Secret Meeting score: 90
by Joey Cobb
In his theory of relativity, Einstein explains the concept of time dilation as a difference in the elapsed time measured by two observers. In other words, time is not a fixed thing and is subjective to individual situations within the universe. In the world of My Bloody Valentine, time definitely moves at its own unfixed pace. Forming way back in 1983, the band got off to a slow start amid a dull Dublin music scene, releasing a string of EPs and an album, some of it jangly, some sounding remarkably like The Cramps, but none of it bearing much resemblance to what they went on to become.
After four years of not much progress and an increased disillusionment with music, frontman David Conway left the band, leaving scruffy, unassuming guitarist Kevin Shields to handle vocals. Following multiple line-up changes and subsequent relocations to the Netherlands and Berlin before London, the My Bloody Valentine we know today was eventually formed – Kevin Shields and Belinda Butcher sharing guitars and vocals, Colm Ó Cíosóig on drums and Debbie Googe on bass. A perfect symmetry of gender and sexuality creating a balance within the group that Shields has emphasised as being crucial to their energy.
Living in London and signing to Lazy Records, the band were existing in a world of tight budgets, loose deadlines and intense label pressure. As a result, their two 1987 releases, Strawberry Wine and Ecstasy – plagued by production difficulties and errors in the mastering process – were met with only moderate critical acclaim. But it was evident that something was brewing under the surface. Out of the hushed melodies and sparkling guitars of songs like Strawberry Wine and (Please) Lose Yourself in Me emanated a haunting beauty previously unheard in their material. Their speed of progress escalated. Signing to soon-to-be- legendary label Creation in 1988, their ear splitting EP You Made Me Realise was released later that year, followed by the ground breaking album Isn’t Anything a few months later. Both received a glowing reception from the press and attained cult status among fans and musicians. My Bloody Valentine had found a sound – a dense noise that could be at once abrasive yet beautiful, violent yet soothing, vague yet direct.
Hype followed, but with it came added pressure. The sounds and production techniques developed by Shields and co had fans and critics speculating wildly about where the band would go next and if they could even top their debut. Work on their next record began in earnest at the start of 1989, but soon things started to slow down again. Production issues, engineer compatibility, shabby studios, limited budgets and industry pressure combined with the fact that the members were on the dole, technically homeless and suffering relationship problems, all put a huge strain on the band and their relationship with Creation.
What exactly went on during those two years spent on Loveless has been largely distorted by rock and roll mythology, but it’s true that a lot of money was spent and a lot of nerves got fried. Out of this murky fog however, emerged a radical record of breathtaking beauty that was to send shockwaves through modern music. The lush textures, buried melodies and touching ambiguity of Loveless are felt slightly differently with each listen. Absorbed in its pink noise, sounds are alien but familiar, time itself becomes fluid and abstract, bending your perception of the moment.
So by 1991, MBV had followed up an album that probably couldn’t be topped with an album that almost definitely couldn’t be topped. Shields was being dubbed a genius and compared to such tortured artists as Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett and Phil Spector – an unlikely visionary destined to live in the shadow of his own making. A quarter of a million pound deal with Sony enabled the band to buy their own house in South London where they started building their own studio, but problems set in from the get-go. The sound desk that they’d spent a fortune on didn’t work, Shields and Butcher had developed an obsession with pet chinchillas, pot consumption increased and the music Shields heard in his head failed to materialise. The 90s drifted by, the newly coined genre of shoegaze grew in the wake of Loveless before being quickly killed off by the press, making way for Brit Pop, raves and pills. My Bloody Valentine gently faded into the background again.
Hope and excitement stirred when Shields contributed music to the Lost in Translation soundtrack in 2003, and again in 2005 when he collaborated with Patti Smith to produce an ambient backing to her spoken word. But still no sign of another album. Then in 2013, over two decades after Loveless, the band finally announced the release of m b v via their Facebook page. Few were expecting it, and nobody knew what to expect from it.
It would be unfair to compare m b v to it’s two predecessors. Isn’t Anything and Loveless are two undeniably defining albums whose impact and influence still ripple through music today. 22 years is a long time (to us, at least) and many things inevitably change. True art carries on, finds new ways, breaks down barriers, and this is what m b v manages to do.
Before you even put the record on, the cover lures you into its world. A rich and dense kaleidoscope of indeterminate shapes layered infinitely, drowning in deep blue. The album title and track names are all listed in lower case lettering, perhaps in homage to the Bauhaus School of Art where designer Herbert Bayer devised a radical type face which forbid the use of capital letters. It was a rebellious approach to visual communication that was intended to be simple, beautiful and universal.
It may not be a coincidence that blue, the most calming of colours, was chosen to adorn the sleeve. Gazing into the cover as the first chords and familiar fuzzy rumble of she found now tumble into your ears, you feel yourself relax. Androgynous vocals wash over you as glistening guitar strums jut out at their own free will. This opener finds you retreating within and instills that hazily familiar feeling experienced somewhere between sleep and wakefulness – probably the perfect state in which to let My Bloody Valentine work their magic on you.
According to interviews with Shields at the time of release, the album is apparently a patchwork quilt of ideas, melodies and rhythms that were painstakingly sewn together over the course of two decades. Although if you hadn’t known this, you would never have guessed it was the case, as the strong sound and consistent feel of m b v make it a solid and complete work.
Shields cites The Beach Boys’ unfinished album Smile as a key influence, inspiring a more impressionistic approach to composition. Song structures are not easily identifiable, but flow so effortlessly and beautifully that there is no reason to even consider the music in such logical terms. The band’s infamously nauseating 1990 Glider EP demonstrated their resistance to conform and their dogmatic approach to music making. This refusal to abide by the rules still firmly remains and is most evident in the discordant organ drones and oohs of is this and yes and throughout the relentless, stuck- record loop of nothing is, which increases in volume so gradually that by the time you actually notice what has happened, you are suddenly thrust into the vortex of album closer wonder 2 – a head warping taster of what the inside of a black hole might feel like.
At the core of the album lie Colm Ó Cíosóig’s drums. They are innovative, intricate and often effected heavily with delay, giving them a depth and warmth that pulls in the layered drones and textures like a planet pulls in its moons. In the mid 90s, Ó Cíosóig and Shields became infatuated with the House, Hip Hop and Drum & Bass music of the zeitgeist. They yearned to develop a new sound inspired by the ethos and cutting edge techniques these genres utilised. Although m b v is not a dance or hip hop record, the unusual rhythmical influences inject a vibrant and hypnotic energy, especially on the addictive monotony of ‘in another way’, the undulating lethargy of if I am and most obviously within the swirling beats of wonder 2.
m b v is an album that has to be regarded as a singular entity. Unlike with most records, it is difficult to pinpoint influences and even harder to draw comparisons. Kevin Shields and his band have continued to push the boundaries of what music can be and how feeling can be conveyed so strongly through sound alone. At times the record seems as much an experiment in the psychology of sonics as it does in the art of composition.
It’s now 2018, and with current rumours of a fourth My Bloody Valentine album on the horizon, we once again find ourselves asking the question – where can they possibly go next? Hopefully we won’t have to wait another twenty years to find out.