I don’t need to tell you to listen to My Bloody Valentine. I don’t need to tell you what an important band they are. And yeah, I realize that MBV is the cliche token shoegaze band that metalheads like, and the band that metal writers automatically point to whenever a band exhibits a shoegaze influence (with Slowdive coming in a distant second on both counts). I know I’m guilty of it. But sometimes, when you discover one band that’s so fucking amazing and addictive, it’s hard to pull yourself away and explore the rest of what’s out there.
I do need to tell you about what happens when I’m listening to them on headphones. I imagine those velvety clouds of distortion billowing out of the headphones, letting me bathe in all of their blissed-out, psychedelic glory. It’s the kind of distortion you just lose yourself in. The distortion breaks its gossamer bonds and dissipates into the aether, as if possessed by a mind of its own, taking you with it; astral projection by way of Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s six-string alchemy. It’s that continual cycle of creation and almost immediate dissolution that makes My Bloody Valentine’s recordings so otherworldly, as if Colm Ó Cíosóig’s drums are the only thing tethering the music to planet Earth.
Underneath all the droning, dreamy noise, MBV are writing pop/rock songs, and this is what ultimately makes their music so appealing to me on a personal level. A lot of the noise and drone music that gets love from the metal scene turns me off completely due to its lack of discernible structure or progression; it’s as if the artists involved are just whipping up a racket for racket’s sake without really knowing what to do with it or where to go. Kevin Shields makes a racket, but he’s an architect, momentarily capturing the noise and sculpting it into songs before it ascends to the heavens. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for harnessing a swarm of amorphous distortion and reverb and meticulously crafting it into something catchy and beautiful.
My Bloody Valentine has released three full lengths (+ a handful of EPs and singles) over the course of three decades of on-again-off-again existence; all have their charms, but I have to agree with the majority and say that 1991’s Loveless is the band’s undeniable pinnacle. Granted, it’s the first MBV recording I heard after discovering alternative rock in the early nineties (along with most everyone else of my generation) and reading about them in a guitar magazine; I’d heard a good chunk of what alt rock and grunge had to offer by the time I finally tracked down a copy of Loveless, but nothing had really prepared me for Shields’ surreal noisescapes. The closest point of comparison for me at the time probably would’ve been Sonic Youth, but they came off as bratty art-punks plying a more abrasive style of noise (this is not a bad thing, mind). Indeed, Loveless was unlike anything that had yet entered my sphere of listening.
Loveless opens with “Only Shallow,” a song that for me represents everything MBV is good at. It’s quite heavy during the instrumental sections, with the distortion threatening to spiral out of control, but when Butcher’s vocals come in for the verses, the track seamlessly morphs into something very beautiful and feminine, as if there is a musical tug-of-war going on between these two sides of the band. This tug-of-war evolves as the album progresses; My Bloody Valentine slowly but surely gain full command over both sides of their sound, and that ultimately results in a perfect fusion of the two, as evidenced by latter tracks such as “I Only Said” “Come in Alone” and “What You Want.” The tug-of-war melts away completely, leaving only gorgeous noise-pop cacophony in its wake.
What’s ultimately my favorite thing about Loveless, and the reason it still holds up in 2013, is that it after all these years it still sounds innovative, and I continue to hear new details every time I dust it off for another round of extensive listening. There are still so many moments on this album where I find myself asking “how the hell did they do that?” “how did they create that sound?” There are probably interviews with the band or articles out there by people with more extensive knowledge of recording techniques/guitar effects/etc that could explain it all away, but I’ll never read them. I love not knowing; believing that it’s pure magic, a distorted six-string kiss to the brain.