Back in 2008, just before going in to make my debut album for my band Hatcham Social, I went to a show with the artist & songwriter Tim Burgess, who would end up producing our record. This was the loudest show I had ever been to, and still is to this day. So loud in fact that I ended up holding my hands over my ears in the toilets as the sound crashed over us like a jet taking off in front of me (if my memory serves me right Tim was nowhere near as soft). Now I am not saying that loudness equals good, or even that it is that exciting a concept, but this was a magnifying moment to something I consider to be at the heart of My Bloody Valentine: a sonic physicality mixed with a playful rebellious nature. And this was an important moment for me in considering the physicality of what guitar music can be. And I think that this is what makes My Bloody Valentine such an important band. Many of us will no doubt have been to events with big sound systems where the bass vibrates through your body, this kind of articulation permeates into the MBV catalogue, especially later: you are consumed by the music, not you consuming the music.
Recently My Bloody Valentine signed to Domino (that really large indie label), who have subsequently released all of their back catalogue into the digital ecosphere, newly remastered and so on. As people do. This then seems a good time to re-evaluate and put some words down that may serve as a kind of introduction and for me a re-emergence into this hugely influential band. There may, after all, still be people who have not listened to the 1990 acid house induced Glider EP before.
My Bloody Valentine, originally from Dublin are formed of Bilinda Butcher, Kevin Shields, Deb Googe and Colm Ó Cíosóig and came to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Subsequently they held such an influence on guitar music, and other electronic genres, that they even had the accolade of a scene stemming from their sound, this scene became known as Shoegaze. My Bloody Valentine are known for fusing melody and guitars and are often spoken about as a kind of Beach Boys for the (post) rave generation. A sense of genius is often imbibed into discussions of their work heightened by the small number of albums they have released in such a long career, Alan McGee famously stated that the band almost destroyed Creation with their perfectionism. Although it might have just been that they enjoyed a five day weekend on pills and acid house.
One thing that My Bloody Valentine (or MBV as they are often referred to and we will use from now on) manage to do, and a reason they excited me so much when I first found them, is that they sound just like people in a room hitting strings and drums (like so many bands), but at the same time they also sound nothing like that, and they manage to sound like the future. To me they epitomise the best kind of ‘pop’ music artist: they do something that does not fit. They do the wrong things and they do them because to them it feels right, and that creates something incredible and worth sharing.
If you have not listened to them before, I think you would do well to dive in and see what they are about, you may find that some of your favourite artists have been deeply influenced by these records, or you may find inspiration from the the sonic experiments to expand your own vocabulary or just not do what everyone else is doing. I will introduce you to the three full length albums and the collection of rarities and EPs from earlier in their career which hold some of the most exciting finds.
Starting with the EP’s 1988-1991 and Rare Tracks (sic) collection which houses a selection of early Creation released EPs as well as some previously unreleased tracks . We see the transition from the ‘conceptual’ guitar band (as Kevin Shields called them himself) to something that starts to bring in the influences of the wider underground rave scene that was going on around them, in particular you see this happening with the Glider ep.
One of my favourite MBV releases, the You Made Me Realise EP from 1987 recorded at one of my favourite studios, Bark Studio, with Brian O’Shaughnessy (who also recorded Primal Scream’s Loaded, arranging all the horn parts by splicing 2” tape!), this is a great example of this earlier period. The drums are compressed and the vocals sound quite messy with sliding guitars and this heavy distorted bass that drives the whole thing. This distorted bass is heard on a lot of the early records. Here we also hear the stuttered drum machine-like rhythms that become a staple to the MBV sound. And finally you get that taste for the interaction of the male and female vocals drifting in and out of each other.
You can imagine Sonic Youth listening to this and going – “This is great, listen to what these Brits are up to!’
At this point I think you can hear they are sonically living in a world in some respects close to a band like The Jesus and Mary Chain, but whereas The Jesus and Mary Chain have a dark aggressive quality underlying whispering lyrical vocals, My Bloody Valentine are more dreamlike and obtuse, more fuzzy, and sometimes even ‘bouncy’.
I love this collection, you can really hear the progression of the band and the experimentation. Another favourite moment of mine is the Glider EP from 1990. Starting off with a rave music baggy beat and coming in at nearly 7 minutes long the first song sounds like an underground hit for an acid house scene. I love how the instrumental drums are buried in the mix, the whole track more like a wall of repeated growing guitar tones, like a minimalist composition growing and growling along. The final song on this EP, the aptly named ‘Off Your Face’ is a good example of a strong female voice mirroring back and forth with the guitar.
