Tag Archives: isn’t anything

Inside a volcano of sound – My Bloody Valentine live

“It makes you wonder, if they’re handing out earplugs to everyone, why they don’t just… y’know, turn it down a bit” commented Paul in the pub before the gig.

“Because sound doesn’t work like that” was the answer from his friend who’d been the previous night, and, like a masochist, was putting himself through it again.

I had a pretty good inkling of what he meant, and the My Bloody Valentine gig experience bore it out. Sound is waves through the air, you don’t just hear it; when it’s loud enough you feel it, physically, in your feet, in your legs, in your chest. Hearing is essentially just feeling sound waves with the sensitive hairs of your inner-ear, your brain interpreting that feeling into auditory signals which can, and usually do, feel like a mental experience rather than a physical one. But that’s a trick of the mind. My Bloody Valentine invert that trick, and make a seemingly mental experience into a physical one.

The gig didn’t start that loud, or didn’t seem to; Em and I both had earplugs in (which I do at most gigs these days, and have for half a decade or more) and whilst the sound seemed clearer and louder than some gigs I’ve seen when I’ve had them in, it didn’t seem… dangerous. But by halfway through the gig, when “Only Shallow” was unveiled, and “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, and something else from Isn’t Anything that was fiercely pummelling and physical, I popped my earplugs out for a second and realised that things had become extraordinarily loud, the volume almost imperceptibly upping from song to song.

I’ve often wondered how Kevin Shields made the sounds he did on record, how the melodic toplines of Loveless, which sound like synthesisers but which we know aren’t, are coaxed from a guitar. I thought seeing them live would enlighten me, but I’m none the wiser; there seems little correlation between what My Bloody Valentine physically do onstage and the sound that erupts from them. Sometimes Debbie Googe plays her bass in a way you’d recognise, for instance, but mostly she seems to strum at it, gently, as if it were an acoustic guitar at a campfire sing-a-long. Her strums come from the shoulder, whilst Bilinda Butcher’s come from the wrist; they’re both static other than that, pretty much, their entire bodies still, Debbie’s arm moving, Bilinda’s wrist pivoting.

Colm is, unsurprisingly if you think about Isn’t Anything, a bizarrely powerful drummer; so much of My Bloody Valentine has seemed so ethereal to me over half my lifetime that the bludgeoning strength of the drums took me by surprise. It shouldn’t have. The songs from Isn’t Anything were the most brutal and physical, searing rock’n’roll destructions; those from Loveless were most beautiful, trippy creations that bend your perceptions; “Soon” was astonishing, psychedelia made real. The new songs, from mbv, were the strangest. The three eras fitted together with far more logic live than I would have expected, about a third of the gig from each.

I’ve been expecting the eruption, the volcano of sound, that comes during that pause in “You Made Me Realise”, since I was about 16 and first heard Loveless, since my elder brother gave me a compilation of Creation Records singles that included “You Made Me Realise”. I’ve read about it levitating people, about it making people feel sick, about it lasting half an hour and venue security guards with air-traffic-control headphones on mouthing to each other “what the fuck is this shit?” as the maelstrom bends time. A guy in front of us started filming it on his phone, and gave up after eleven minutes. It went on, I think, for about half as long again. A steady stream of people shuffled past us and out of the auditorium. Maybe they had tube trains to catch. Maybe it was too much. I laughed my head off at points, turned around to look at faces; some aghast, some ecstatic, some bewildered, as if they didn’t know to expect it.

The volume of this volcanic eruption is phenomenal, alarming. I worried for the fabric of the building we were in. The noise seemed to shift in pitch and tone, slowly increase in volume, vibrating different parts of your body as it changed. I took my earplugs out at one point, for about thirty seconds or so, and the physical crush of sound that was affecting my whole body suddenly consumed the inside of my head too. Not everyone was wearing earplugs. Who knows how those who didn’t managed to get home afterwards; their senses and orientation must have been mashed.

We left the gig giddy and exhilarated, a little baffled and intensely impressed. My Bloody Valentine are a band Em and I both share love for, a band we both brought to the table when we got together many years ago. It’s taken us 12 years, almost, to see them live; I hope we get to see them again some day.

Repetition is a form of change: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless, and what to make of mbv after less than 48 hours

Specificity can be a boon to music – the little lyrical details that make a song feel more real; the clarity of something in the mix bursting through the listener’s metaphorical fourth-wall – but a complete lack of it can be even more potent. Such is My Bloody Valentine’s power, perhaps; you can’t tell what the words are, everything is blurred and vague and indistinct, a rush of out-of-focus colour and emotion and sensation, which doesn’t describe so much as it creates or inspires. Even the song titles are so non-specific as to be almost meaningless most of the time.

