And Then Transcendence: My Bloody Valentine’s Sensory Assault
Despite how much I’ve gushed on these pages about musicians, recordings and films that I love, you might have noticed nonetheless that I’m not one to resort to using hyperbole. Maybe it’s my Southern upbringing. Maybe it’s a result of my ardent Anglophilia. Whatever the case might be, I’m going to shed the reserved personality so that I can write honestly about the sensory assault that was the most awe-inspiring concert I’ve ever attended: the Chicago performance by My Bloody Valentine at the Aragon Ballroom last night.
In the time since the concert was announced, I have probably bored too many people with the tale of why I missed them the last time they toured—back in 1992. In brief, my friend Wyatt had a friend named Chris who worked in the New York offices of 4AD records. Early that summer, Chris managed to funnel some passes to Wyatt and me for that year’s edition of the New Music Seminar, an extravaganza that featured panel discussions and presentations during the day and simultaneous concerts at multiple venues each night from June 15 to June 21. Wyatt and I met at Academy (where I saw the Sundays the following year and where Def Comedy Jam was taped) to see Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Michael Franti’s band before Spearhead. When they were done with their bracing set, Wyatt announced that he was heading uptown to catch My Bloody Valentine (MBV) at the Ritz. I declined, choosing to stay to hear Live, a then new band my friend Douglas had gotten me hooked on. I loved Live (and bought their debut album that weekend), but I couldn’t believe my ears when Wyatt told me what he’d heard. More on that momentarily.
While MBV has released only two full-length albums and a handful of EPs, they are legendary to many rock fans and critics. In a few short years, they went from being a scrappy indie band to being musical visionaries. Their signature sound started to coalesce after the early EPs (Ecstasy and Strawberry Wine), especially—at least to me—on 1988’s Isn’t Anything. Its included songs navigate broad sonic and textural territory. If played in a blind test for listeners with no knowledge of the band, songs like “Feed Me with Your Kiss” and “Lose My Breath” might cause the respondents to say they were hearing two distinct groups. Where the former track is overdriven and relentless, the latter is gossamer, tender, beautiful. And on the rest of the album, they do something miraculous in exploring the range of possibilities between those two poles in a way that nonetheless seems satisfying and whole. As remarkable as that achievement is, greater things were on the horizon.
While a number of rumors and fanciful tales have circulated about the recording of the group’s magnum opus, Loveless, I won’t rehearse them here. I’ll simply say that the album is the most sonically inventive thing I have ever heard. Ever. A few days after the 1992 show, Wyatt offered to lend me the disc, and I slowly came to love the CD—initially, I wasn’t alive to all of its implications. But there was a way in for me: the album closer “Soon.” It features some fierce drumming over a loop by Colm O’Ciosig and churning guitar parts by Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher. The song deserves a dissection and reassembly that I sadly can’t do now. Suffice it to say, nearly 17 years later, I’m still discovering more things in it to love. It was the gateway, the item that led me to give the rest of the disc a shot. And I slowly started to get it: this group was revolutionary. Where previous Western-style songwriters and performers had experimented with form, tonality and rhythm, MBV were building on the rock-era practice of exploring the power of timbre and timbral variation. And also volume.
And here’s where we get to last night’s sold-out show, one of only a few stops in the US. I knew it was going to be loud both because of press accounts (like this one) and because of the people distributing earplugs to everyone who entered the venue. My friend Jenny and I brought our own (and I highly recommend the ones I use, made by Etymōtic, if, say, you ever go to see MBV or Mogwai.) MBV entered around 9:15 p.m. to thundering applause and opened their set with “I Only Said” from Loveless. Even though Jenny and I were seated on the second level a few rows back, we still felt the shock wave of the opening chord as much as we heard it. It was clear the night was going to be a sensory assault of sounds, light and smoke. (Jenny quipped right after the show ended that the strobe lights alone probably caused someone to have a seizure; I told her that I had thought at the beginning that anyone who was tripping was in serious trouble.) And the band itself presented visual contrasts: as O’Ciosig bashed his drums and similarly animated bassist Debbie Googe occupied center stage, Butcher and Shields stood almost motionless (save for constant strumming) on the extreme edges of the stage.
