Is Anything - Impressions of My Bloody Valentine's 'm b v'
Posted on Sunday, 3 February 2013 | No Comments
So "maybe 2-3 days" was slightly over-optimistic. Does it matter? After twenty-two years of rumours, suggestions and promises, twenty-two years of waiting for My Bloody Valentine's next step after Loveless, it's finally here. The mythical third album, started in the mid-nineties when the band signed with Island Records but abandoned after several years, only to be revived following the band's reformation for touring in 2008-9 when Kevin Shields realised the potential of some of the material from that period - the third album's actually here. For real.
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the music, a few points of interest to raise. As already noted, this new album isn't entirely new per-se. This is, from the few interviews Kevin Shields gave prior to its surprise release in the early hours of Sunday morning (once the website started working, anyway), all material that has been re-recorded and completed recently, but all has its roots and origins from what would have been their debut for Island if all had gone to plan two decades ago. Bearing this in mind, it's interesting to note the effect the time-lapse has on the music: when in comes to the album's back half especially, the sound is both strikingly original in its execution and yet, due to it drawing from then-contemporary sources, somewhat dated also. Talking to the NME last year, he claimed "I feel like it really frees us up, and in the bigger picture it’s 100 per cent necessary." Essentially, this is the material they had to complete, the follow-up they had to deliver before they could ever move forward, so they could become a real band again. If nothing else, since they're finally spending their spring and summer touring a new album, mission accomplished on that front.
Of course though, if what had finally been uploaded to their website had been a last-minute rush-job to get the fans off their back and help shift any remaining tickets for their upcoming dates, the backlash would have been immediate and unforgiving. And given the many stories of the hellish three year production of Loveless, Kevin Shields's reputation for perfectionism and studio revision, and the unprecedented delay in new material, it's safe to say a perfunctory, ah-that'll-do record was always an unlikely prospect. (Although that said: twenty two years, and the best title you could come up with was your band's initials spaced out?) This record is the final holy grail now that SMiLE and Chinese Democracy are available, the last great 'what if?' of the twentieth century. Like both those records, it's the work of one artist attempting to pursue a singular vision who found themselves becoming unstuck in the process (if 'artist' isn't too grand a word for the tosser behind this nonsense), a potentially revolutionary work that disintegrated underneath its ambition and hubris. Yet at least there were excerpts and tracks from both those records available in the meantime. Until one track emerged at a live concert in Brixton a week earlier, My Bloody Valentine's leigions of fans had nothing to go on.
Getting over the shock that it's out there, available for all to purchase, and sat on your computer just waiting for you to press play then in something of a shocker. Perhaps that's why, compared to the mighty percussive blasts that opened the first two full-lengths - the loud, percussive, lusty Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside) from Isn't Anything and the still heart-stopping force of Only Shallow - m b v introduces itself to the astonished listener with unpredicted subtlety and restraint. Sure, the guitars are distorted and produced unlike any other act out there, but She Found Now is a slow, layered ballad closest in arrangement and mood to the Loveless ballad Sometimes than anything else in their previous work. The song itself, in the context of the album, does set the tone for the more intricate and labyrinthine structures employed on this material, but for a band who in recent years have, thanks to the deafening 'holocaust' that ends their live sets (here's a full version from the gig I attended at the Manchester Apollo in 2008 as evidence - and trust me, this recording barely hints at the brute power of it), becoming more renowned for deafening crowds than for any hint of delicacy, it's a surprising and contrarian choice that deconstructs expectations deftly from the outset.
After that, it's business as a-lot-closer-to-expected. There's two beautiful, floating tracks following straight on that come on like fuller imaginings of the more sophisticated, '60s indebted style previewed on the solo Kevin Shields contributions to the Lost in Translation OST. Only Tomorrow sees Billinda Butcher's enchanting coo return on a track that feels like the perfect come-down after Loveless closer Soon, the nocturnal quality that's always been present in their sound brought right to the fore. It's a song that, like much of the album, cuts down on the density of their previous recordings, allowing those stunning guitar parts (and Colm O'Ciosoig's inventive drumming, thankfully driving many of the tracks on m b v) far more room to breathe than before. As with the following track Who Sees You, there's a lightness here that's new to the band and a complexity and classical quality to the chord changes and guitar outros that makes the first third of the album incredibly, surprisingly inviting.
It's evolution as opposed to revolution in the album's middle as well, with two more Billinda-led tracks that take the established MBV sound and layer it onto compositions of a greater maturity and sophistication and before. Many commentators have already noted that If I Am has a certain John Barry quality to it, and the soft organ sounds and wah-wah guitar -yes, Kevin finally bought the one pedal he didn't already have - that fill the background of the track add to this layer of nostalgic refinement. Forget all the chinchilla rumours, maybe Kevin actually spent most of the nineties sat around in a velvet smoking jacket learning how to mix cocktails properly. Then we get to the song that was our first taste of the album when rough live recordings circulated last week, known first as Rough Song but now titled New Me. It's by far the most immediate and poppy track on the album, and quite possibly the most immediate thing they've ever done. Featuring some punchy synth bass and a floating keyboard hook with more than a hint of Boards of Canada to it (one of the times on the album where Kevin perhaps tips the hat to the acts who took the legacy of Loveless and placed their own spin on its innovations and aesthetic), it ups the tempo from the otherwise languorous pace of the album so far, and it's a brilliant piece of craft. Again though, it reinforces the idea that for the first two thirds, m b v is set on piloting the band back down to earth after the extra-terrestrial territory of the Tremelo EP. Maybe there was just nothing left to explore, no new ground to conquer. Instead, it's just time to settle back and enjoy some great songs, the feedback and fury of My Bloody Valentine past subdued into a hazy, twilight glow.