Because of this elusiveness (Eno described “Soon” as “the vaguest music ever to have been a hit”), and, of course, the peculiar sonic aesthetic the band constructed on Loveless, it’s very easy to project oneself deeply into My Bloody Valentine’s music; whilst their oeuvre is instantly recognizable, it isn’t built on the charisma of the performer the way that much pop is. The thing that’s recognizable is the sound and the feelings it inspires. Which is why My Bloody Valentine’s music is so tied up with sex and dreams and the suggestion of feelings; like Voodoo by D’Angelo, the vocals are measured to completely avoid intrusion on the listener’s experience; the singer’s story is secondary to yours. The sound, in turn, is measured to envelop and control you; its coding is neither masculine nor feminine, neither progressive nor retro. I don’t play Loveless for the rush of singing along with a melody or to appreciate the craft and musicianship; I put it on to take me to the places it’s always taken me to, the places it’s had nearly 22 years to take everyone else who’s listened to and fallen in love with it to.

If Loveless was intended as some kind of ‘grand statement’ by Kevin Shields back in 1991 or not, I simply do not know. Intention is irrelevant; it’s had two thirds of my lifetime to assume the status of a grand statement, to become the totemic, untouchable, revered thing it has most undoubtedly become, to be euologised and mythologised and whispered about and passed on to people (with the caveat that “it’s meant to sound like that”) until the reality is hopelessly eclipsed by the reputation. Yes, Loveless is a wonderful record. No, it’s not the peak of all human endeavour. But mythology is a powerful thing.

And so to mbv, so lacking in specificity that it eschews capital letters, that the title is merely the shorthand acronym for the band’s name, that it took 20 years to make, that it arrived at midnight or thereabouts with no fanfare and no warning, that it is just a record, that it sounds exactly like you might have imagined a My Bloody Valentine record made 18 months after Loveless might have sounded, down to the mastering levels. A warming, beguiling, soothing blanket of sound that will be instantly recognizable and comfortable to a generation of indie people who fell in love with (and to) Loveless on a cocktail of acid and MDMA under the dread auspices of an uncaring Tory government, or however they listened to it, and wherever, and whenever.

I’ve listened to mbv about four times so far. The first listen was whilst I made an omelette, while I ate that omelette, and while I washed-up the omelette pan. I deliberately approached it in as sacrilegious a way as possible, to try and demystify it, to free it from expectation and history. When I first got into My Bloody Valentine, in about 1996, they were already a long-gone proposition, and I never expected or imagined that they’d manage to follow Loveless with another record. I remember playing it at a party once, and being asked to put something else on. I remember convincing someone I met online to buy it, and having to assure them that no, the CD almost certainly wasn’t warped. I remember thinking that the chord changes sounded more like gear changes, that the whole thing seemed to ooze or swoon or stream rather than sound like ‘real’ music. I remember countering people who professed that ‘real’ music was something to aspire to by saying that ‘unreal’ music sounded far more interesting to me, and thinking that this was probably it. Unreal.

So I don’t know what mbv is or what I think of it yet. I’m still not entirely sure what Loveless or Isn’t Anything are. I’ve had half my lifetime to engage critically and emotionally with their previous work, and I just can’t parse mbv yet. I doubt anyone can. For what it’s worth, one song has an almost hip-hop-like drum loop, which invites head-nodding, and which doesn’t seem all that strange or out of place. The second song has that jet-engine-taking-off sound run through it a couple of times. There’s an elongated ambient-ish piece, which surely must use synthesizers. There are beats which sound like the things Kevin Shields described working on in 1996, drum’n’bass progeny layered with sheets of this guitar, so rich in texture and internal harmonics. You can barely hear the voices and you certainly can’t make out the words. It could have been recorded mere days or months after Loveless or it could have been recorded last year. We may never know. It doesn’t feel like what My Bloody Valentine do or are has changed much, if at all. But over 20 years ago they hit on something that a lot of people loved dearly; finding something different that people might love as much would be almost impossible, as would recreating exactly what happened back then too. So we have this, which is almost the same, almost different, and now we have to take the time to get to grips with it.

Wednesday’s listening

I listened to nothing this morning bar about two minutes of Loveless, chopped and screwed, to try and ascertain if the CDs were, indeed, mislabeled. At work I was in a different office to usual, and on my own for the morning. Sans headphones, which I hadn’t taken, I had no way to hear music other than through a laptops internal speaker. So I worked in musical silence.

Kitchens of Distinction – The Death of Cool
I had a doctor’s appointment at 2pm, so worked from home after that, which marked the first time I could properly put some music on today. I fired up the laptop and opened a web browser, and was greeted with Amazon open in the top tab, and a recommendation that I might want to buy Capsule, the best of Kitchens of Distinction. Rob had chosen Strange Free World at a recent record club meeting, and I must’ve looked them up at Amazon afterwards, hence the recommendation. Not having Capsule, I reached for The Death of Cool, which I could pretty much manage without leaving my chair. It was, as usual, terrific.

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything

Afterwards it made logical sense to carry on with strafing guitars and songs about sex, and crack out the new My Bloody Valentine remasters, especially after all the fuss about mislabeled discs and weird glitches in What You Want.

I stuck Loveless on first, the disc labeled as CD1 but which I strongly suspect is actually CD2, the new master from original ½ inch analogue tape. But who knows which version it really is?!

