formats from the My Bloody Valentine official webpage.