Just as well then that Kevin made sure to keep a few curveballs back to show that there's still new ground for My Bloody Valentine to explore. Breaking up the easy sway of the album's first half is the surprising, keyboard driven drone of Is This and Yes. While keeping with the mood of stillness and contemplation the album works towards at this moment, it features possible the most counter-intuitive yet utterly right arrangement choice of any My Bloody Valentine song to date: that's right, it's an MBV track almost entirely lacking in guitar. Starting off like an escapee from a mid-period Stereolab album, the track steadfastly refuses to add any distortion or clutter to the mix. Instead, there's a slowly evolving synth part which really brings out the Beach Boys references Kevin Shields had suggested at (think the extended mix of 'Til I Die specifically) whilst still sounding utterly right within the context of the album. Bold through its restraint, it demonstrates just why the My Bloody Valentine sound has always eluded genuine imitation: it's not just the loud guitars, but it's the fragile heart of the songs themselves that are always so unique.
And then, there's the last three tracks. Thought that maybe Kevin had been a bit complacent up until now? Well, any such doubt gets blown clear away just seconds into the remarkable In Another Way. A frantic guitar squall that sounds alarmingly like bagpipes cuts out as Colm O'Ciosoig comes in with a rampaging rave beat and a cavern of distorted guitars and moaning synths bursts through. Late into the day, My Bloody Valentine as rock band rears its ferocious head, roaring through a twisting arrangement that finally, finally, takes the Loveless sound and pushes it somewhere distinctly foreign. For this writer, it's one of the album's two great masterstrokes, and already stands tall as one of the finest achievements the band have ever achieved. If they can get this one worked into the live set for the UK dates in March, jaws are going to be hitting floors.
From then on, it's a race to the finish line. Nothing Is ramps up the tempo even further, its rockabilly-gone-wrong riff and shamanic drum beat leading out into three-minutes of crazed repetition and tension, standing out as one of the most explosive and violent recordings ever released by the band. As for the finale...well, Kevin Shields really has saved up the biggest surprise for last. Rumours had swirled in the nineties of a new drum-and-bass influenced direction, of unreleased songs powered by unrelenting and unfathomable beats, and in this closing track, all such gossip is confirmed and then some. Wonder 2 is, without any shadow of a doubt, the most far-out and experimental My Bloody Valentine song of all time. There's those remarkable airplane guitars in the back ground, the first time the force of the live You Made Me Realise experience has ever found its way onto record. Synths and guitars blend into one for a riff that's equal parts Brian Wilson and early Warp Records, while motoring away out of control throughout is a blitzkrieg drum machine pattern that spins around the central melodic rhythm. In fact, the Kevin Shields vocal line is the only thing that really sounds anything like My Bloody Valentine on here. Distraction Records made the observation that the track sounds like Swervedriver, Autechre and a Boeing 747 all colliding on the same track - even this doesn't quite sum up what's going on here. It may be two decades late, but the future is finally here.
So what to make of m b v as a whole? As shockingly and thrillingly new as the final third of the record is, as a whole it's not a statement as definitive or inventive as Loveless was. But to expect any record from the same artist, let alone one with such a lengthy gestation, to redefine the possibilities of guitar music anew is a exceptionally tall order. While the transition from peaceful slumber to fast, dizzying experimentation over the album's running time makes for a compelling narrative of the sleeping beast of shoegaze finally awaking from its lengthy slumber, the final third of the album does still come from a very different mindset and soundscape from what precedes it.
Why m b v is ultimately a success however is because of how superbly conceived and executed every second of it is. Within the album, the Loveless sound gets pushed to the limits of both edges - She Found Now and Is This and Yes strip away and engage directly with the heart, while In Another Way and Wonder 2 find new areas of abstraction and force and offer something genuinely new to guitar music. And between those two extremes are five of the best written, most superbly produced, and above all absorbing indie songs to come out since My Bloody Valentine first downed tools back in the mid-nineties. The singular emotional pull of the band at the finest - undefined, vague, yet with a moving yearning and passion - has been retained and magnified. From the grandiose reach of its illustrious predecessor, m b v takes stock and makes the most of some more earthly pleasures, just before finding somewhere new on the map entirely. It is, quite simply, a triumph: a personal one for Kevin Shields and the rest of the band for finally being released, certainly, but a vindication for Kevin's remarkable musical gifts and for his long-suffering fanbase. The emperor was wearing clothes all along, the wizard behind the screen was for real. Their earlier successes were no fluke, no accident or quirk of fate, but the hard-won victories of a true talent. And with this album, they're back to full duties once more. If and where they go from here is anybody's guess, but My Bloody Valentine are now back in the game, and as brilliant as ever. No fan could have hoped for anything better than this.