I still haven’t A-B tested it with the original CD, but might do at the weekend (Em’s working on Saturday so I’ll have time for that kind of indulgent geekery), but, playing it pretty loud, I definitely got what Shields described as “more physical, like you’re conscious that some people did this”, I felt like I took on more detail, like there was more of a spread of sound than I’m used to. I certainly air-drummed along with Colm in a way that’s not my typical response to Loveless, which I think of as being a balm, a head-trip, rather than a seismic experience.

I’m not a massive Loveless ‘stan’, like some people I know. I don’t remember where or when I bought it. I guess I must’ve been about 16 or 17. I always liked Only Shallow and Soon most, and the segues between tracks. I probably would say I love it (as much as one loves records), but, if forced at gunpoint to pick a top ten, I doubt it would quite figure in there. I find the way a lot of people talk about it can often become cloying; Taylor Parkes gets close to nailing it here for The Quietus. He veers close to getting overly flowery, but brings it back with sense – “Constant glare tires the ear” – and perspective. Loveless is great, but it’s not infallible. If I’m not in the mood for it, it can seem like pure and pointless obfuscation. But if I’m not in the mood for it, I simply don’t play it. And when I am in the mood for it, and I play it, especially from now on, what a rush…

Sometimes I want to say that Isn’t Anything is better than Loveless. It’s certainly more dynamic, more varied, more physical, more rhythmic. The opening three tracks are amazing: the bass runs in Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside); the irresistible tumescence of Cupid Come’s denouement. Feed Me With Your Kiss might be the most relentless, powerful, physically noisy thing they ever did (more so than You Made Me Realise, even).

I think really that I just want to shed some of the shade that Loveless casts over Isn’t Anything. It’s not that Isn’t Anything is better (though it is very, very good indeed); it’s that Loveless maybe isn’t quite the godhead that some have exulted it as. Hold them together.

Cornelius – Point
After that I decided to listen to Point by Cornelius, which I mentioned last night as an example of music made at a cultural remove from the source inspirations. I can’t remember how the conversation got there. Point doesn’t ‘move’ me in an overtly emotional sense like some music I love, doesn’t establish new aesthetic worlds like Loveless might do if you’re in the mood, but it is an incredibly well-crafted and pleasurable listen.



So the My Bloody Valentine remasters are finally in shops and CD players, after years of me doubting they’d ever exist.

Except that Sony, brilliant company that they are, have royally screwed it up by mislabelling the two CDs in the new Loveless package. If you don’t know and can’t be bothered to read the article behind that link, CD1 is meant to be pretty much the same as the original CD release from 1991, but louder (and therefore better – the increased loudness is achieved sans digital limiting, apparently), whilst CD2 is a new master from the original ½ inch analogue tapes, and meant to be more ‘physical’. You can read Kevin Shields himself talk to Pitchfork about the difference between the two, and why they took so long.

So far I’ve not really “listened” to the new versions of Loveless. I put the one labelled as CD2 on as soon as I got it, but I’d not played the original in ages, and I was distracted by various other things at the time. Which is to say that I have no idea if the discs are mislabelled, or if there is a “weird digital glitch” 2:46 into What You Want on the disc labelled as CD1 (i.e. the mislabelled ½ inch analogue master tape version).

So this morning I took five minutes before work and listened for the tell-tale signs that distinguish the two CDs (complete silence rather than a second of hiss before the drums start on Only Shallow, and a longer, more complete fade-out on Soon distinguish the ½ inch analogue tape master).

Sure enough, if that’s the best way to tell, then the CDs are mislabelled; which is incompetent and bad proofing / product management, but not disasterous – spread the word, correct the error on the next print-run, and you’re sorted.

The glitch 2:46 into What You Want is more of an issue though, and it’s definitely there (on the disc labelled as CD1, which is probably the ½ inch analogue tape master – are you keeping up?). It’s weird, though, not like regular clipping on a really ‘hot’ master, but more like a fault in the tape that’s just on Bilinda’s vocal track or something. In the P4K interview linked above, Shields mentions sacrificing one instant of one track to digital limiting for the sake of the whole album, but it seems that he’s talking about the straight remaster there, rather than the ½ inch analogue tape version. The glitch does sound digital, but then again this is Loveless; one person I convinced to buy it many years ago emailed me after listening to it for the first time to ask if it was likely the CD could be warped.

If Shields is as much of a perfectionist as he’s meant to be, as he talks about being in that P4k article, then it’s hard to fathom that this glitch could be an avoidable mistake, unless it is some monstrous cock-up by Sony. Which is entirely possible, and there’s a huge amount of “Emperor’s New Clothes”isms possible with subjective listening to minutely different masters of the same mixes of songs (I’m sure the very same master could be on both discs and some people would swear blind they can hear a difference), and Sony is a major record label and major record labels are as psychotic and sociopathic as any big business, but they’re not as dumb and incompetent as EMI. Are they?

Actually, thinking about it, there’s an errant and incorrect apostrophe on the EPs 1988-1991 sleeve spine. This whole project is in tatters.