Album Review: My Bloody Valentine - mbv

It’s real. After teasing fans on and off for the better part of 22 or so years, guitarist/vocalist Kevin Shields has delivered the third full-length My Bloody Valentine album, m b v. (Take a deep breath.) Since its release on Saturday night (which resulted in the cancellation of the evening plans of every music journalist and shoegaze fan in the world), m b v has been the headline on every music outlet worth its salt, and for good reason. Aside from being the indie rock Chinese Democracy for some years now, m b v is the sequel to Loveless, an album so influential and beloved that Shields himself couldn’t figure out how to follow up. From 1992-1996, the band recorded some amount of music (between one album and 60 hours’ worth, depending on who’s telling the story), scrapped it, and went their separate ways. Drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig joined Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions, bassist Debbie Googe formed Snowpony and drove a taxi, vocalist/guitarist Bilinda Butcher had a family, and Shields sporadically contributed to other artists work (notably Primal Scream and Brian Reitzell’s Lost in Translation soundtrack) until, suddenly, he announced in late 2007 that the band was reforming and finishing a “3/4ths” done album they began in 1996. They toured thoroughly throughout 2008 and 2009, but Shields continued to string the press along with the prospect of a new MBV album. However, in late 2012, the release window for the third MBV LP became clearer: the band said they finished mastering in December 2012, and a week ago, Shields told a fan at a show that the new album would be out “in maybe two or three days”. He was off by a few days, but m b v triumphantly arrived on February 3, 2013.

Housing nine songs that clock in right over 46 minutes, the most striking thing about m b v is that it’s immediately recognizable as the work of Kevin Shields. Loveless‘ influence grew far and wide during MBV’s 12-year hiatus, and for all the artists who’ve embraced the textures and aesthetics of the shoegaze pioneers, no one has come close to capturing such an ethereal dissonance like Shields did in 1991, so it’s only appropriate that m b v opens not with a bang, but with a whisper. “she found now”, the opening track on m b v, is comprised of a thick wall of guitars and a breathy Shields/Butcher vocal performance that rings with the same magnetic echo that makes “To Here Knows When” and “Sometimes” so narcotically entrancing. “she found now’s” modest entrance is a red herring, though, and the first sign that Shields’ decades-long contemplation about how to follow up Loveless produced some actual results rather than just a herd of chinchillas. The following two songs, “only tomorrow” and “who sees you” are also quintessentially My Bloody Valentine songs on the surface, but their nuances - which will undoubtedly be dissected for weeks to come - reveal Shield’s goals for m b v. He hasn’t ditched guitars for drum machines (as some fans feared when a journalist claimed Shields had recorded material that was heavily influenced by jungle music in 1996), and he still has the ability to meld massive, gliding waves of barely-recognizable guitar noise into gracefully dissonant songs, so why fix what isn’t broken? Although not glaringly different than what the band presented on Loveless, there’s a certain elegance to the album’s first third; Shields’ decision to reintroduce the band with a trio of songs that proudly display his sonic fingerprints is a savvy one. Not only is he holding all of the big surprises for those who choose to stick around until the end of the record, but he’s reminding them why so many people have fallen love with Loveless across the years.

If the first three songs are the band’s subtly monumental return, the record’s middle-third is the calm before the storm - unsettlingly quiet, but ultimately just as powerful. “is this and yes”, the first track of this section features two instantly noticeable sonic shifts that are a contrast not only from the preceding songs, but also MBV’s “classic” 1988-1991 catalog as well: 1) a droning, nebulous keyboard line (which, not being a guitar, is a surprising instrument to hear so prominently on a My Bloody Valentine record) and 2) Butcher’s voice is the least processed and obscured that it’s been on any track since 1987′s “Strawberry Wine“. Along with the gentle, dream-like “if i am” and the surprising accessible, conventionally-structured “new you”, “is this and yes” is the first MBV track that may - and I wouldn’t test this - be bearable in a live setting without earplugs. That’s not to say these tracks aren’t as powerful as the band’s more riotous songs, but this gentler, gauzier approach is one that the band hasn’t used since their criminally overshadowed debut, Isn’t Anything.

However, before the listener can lose themselves “in another way’s” drum ‘n’ bass influenced beat and siren-like guitar ignite the record’s final stretch with a roar. It’s a sudden change of pace, and although it elevates the record’s distorted anticipation to a new high, it’s the one-two punch finale of “nothing is” and “wonder 2″ that complete the album’s gradual, well-paced ascent into shoegaze Nirvana. After five seconds of silence, “nothing is” jarringly begins, starting a three minute loop of distorted jungle-influenced drums and guitars that slowly increases in intensity and volume until it fades out to the wind-tunnel hurricane of “wonder 2″. As frenetic and caustic of a closer as Loveless’ “Soon” is insistent and pulsating, “wonder 2″ is an amalgamation of some of the most vigorous elements in the band’s catalog - Ó Cíosóig’s crashing percussion on “What You Want”, Butcher and Shields’ twin crushing guitars on “Only Shallow”, the so-called “holocaust section” of “You Made Me Realise” - into six furious minutes of melodic cacophony. It’s a perfect ending to an album that builds in tension as it unfolds its layers slowly, and if they ever get tired of closing shows with the indescribable monolith that is “You Made Me Realise”, “wonder 2″ would handily fill that slot. While it’s not too surprising that a MBV album closes with a song that sounds like a whale crying into a reverb-drenched subway tunnel, it’s a perfect way for Shields to show that, for all of the album’s time spend in development hell, he knows what elements of his signature sound to not mess with, and that m b v is truly the singular work of the Irish visionary who disappeared into his own myth in 1992.

The artwork for m b v looks like it could’ve come straight out of 1994, and in a lot of ways, m b v sounds like it could have too. Butcher’s breathy coo, Colm Ó Cíosóig’s clattering snare, and Shields’”how the hell does he do that?” guitar tone - the core elements of My Bloody Valentine’s sound - are all still here, but those tools are used in ways that the band hadn’t previously explored. The elements of m b v that do feel familiar - the dance-influenced rhythms near the end of the record, the tenacious one-chord onslaughts - are only recognizable because they’re ideas that the quartet have previously executed to one degree or another with a different approach to the one used here. At its core, the cool, blue burn of m b v isn’t a massive shift from Loveless‘ hot pink sear, but it doesn’t sound like Shields is trying to steer too far from the sonic template that Loveless put into place 22 years ago. He’s playing to his strengths, and by doing so, not only has he eschewed any attempt to top Loveless - because, frankly, that was never going to happen - but he’s also constructed another incredibly rich and textured My Bloody Valentine album, which, in the end, is all anyone could really ask for after 22 years of waiting.

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2 Comments

  1. Edward Rose
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    although it is still undeniably a My Bloody Valentine album, I think it’s a huge departure from Loveless.

    My personal theory is that Kevin somehow discovered time travel while experimenting with guitar sounds at some point in the last 22 years, went 1000 years into a future built entirely from chrome and recorded this album there (while intermittently returning to the present to make oblique statements and play the odd gig to avoid rousing suspicion). Incredible

  2. Alan Koslowski
    Posted February 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I think this review is pretty accurate, if maybe a bit doting. mbv sounds very much as expect from a middle-aged MBV: The template is similar to Loveless, but it’s generally mellower and subdued (though the last couple tracks considerably more intense and chaotic). It’s also beautifully repetitive in much the same way Loveless was.

    Ultimately, mbv is probably what most of us expected from them after 20 year absence: a well crafted, satisfying album with few surprises, but no disappointments either.

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