My Bloody Valentine review – apocalyptic aural dust storms like nothing else in rock

02 Institute, Birmingham
This warm-up gig starts rustily, but soon sounds incredible. And there’s genuine mystery in how the band make their enthralling, bizarre music

Kevin Shields feels obliged to inform the audience that it’s five years since My Bloody Valentine last played live. At least, that seems to be what he says: it’s hard to tell. As ever at a My Bloody Valentine gig, the vocal mics are turned down, rendering every noise that comes out of Shields’ or co-vocalist Bilinda Butcher’s mouths a murmur so indistinct that at least one aggrieved punter yells out in protest, expressing the belief that they’re not turned on at all. And as ever at a My Bloody Valentine gig, your ears are either insulated by the foam plugs handed out as you arrive, or reeling from the after-effects of the last song. If it doesn’t sound as loud as the band’s comeback gig at London’s Roundhouse in 2008, it’s still conducted at such a volume that every time Shields or Butcher strums their guitar, your clothes shake, as if caught by a gust of wind.

The five years that separate this show from their last constitute a mere long weekend off by the standards of a band who once left a 22-year-gap between albums, but a rustiness is still evident at this warm-up gig. Songs fall apart, shuddering to a halt, then start again. Handily for anyone who buys into the idea of Kevin Shields as alt-rock’s mad scientist, for ever locked in an endless sonic quest no one else fully understands, he spends the gig behaving like a man locked in an endless sonic quest no one else understands – constantly changing guitars and fiddling with his amplifier and myriad pedals and effects. Shaking his head, he puts his ear against a Marshall stack at the rear of the stage as he plays, which, given the volume, is hard to watch without involuntarily wincing and sucking air through your teeth.

Winningly, his fiddling continues during the famous instrumental section in closer You Made Me Realise, 10 minutes of beatless, obliterating noise that, with earplugs in, sounds like a protracted roll of thunder and with earplugs out sounds like the end of the world. You look at him and think: what the hell are you doing? Fine tuning this?

Watch the video for My Bloody Valentine: You Made Me Realise

For all the mistakes, when My Bloody Valentine click into gear, they sound incredible. Talk of Shields’s perfectionist genius and the mystifying washes of sound that resulted from it tends to obscure that My Bloody Valentine are a band, rather than a solo project, a fact that’s underlined live. Both drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig and bassist Debbie Googe are remarkably distinctive musicians, the former rattling out fidgety snare rolls that sound both propulsive and on the brink of collapse, the latter lunging and clawing at her guitar.

It’s 30 years since some of this music was released: umpteen bands have copied it, genres – shoegaze, chillwave – have formed in its wake, and yet listening to the tumultuous heave of sound that stands in for a hook on Nothing Much to Lose, you’re struck by the sense that virtually nothing of what My Bloody Valentine inspired sounds remotely like them. Perhaps that’s because there’s something genuinely mysterious about the music they make. Examining the stage during To Here Knows When, as arcs of guitar noise consume Butcher’s voice, you realise only Shields is playing: how is he doing that? During Wonder 2, all four band members play guitars, summoning up a kind of aural dust-storm that drowns out the rhythm track entirely. It’s both enthralling and an utterly bizarre, inexplicable way for rock music to sound: it’s also like absolutely nothing else.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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