My Bloody Valentine: m b v – review

Kevin Shields breaks some new ground with his band's first album since 1991. But some things never change

In one sense, the arrival of My Bloody Valentine's m b v was – to use a word no one had heard of the last time the quartet released an album – an omnishambles. A follow-up to 1991's Loveless was supposed to appear at the end of last year; instead, nothing happened bar an announcement that the album was complete. Nine days ago, in response to a fan's shouted query at a gig, Kevin Shields muttered noncommittally that it "might be out in two or three days".

By the end of last week, with a website called still displaying nothing but the word NO, the mood among even the band's diehard fans had turned distinctly sour. On the band's Facebook page, people were talking angrily about not buying the album even if it did come out. One posted a photograph of Shields with the words DON'T BELIEVE HIS LIES written across it. An aggrieved Chilean called him "terrible", adding something in Spanish that when translated, alas, proved to be enormously derogatory about Shields's mother.

Then, when the album finally did appear to download, just before midnight on Saturday, the band's redesigned website immediately and repeatedly crashed, or refused to accept payment, causing an enterprising person in Indiana to try to involve the US president himself. "The My Bloody Valentine website isn't working and there's a new record on it," read a petition filed on the White House website. "We the people hereby petition the Obama administration to make it work again."

In another sense, however, this was just a very My Bloody Valentine kind of album launch. For one thing, it isn't really a My Bloody Valentine album unless someone has been driven to the brink of insanity by Shields's whimsical attitude to deadlines.

Last time, it was Alan McGee, boss of their former record label, Creation, who was reduced to ringing Shields in tears to ask when Loveless would be finished. This time, Shields appeared to have done the same thing to what may be the most patient and optimistic fanbase in history.

For another, My Bloody Valentine have always moved in ways that weren't so much mysterious as inexplicable. If it's hard to account for the sheer length of time m b v has apparently taken to complete, then it was equally hard to account for the band's transformation from middling indie artists to arguably the most original and influential guitar band of their era, which seemed to happen overnight in 1988 with You Made Me Realise, a single that bore virtually no relation to anything they had previously released.

There are YouTube videos and websites devoted to trying to work out how Shields achieved the sounds he did on My Bloody Valentine's records. But if they had succeeded in their aim, someone else would sound like My Bloody Valentine. And, despite the plethora of artists audibly influenced by them, no one does.

That much is underlined by m b v. At least half the album is in a style roughly similar to Loveless: vocals half-buried beneath a mesh of guitars and samples so dense as to be unfathomable. Some of the sounds feel familiar, not least the woozy effect achieved by strumming the guitar while holding on to the tremolo arm so the notes sway unsteadily in and out of tune. Its constant presence is one of the reasons even a song as luscious, lethargically paced and replete with softly cooing vocals as She Found Now never feels relaxing or cosseting: it has a sickly, disconcerting quality, like a kind of aural equivalent of the way you feel just before you faint.

Others are so hard to describe it's as if Shields is intent on adding critics to the ever-expanding list of people he has driven to tearful despair. Midway through if i am, something briefly starts mirroring Bilinda Butcher's vocal before vanishing entirely. It's an echoing noise somewhere between a drop of water, the "purr" sound on an Apple Mac and the ping of a sonar radar. Quite what it is or why it's there remains a mystery, but the effect is oddly unsettling. It left at least one critic hitting rewind to check he hadn't imagined it.

Some people would claim another album that sounds like Loveless would be an achievement in itself: after all, no one else has managed it and it's not for want of trying. But it's not really the whole story of m b v. Some of the shifts between the two albums are subtle, and have less to do with the sound than with Shields's songwriting, a facet of My Bloody Valentine that understandably tends to get overlooked in the rush to talk about his unique abilities as a producer or the punishing volume at which the band play live. Indeed, there are moments in the past when Shields may have overlooked it himself: if you wanted to criticise Loveless, you could suggest that the songs were perhaps a little less interesting and a little more formulaic than those on its predecessor, 1988's Isn't Anything.

The songs on m b v, however, are more melodically complex, intriguing and often pleasing than anything he has written before. The tunes and chord progressions keep slipping their moorings and heading down unexpected paths. There's occasionally something oddly jazzy about m b v, as evidenced by the shifting time signature of Only Tomorrow, which leaves the song sounding as if gasping for breath; and the song Is This and Yes boldly strips away all Shields's trademark sonic mayhem, leaving behind only Butcher's voice and an organ playing a strange and gorgeous chord sequence.

It's not m b v's only unexpected moment. In their heyday, My Bloody Valentine's releases almost invariably carried a hint of WTF? as if with each one Shields was trying to emphasise the distance between him and his imitators by heading into uncharted territory. It reached a kind of pinnacle with Loveless, which effectively killed the MBV-inspired shoegazing movement dead: it was as if, on hearing it, all the bands involved just shruggingly gave up the chase and either vanished or tried something different.

There's something of that about m b v's final three tracks, all three of which are unlike anything My Bloody Valentine have released before. Set to a distorted breakbeat, the sound constantly shifts and changes: it's simultaneously hugely disorientating and hugely exciting. The instrumental nothing is offers a frantic, hypnotic loop of guitars and drums.

The closing Wonder 2, meanwhile, is flatly astonishing. Most attempts to meld drum'n'bass with rock are almost unimaginably awful: ungainly, clodhopping attempts to squeeze guitars somewhere amid the genre's rhythmic clutter. But Wonder 2 sounds incredible, like the sonic counterpart of a dust storm, with Shields's vocal – another beautiful melody – drifting pacifically through it. It instils a kind of pleasurably baffled awe: how did someone arrive at the conclusion that a song should sound like this? Then again, as was established long ago, with My Bloody Valentine, inexplicability is very much part of the deal.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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