Sunday 22 June 2008

My Bloody Valentine at London Roundhouse

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. So it may be true to say that in the nearly two decades since they last actually DID anything, that the legend of My Bloody Valentine has grown to such an extent that these reunion/reactivation shows at the Roundhouse are anticipated very eagerly indeed.

I have to hold my hand up at this point. Although I am happy to admit that they have their moments, I’ve never quite seen what all the fuss was about.

I first came across the band at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town in 1986, when they were just one of many of the so-called ‘shambling’ bands of the era. At that time, their most distinguishing feature was not their music, but their haircuts – the whole band had long fringes that hung down to their mouths, making it impossible to see who was who.

I caught them again on the Jesus and Mary Chain ‘Rollercoaster’ tour of 1992, when My Bloody Valentine had established themselves as a live band of rare power. I remember them filling the Brixton Academy with a deafening noise for around 45 minutes, and it being mesmerising – far more fun than the headliners were on that occasion.

Their records always seemed weedy and underpowered, but in 1992 it was thought that the next MBV album would be the one to do them justice. And of course, it never came.

Over the years, the legend grew. They became titans because they weren’t around to sully their reputation. It was the James Dean syndrome. Dying was the best career move that boy ever made.

Now, incredibly, they are back. Although whether it is the lure of ready cash or unfinished musical business that has caused this to happen is still uncertain. There are rumours of new material, and another attempt at re-mastering the two albums for which they are best remembered, ‘Loveless’ and ‘Isn’t Anything’. Rather reassuringly, these last two are allegedly delayed because Kevin Shields can’t draft new sleeve notes.

The Roundhouse is heaving with people tonight – a good proportion of whom were in nappies the last time My Bloody Valentine were a serious proposition.

I’m up on a gantry at the back of the auditorium. It’s a good position to see the crowds below and their reaction to what promises to be an assault on the senses.

The lights go down, and the strobes come on. The band wander on, plug in and bam! the noise, even this far away, is sufficient to make you pray that your earplugs hold out. It’s an almost physical sensation, your body in distress, even if your brain allows you to cope.

Bilinda Butcher’s vocals are pretty well inaudible, and Kevin Shields himself can barely be heard. This doesn’t really matter, as MBV were never about the vocals - on the relevant songs it was just sufficient to know that there actually were some.

If you take the volume away, there is not much going on here. This is music as spectacle, a challenge to test the mettle of the audience. The whirling projected images, the strobes and the noise all serve to disorient, and as an exercise in sensory overload it certainly works.

They play the ‘hits’ and those tunes with something to grab hold of, such as ‘Soon’, stand out and add structure to what is otherwise interchangeable material. What is impressive is that despite the circumstances, there is no random thrashing of instruments, every chord has been considered and is precisely performed.

The show stopping finale is ‘You Made Me Realise’ which has become the opportunity for the band to take everything to the max and subject the audience to a twenty minute burst of repetitive riffing and drumming, while the strobes go off every few seconds. It is punishing, and is meant to be. The band apparently refer to this passage as the ‘holocaust’, and it is certainly a gruelling experience. However, if a band disappears for twenty years, others can appropriate their schtick, and I have certainly seen the likes of Sunn 0))) do the same thing for three times the length. In cowls.

Meeting up afterwards with an acquaintance who had been a few rows from the front of the stage, I am told that people were fainting and being removed. Job done, then.

I think that My Bloody Valentine have largely lived up to their reputation, and that honour has been satisfied. Nevertheless, they’ve blown their cover now, and unless they disappear again for another decade or so, they are now going to have to actually deliver something other than tinnitus.

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