My Bloody Valentine – review

Hammersmith Apollo, London

No one wears sparkly heels to an apocalypse. No one, that is, except Bilinda Butcher, guitarist, vocalist and – arguably – emotional anchor of My Bloody Valentine. For 20 years this has been a band more hymned-about than heard; now they are playing a set in support of m b v, an album – a kind of holy grail of art rock – that no one ever believed would materialise.

In celebration, Butcher visits her bit of aural Armageddon on MBV's borderline-masochistic listening public wearing a frock of classy teal and heels as high as champagne flutes. These glimmer, catching the light, as Butcher stamps daintily on an effects pedal (and then another, and then another). During You Made Me Realise and its infamous "holocaust" section – the slightly distasteful name for several minutes of feral distortion – you reflect fondly that a lot of this tactile din is being made by a 51-year-old mother of three who looks as though she might be going straight to a nice cocktail party afterwards.

This is just one reason to luxuriate in the pleasure of the Valentines' return to form. There are many more. Tonight this notoriously fickle band sound tremendous, which comes as a huge relief. Their lore – one uncommonly full of rumour and drama – is also studded with tales of sub-par gigs. After the teething troubles of a pre-tour warm-up in Brixton in January, and two dates in which fans griped about the mix, there is no faulting the quality of the stuff coming out of the speakers tonight. Doubters may despair of the weakness of Butcher and Kevin Shields's vocals, but they are supposed to be subsumed by the guitars. Those who value their hearing may roll their eyes at the "holocaust" section, an indie-rock rite-of-passage which, experienced without ear plugs, is a little like ordering the phal in a curry house. But the sound is great, and behaves almost like a living creature, one over which singing guitarist Shields, the most bloody-minded of the Valentines, has more control than usual.

Their set is forthcoming and disorienting by turns. Kicking off with a pair of mid-album tracks from 1991's Loveless, widely felt to be the band's masterpiece, you latch on to the seagull-on-ecstasy whoop of I Only Said, closely followed by the gliding guitar melody of When You Sleep. There's a palpable sweetness to these songs, often forgotten in all the fuss about the assault-level volumes. But their underlying thrum'n'wooze feels rearranged.

Disorientation remains a big part of Shields's modus operandi. There's a mysterious new keyboard player called Jen Macro. She appears for the new songs – New You (aka the one where Butcher coos "doot doot doos"), the closing Wonder 2 (in which linchpin drummer Colm O'Ciosoig comes out front to make guitar sounds like a pod of whales trapped in ice) and Only Tomorrow (aka the one with the blithe Shields guitar melody), where she also plays guitar. She may also be triggering drum patterns and loops; it's hard to tell. In the absence of interviews with Shields, hearsay flies, and the on dit about m b v – released on 2 February with little preamble – is that Shields played everything on it himself. He is not a man given to rehearsals, so it seems a valid guess that the remaining Valentines seem to have been learning the new songs as they go. It would have been fascinating to hear Nothing Is, the most rhythmically in-your-face moment of m b v. But that might have to wait another half-aeon.

My Bloody Valentine's reputation rightly rests on the unsteady wall of sound Shields has built since his once-fey 80s indie band mutated into one of the scourges of modern otolaryngology. This outing, however, reminds you that the rhythm section – Deb Goodge, their low-slung punk bassist, and the distinctive drummer O'Ciosoig – provide some of the most unique of MBV's selling points. And that Loveless is not this band's finest hour.

The songs from the era around Isn't Anything, MBV's 1988 debut album, carry the night. You Made Me Realise might be notorious for the way it makes your clothes capable of independent movement, but its urgency became somewhat diluted on later albums.

Feed Me With Your Kiss, meanwhile, is so much more than just the amuse-bouche before You Made Me Realise. That MBV are still capable of this much speed and passion belies their reputation as diffident and work-shy. It reminds you that O'Ciosoig can still hit like a beast; and that the Valentines, wreckers of ear drums gone awol, theorists of texture in absentia, were – and still are – of all things, quite sexy.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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