There are other tracks than what I have mentioned, including new unreleased songs, but those represent two great starting points. You would do well to listen to the instrumentals, ‘Thorn’, and ‘Cigarette In Your Bed’. I am always a fan of hearing the sketches and the sounds of bands without the sheen of the polished studio album, and this selection of rarities and EPs gives you a glimpse into a band experimenting and having fun as they find who they are but also change into new versions of themselves.
The first full length album Isn’t Anything, released in 1988 on Alan Mcgee’s Creation Records is a bigger sound, more open, and the vocals have grown less Velvets. This album sounds a little fragmented in places, with some songs sounding quite thin while others have a robust quality, and the bass has lost the overt distortion, now overlaid across sonic cut ups. We find vocals start of very clear and tight against the drum machine like drum beats and interlinked bass and drum riffs which keep the structure as the guitars make noises behind.
The first song ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’ is one of the best MBV recordings and should be on your ‘must listen’ list. If you don’t start at the beginning I would recommend ‘No More Sorry’, which is a lovely soundscape with female vocals. And ‘All I Need’ with its waves of guitars interplaying with the heartbeat of drums. On this album you find a form of art-rock sound opening up in tracks like ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’, which temper the experimentation and innovation with a more conservative rockyness in the sound to create an almost anthemic band song. The album develops the use of the ‘ooh’ vocals with woozy guitars and this is where you really start to hear that psychedelic Beach Boys reference make sense.
Isn’t Anything is a band making a first record, it is not as complete as later albums, but does have some of the best moments of their career such as the afforemened ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’ and ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’, and they start to close in on some of their most interesting sonic strategies which we see develop in later work.
When you begin listening to the second long player, loveless, you are transported to a more complete world of auditory architecture. Where Isn’t Anything hovers between art-rock and drum-machine stutters, loveless swoops in with a developed three dimensional soundscape . Released in 1991, again on Creation Records (Sire in USA), loveless holds you in that moment of fluctuating time, between the highs of ecstasy and the lows of the morning after come down, this is that woozy half-dreamworld of the twilight hours.
Opening with patterns of notes cascading across whale sounding guitars, like the rave that forgot its drum machine. Then falling into ‘When You Sleep’ moving into territory that nods more to Teenage Fanclub than A Guy Called Gerald, but still retaining that particular loveless slipperiness. With its reversed guitar and baggy beat,you can hear the influence of tracks like ‘Soon’, on early Blur or more recently albums by bands like the Horrors. Loveless sounds like a band that have found a real space of their own, mining a rich sonic world that incorporates soft vocals, overcompressed machine like drum rhythms, and glide guitars into a euphoric beast.
Listen to ‘Touched’ to hear how the beat is swallowed by Kevins signature guitars but retains this momentum through the overlapping elements and arpeggiator. And it ends on the absolute beautiful acid house inspired ‘Soon’. Which roots it solidly in its time while also showing that when done right something from a period can be timeless.
It is fair to say that there was quite a gap between the release of loveless in 1991, and the album titled mbv which arrived in 2013 (did we mention they are known to be perfectionists?), an album altogether warmer and more organic in nature.
Opening with ‘She Found Now’ we find ourselves in familiar dreamy territory but this time the guitars sound more comfortable being guitars and the overall mood is warm and confident. We have the return of fuzz bass on ‘Only Tomorrow’ which builds gently, and then falls into ‘Who Sees You’ with slap delay on drums. This album starts to feel like you almost want to dance to them but that perhaps you have ingested too much ketamine to really actually dance.
A stand out track is the restrained ‘Is This And Yes’, which is a great example of the kind of minimalism that they are so good at and that permeate this record. A kind of dense layered minimalism perhaps. Towards the end we find the album shows rhythmic textures reminiscent of Roni Size or Chemical Brothers as they continue to experiment with how they use dance influenced beats in guitar songs.
There are many very talented artists in any genre or form, and they learn the systems and develop and create incredibly complex and wonderful iterations of that artform, but what is interesting about a project like MBV is they do something different. They manage to just miss the parameters, or they are uncomfortable in them, and so they end up at their best when stepping outside the form creating something actually unique and new. Yes, all the influences exist, but sometimes people just dont think in the same way and this creates something very important. You will find slicker, more polished versions of some of these ideas now, but that is something different.
I find that with MBV the words fall in and out of hearing, and are often lost in the whole, as such the taste you get from the titles can be the most important concrete offering I can share with you. For sure this obscurity is part of the charm, images flowing in and out like the male/female voices themselves.
As I said earlier, at the beginning of the article, I consider MBV quite particular in their ability to articulate a kind of futurity and physicality in guitar music, a hazy physicality that is situated perhaps in a dimension just off to the side of where we are sitting right now. Whether that is of any importance is not for me to say, or whether that realm can offer any kind of truth about reality for you is perhaps a metaphysical problem I am not able to answer.
Article by Toby Kidd
Photograph by Paul Ryder