[26 March 2013]
The Hammersmith Apollo in London is a grand old venue, an Art Deco bunker first opened in 1932 as the Gaumont Palace picture theatre. These days it’s a fittingly cavernous venue for the sonic pyrotechnics of My Bloody Valentine, who are by now a kind of grand old band themselves, albeit a mysterious, elusive, and immensely frustrating one.
Of course, that My Bloody Valentine is band at all these days is a surprise, not least to the band themselves, most likely. Back in 1990, in the dark, torturous months and years spent recording Loveless, or in the long, slow collapse of the band in the wake of that album’s suffocating critical acclaim, it must have been hard to imagine they would be playing a venue like this so many years later. Yet, not only are they back, they are finally touring again in support of the new album that fans have been waiting on for two decades.
The new tour, and indeed the album it supports, could have been just another victory lap: a pleasant, money-spinning jukebox pander to their balding audience. Lord knows, they wouldn’t be the first. Certainly over recent years, plenty of other important but underappreciated-at-the-time bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s have reunited for enjoyable, lucrative, but generally creatively bankrupt tours (cough… Pavement, Pixies, to name just two).
And for a while it did seem like My Bloody Valentine were heading down that path too. After they reunited in 2007, they spent a couple of years playing decades-old songs, and had they stayed that way, I don’t think too many people would have really held it against them. Sure, after so long, the excitement of seeing them live is tempered by familiarity with the songs, but who would begrudge a beloved band finally making a bit of money off their now-legendary status? A roller-coaster is still fun even when you know all the turns.
I turns out, though, that they were just warming up. Now we have an actual new My Bloody Valentine album, and everything feels different. Suddenly the band has to evaluated as a living creative entity, not a fairground attraction. It’s a thrilling, but also daunting prospect.
Of the album, it has thankfully turned out to be as good as anyone could have reasonably hoped. m b v’s nine tracks evolve naturally out of Loveless’s now-familiar pattern of swirling guitars into progressively stranger and more percussion-driven territory. Even if it doesn’t quite bear comparison with Loveless in terms of artistic achievement, it’s impressive on its own terms, and maybe as importantly, it charts a convincing path forward.
But what of My Bloody Valentine, the living, breathing band? On the evidence of this concert and tour (they’re using the same set list for each show) it’s a bit of a mixed bag, even if the highs of the show are as extraordinary as you might hope.
At their best, which is often, My Bloody Valentine is a live act that defies description. The most powerful tracks, all drawn from Loveless, are nothing short of astonishing when experienced live, at the punishingly high volumes for which the band is (in)famous. The live performances are also capable of giving new depth to some less-known tracks, especially from their earlier recordings.
The band waste no time pulling out the powerhouses in their back-catalogue. The show opens with “I Only Said” and “When You Sleep”, both standout tracks from Loveless. Kevin Shield’s voice is a detached, barely present whisper under the grinding, breathless guitars on the former. Then the cold burst of “When You Sleep” is utterly magical, sounding as gleaming and new and strange and heartbreaking as it ever did. It’s one of the moments in the show when everything seems in harmony, as Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s soft, sad voices intertwine seamlessly, and the guitars sound like transmissions from another, better planet.
Other Loveless tracks provide similar highs. “Soon”, in particular, is a massive, beautiful sledgehammer of shimmering sound that seems endless and hypnotic and represents the apex of the night. On the album, parts of the song sounded slightly tame in comparison to some other tracks; live, anchored by a massive backbone of bass and played at crushing volume, it sounds like My Bloody Valentine’s greatest achievement.
It’s a joy to hear music of this power live, no matter how often you might have heard the songs before. Certainly, nobody would ever fault My Bloody Valentine for filling the setlist with tracks from such a seminal album. What is a surprise, and a bit of a disappointment, is that there are so few new songs on the programme for this tour; only three out of the seventeen tracks come from m b v. Instead, almost half the gig is devoted to playing material that’s a quarter century old.
