Feed Me With Your Hiss

With such high expectations for My Bloody Valentine’s first performances in over 15 years, how could they help but disappoint? Since fading into obscurity following the release of their monumental 1991 LP Loveless, their gauzy, tremolo-drenched sunshine has spawned whole genres of imitators. The sound was ubiquitous in the East Coast indie rock scene of the 1990s (see The Swirlies, Velocity Girl, The Lilys, Mercury Rev), and continues to feed inspiration to various subgenres of contemporary fringe popular music (see Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi, Ulrich Schnauss, Kompakt’s Pop Ambient series). Loveless and its legacy continue to feel relevant, even if the initial shock has faded through the intervening years. How would the band, so loved despite the lengthy separation from its adoring audience, rise above being a mere novelty act?

Reviews of MBV’s UK shows this summer inevitably remarked on the massive volume of their sound system, and their September 22 appearance at New York’s Roseland Ballroom more than fulfilled the promise. Security guards at the club entrance offered earplugs, while signs warned of the noise to come. The Valentines’ set WAS loud, very loud, and video projections and strobe bursts were designed to disorient. The delicately layered arrangements that make Loveless such a rich listening experience became absorbed in a relentless haze of overdriven Marshall 4x12s. Less “dreamy” selections like “Feed Me With Your Kiss” were washed out but for the body blows of Debbie Googe’s bass. And when the crowd hunkered down for the forecasted 15-plus minute squall of “You Made Me Realise,” the air became viscous. Audience members raised their hands in the air not in salute, but to bathe in the shock waves emanating from the stage. The band’s gambit to justify its resurrection was to deliver an overwhelming dose of shock and awe.

MBV has been a contender for the title of “world’s loudest band,” and the concert seemed a determined attempt to lay claim to the title. But why this mission? For someone so notoriously exacting in his studio production, why would Kevin Shields & Co. approach this live display with such blunt instruments? And if the audience came to pledge its love, what did it receive in return?

Critics have remarked on the sexually ambiguous sensuality of MBV’s late releases, which emerges from the lazy beauty of the production and the near interchangeability of Shields’s and guitarist Belinda Butcher’s voices. Songs like “Come In Alone” seem to invite us to recline in a soft, melancholy bed, but what might await us there is not always clear. Though we overhear snatches of romantic negotiations, linguistic meaning ultimately fades into pure, abstract sound.

What keeps the songs from becoming simple sentimental escapism is the storm just outside the bedroom, the overdrive that blurs the lines separating the melodic hook from the white noise threatening to dissolve the song into abstraction. What astonishes about the recorded MBV is how well Shields navigates this line between sweetness and blinding light. The music seems to embrace, but one can’t help but be aware that the love on offer will deliver neither comfort nor protection.

In performance, the thunder at the edges of the song overwhelmed the melody. Like the explicitly noise-based music that has had its ascendancy in recent years, MBV’s concerts are exercises in extremity. They are orchestrated both to mesmerize and to repel the listener, and if love was in the air, so was a clear power relationship. In response to its adoration of its heroes, the crowd was given pain, quite literally in the case of at least one UK-based fan. Listening became a physically masochistic act, as all risked permanent physical damage to be in the presence of an improbable reunion.

Under such an overwhelming barrage, the only choice was to fill in the melodic gaps mentally, to imagine that the subtleties present on the record were actually being played in the concert hall. It was an act of remembering a long lost love, all these years later, for which subjecting oneself to the violence latent in the band’s recordings was worth the struggle. It was characteristic of the entire My Bloody Valentine experience. With rumors circulating about the possibility of a new record in the future, one can’t help but wonder if this is another tease. But if we went home battered, we will savor the experience for a long, long time.