The second song was, if I recall correctly, “Only Shallow,” the explosive track that opens Loveless, and by the time things were done—around 10:45 p.m.—they had played at least six other tracks from the album. They also drew heavily from Isn’t Anything, including the two tracks mentioned above as well as one of my favorites: “Nothing Much to Lose.” They rarely slowed their pace and said almost nothing to the audience. But no one was there to hear them talk.
I dare say anyone who knew the band’s history was there to hear them play “You Made Me Realise.” On record, the song is a punk-inspired piece of magic with a critical middle section. In this YouTube clip, that section begins around 1:39 and continues for about 45 seconds. In it, the song proper gives way to a sustained, squalling mass of feedback and strumming on one chord. There’s an illuminating discussion of how the band started playing the tune in their early ’90s concerts in David Cavanagh’s The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize (2000), pp. 491–93, and it matches what Wyatt told me about the 1992 show:
My Bloody Valentine’s tour of December 1991 was and remains a unique chapter in live music. Best remembered as an exercise in punishing volume, it is also famous for what has become known as the “holocaust”—an extended section during “You Made Me Realise” in which the sound first plunged like an elevator with a snapped cable, then maintained the same violently rumbling chord for nine or ten minutes on end. It was My Bloody Valentine’s favourite part of the show, often sending them into a trance…
The experience of hearing and watching the holocaust was laid out in detail by the US critic Mark Kemp in Options [sic] magazine when My Bloody Valentine took the show to America the following year. Kemp wrote: “After about thirty seconds, the adrenalin sets in; people are screaming and shaking their fists. After a minute, you wonder what’s going on. Strobe lights are going mad and you begin to feel the throb in your chest. After another minute, it’s total confusion. People’s faces take on a look of bewilderment. The noise starts hurting. The strobes start hurting. The noise continues. After three minutes, you begin to take deep breaths. Some people in the audience stoop down into the crowd and cover their ears and eyes. Anger takes over. A few people leave the room. After about four minutes, a calm takes over. The noise continues. After fives minutes, a feeling of utter peace takes over…
“Shields and Butcher would stare at faces in the front rows, monitoring the gradual changes. Shields was amused by the idea that the audience was afraid the ceiling was about to collapse. Danny Kelly observed that Shields’ right hand appeared to make the male masturbatory gesture as it stroked the holocaustal chord. And as a point of interest, when the concert was over Shields did not say good night. He said ‘goodbye.’”
Given that description, you might understand why some of us might have been looking forward to experiencing that ourselves. When MBV started playing the song, I turned to Jenny and said “This is it.” We turned our eyes to the stage, made sure our earplugs were correctly inserted and waited. The holocaust section started around 10:22 p.m., right when I snapped the first image here (use this link and this one for larger versions). Some of the people standing on the floor, most of whom were standing still, had their hands raised in the air, almost as if to feel the air being moved by the amplifiers. But they didn’t need to do that from my perspective: my entire body and even my clothes were vibrating. The disco ball suspended from the ceiling was also moving back and forth as it was buffeted by sound waves from every direction. And the smoke and swirling lights added to the impression that we were experiencing something of wonder. About five minutes in, one of the men seated in front of us rose from his seat and left. The woman in front of him spent several minutes alternating between putting her head down and presumably imploring her companion to leave. Indeed, the area around us had been filled like a subway car or bus during rush hour when the holocaust started. By the time it was done, roughly two thirds of the people had departed.
Those of us who stayed (and had earplugs), however, were treated to more than fifteen minutes of noise and feedback that in the end were transcendentally beautiful. It was—and this is not hyperbole—the most amazing, life-altering thing I have ever seen and heard. As we discussed the show on the drive back to her place, Jenny described its impact as physiological and visceral. Indeed, the show as a whole—and especially the holocaust section—felt transformative and far exceeded any expectations I had going in. Unless MBV tour again in the future, I doubt that I’ll ever experience something so majestic ever again. But I will always cherish what transpired last night.