Of course, you would expect to hear a few early songs at any established band’s show. In fact, my Bloody Valentine’s debut Isn’t Anything has some strong songs that weren’t fully realised on the album, and so benefit greatly from a more powerful live sound. But in addition to the songs from Isn’t Anything, the band has unaccountably included five other early tracks on the set list, including almost the entire 1988 EP You Made Me Realise. In other circumstances, it would be a blessing to hear so many early and non-album tracks. On the recordings, many these songs sounded thin and restrained, and in their live iterations the songs are given backbone, the fragile vocals on these tracks drowned in oceans of noise, only occasionally bobbing to the surface.
But fascinating, and occasionally awe-inspiring as these songs are to hear live, when the band is touring behind a full album of new material it seems downright stingy to only include three tracks, especially when that album is as delayed and anticipated as any in music history. On the evidence of this set, it may be partly that the band are still working out how to get the best out of these songs in a live setting.
“New You” is m b v’s most immediately appealing track. It’s an upbeat, uplifting, almost funky slice of pop that, with a few tweaks, could have been a pretty big radio hit in a different era. Here, somehow, it doesn’t really work, as it drags listlessly, and feels empty without the anchoring blanket of guitar noise that My Bloody Valentine usually cover their songs. “Only Tomorrow” just sounds murky and formless, almost tuneless and unrecognisable for much of its length, relative to the woozily beautiful album version. “Wonder 2”, which ends the show, is just deafening and ugly, although it’s chances aren’t helped by coming after the apocalyptically loud version of “You Made Me Realise” that the band traditionally ended their shows with.
Still, regardless of flaws in the live versions of these new songs, it’s disappointing not to be able to experience other tracks from m b v live. The flanging, squalling guitar of “Who Sees You” and the pummelling percussion and wailing, layered keyboards of “In Another Way” could have been fantastic tasted at top volume in a big venue. The wall-of-drums instrumental “Nothing Is” would also have been a welcome kick in the teeth right at the front of a show.
Ok, m b v’s more subdued, breathy tracks might have just dissipated in a big venue. It’s probably no coincidence that “Sometimes” is also missing from the set list, despite being one of the band’s best known tracks from Loveless. It’s another gentle, sad track, and My Bloody Valentine in their live incarnation don’t seem to be a band much given to contemplation. If the band are struggling with translating live renditions of the more obvious candidates from m b v, it might be understandable that they don’t want to chance playing some of the iffier tracks.
Still, I can’t help but feel like My Bloody Valentine bottled it a bit with the song selection for this tour. If you want to be a creatively functioning, risk-taking, relevant touring act, one of the requirements is giving an airing to new album tracks, reworking them for a live audience where necessary, even if they might not always work perfectly. For whatever reason, the band seem to have not have the confidence in these new tracks to get them into the spotlight just yet, and that feels like a shame, and a bit of a cop-out.
Still, for all that, the band haven’t lost their capacity to shock. The reputation of “You Made Me Realise” as a live song precedes it, thanks to the so-called “holocaust” section of the song, an eardrum shredding, seemingly endless block of furious white noise that they ‘play’ towards the end of the song. It is, by a distance, the loudest sustained noise I’ve ever heard, at a gig or anywhere else for that matter. The feedback has a low frequency—a deep crackling roar that sounds like a long, drawn out explosion—and an incredible physical presence. As the whole floor of the venue rumbles and clothes flap in the vibrations, the crowd puts their fingers in their ears; most look profoundly uncomfortable. Yet when after around ten minutes the band abruptly snuff out the inferno and return to the chorus, and the song ends, it’s somehow immensely thrilling, drawing one of the biggest cheers of the night… and not only of relief.
Of course, this isn’t a new trick, as the band have been doing this with “You Made Me Realise” since the early ‘90s, and have been known to play the holocaust section for half an hour or more. As awe-inspiring and intimidating as the track is, it does have a bit of the feel of a party piece by now, even if it’s a party on hell’s doorstep. Let’s just hope that the band finds it in them to keep pushing the boundaries with their live shows, as well as in the studio.