Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review of m b v by My Bloody Valentine

The final track on My Bloody Valentine's classic Loveless was Soon, which in the 22 years of waiting sounded increasingly like a bitter joke. Soon, how soon? This deferred aspect to Loveless was also magnified by that particular song. Mixing Valentine's wash of distorted, trembling guitars with a stuttering dance track, Soon suggested an even brighter future direction for the band's next album, a grand unification theory of music that would span all genres and transcend all boundaries. And then that future kept receding further and further into the distance.



So what does it mean when a work of such singular promise and obvious genius suddenly gains a sequel? If this was Star Wars, we'd know the answer already: nothing good. Not everyone has the same reaction to Lucas' later oevre; some consider the prequels just irredeemably awful or, like me, you might consider them so appalling they actually subtract my enjoyment of the original work. Which is a risk of any sequel, particularly when the meaning and value of the original work comes from a kind of anticipation for something that hasn't quite arrived yet. Loveless was the call, we never heard the response.

Until now. After two decades of wait, through several consecutive movements in pop music, entire careers of other musicians, some of which were directly inspired by Valentine's work, we suddenly have this new album, titled simply m b v, which can I say right now is a kind of annoying title in that it renders useless one of the more obvious abbreviations of the band's own unwieldy name. MBV? Do you mean the band or their third album?



But that's the point, isn't it? The Valentine project, as orchestrated by lead sound smith Kevin Shields, is one of frustration over release, anticipation over resolution. Each song hangs within a constructed virtual space, inescapably present because of the furious distortion and tangible wall of sound they pioneered, but also stubbornly unfinished, unresolved.

Half of the songs on the new album end abruptly or with some sudden drop-off of sound or tempo, almost like they are breaking up on reentry. While the Valentines never had much use for conventional song structures, or the expectations of music in general, here we're confronted with music of the sort normally heard very late at night on the MIT college radio stations, music produced to deconstruct the very notion of conventional song writing. Music that asks itself what is music exactly when we don't even know what it is. Is music any sound repeated in any pattern even if that pattern is buried under washes of static and background noise. Now imagine that kind of music if it was produced with the intention of entertaining, enjoyable on some visceral, don't need a doctorate in experimental music to enjoy level. That was the amazing revelation of Loveless. On that album, i only said, takes a sampled simple melody and repeats the same sample over and over again, until the sound disappears and all of the other layers of the song begin to emerge one after the other like an aural magic eye poster or the colorful blotches as your eye tires of staring at the same bright pattern. Each pass is produced at exactly the same volume, exactly the same pitch. There is no change and yet, the song seems to build meaning through each repetition. When the song finally fades out, the loop is still continuing, going on forever, unresolved, unresolvable. During that entire time, the listener hears an entire universe of separate sounds, different textures, but these layers are never the same because they're always the same. It's our own mind choosing to hear one bit of the music over another depending on our own moods or own history.

All of the songs are required listening, a fact reinforced by the very deliberate, meticulous arrangement of the album. Many reviewers have already noticed a kind of triptych structure to m b v, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The first trio bears the same washes of distortion and tuneful moans marking their earlier work. The middle largely ditches the guitars in favor of synths, organs and bass lines. This is the most conventionally tuneful section of the album but that is a misleading description for anything the Valentines produce. 

The most courageous attempt at accessibility, new you opens with a bouncy, almost ecstatic bass line.  The song is a curious overture to the outside, almost an invitation. Bilinda Butcher's vocals are very close to the listener, but her words still avoid meaning. The guitars are still demented, but oddly restrained, civilized. 'See, we can play this stuff just as well as the other bands,' it seems to say, 'we just choose not to.' And yet, that's not quite it either, because for all of the surface polish, the same fractures and gaps exist beneath. I've listened to this song at least half a dozen times and never heard it quite the same way twice. Distorted phantoms crowd around the edges of the song, and like the slender man photographs, once they're noticed they cannot be unseen.

The final third is what separates this album from merely failing to disappoint to genuinely contributing to My Bloody Valentine's body of work. Starting with a thundering the Levee Breaks drums, in another way sounds almost triumphant. The guitars scorch and saw into the song from the outside, but the singer remains content and anesthetized. Towering machines encase Bilinda, grinding and pulsing, but she smiles in hibernation, content to let the song rocket its way forward.

nothing is, the next song, would not be so unusual as a sonic filler if it lasted a half minute or so. One of the stranger songs on Loveless, Touched, which one former girlfriend described as whales dying, served as a useful breath of air between songs. The only difference: nothing is isn't filler. It sounds like filler, and bears all of the trademarks of a Valentine's filler song, repetitive drums, heavily processed guitars, but in listening closely, those drums change over time, building to a series of crescendos before dropping back down into the mix. The song itself last just long enough to bring the listener into this strange dream, almost a nightmare, but somehow also exciting, exhilarating. In the final seconds, the guitars suddenly shift softer, almost as though the listener has woken up, but still hears the echoes of the song.

The final cut is the stand-out, wonder 2, almost the answer to soon as well as its rejection. Where soon promises a sonic utopia just beyond all of the labels and genres, wonder 2 practices forceful assimilation. The jungle throb of propellers, and the whoosh of a passing jet plane announce the song but they don't dominate the swirling, melting guitar track that follows. The vocals here are mixed very, very far down, and yet still accessible. This is another trick, the human ear evolved to hear the human voice, no matter the difficulty, the parts of our brain slaved to communication and reception will strain through the cacophony to listen. Buffeted on either side by the mechanical sinister racket, the listener reaches out for the human voice just at the edge of hearing. 


And see, right there is the magic of the Valentines. Their music is timeless because presents this sonic mystery to the listener. You can listen to a Valentine's song a thousand times, know every moment of its layered construction, and yet be able to hear it one more time completely differently. 
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