The warnings began months ago, with breathless hyperbole: Bring a pair of earplugs. It'll be the loudest thing you’ve ever heard. It’ll be unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. They’re like a rocket taking off. It’s like a deep tissue massage, with no touching.
That’s what people said about My Bloody Valentine the last time the band toured, too. That was 15 years ago, before resident visionary Kevin Shields more or less vanished, leaving the band in mysterious stasis, and that’s what people continue to say about My Bloody Valentine this time around. With no new material from which to draw, and not much in the way of stage presence, what’s left is the very thing that’s been the band’s claim to fame: Volume. Sheer volume. Songs shaped into a wall of sonic oblivion that aim as much for a visceral reaction and physical transformation as they do for an emotional connection.
For their current reunion tour, My Bloody Valentine reportedly spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on new equipment meant to satisfy Shields’ perfectionist tendencies. But the question remained as to whether state-of-the-art sonics could compete with the notoriously cavernous Aragon Ballroom, not exactly one of Chicago’s most acoustically-sound venues. Thankfully, all the hard work seemed to pay off: Although nuance and subtlety are inevitably lost once amps crest 11, Shields, fellow singer/guitarist Bilinda Butcher and the plodding rhythm section of Debbie Googe and Colm Ó Cíosóig remained remarkably faithful to the blurred soundscapes of songs drawn from MBV’s influential EPs and two albums, Isn’t Anything and Loveless.
Whether the band brought anything more than bone-rattling decibels to the tracks was another matter, which highlights a fundamental paradox of MBV’s music. For My Bloody Valentine, texture is tantamount, but the same can be said for paint, and no one really likes to watch paint dry. Shields’ and Butcher’s singing was subsumed by the sound (albeit by design), and the pair might as well have been fancy amps themselves for as statue-still as they stood onstage. Indeed, the only time the awed-into-submission crowd showed any real signs of life was during the opening beats of the sublime “Soon,” one of the few My Bloody Valentine songs with anything to offer in the way of rhythm.
In many ways, the bulk of the set seemed like a warm-up for the band’s signature stunt/experiment, “You Made Me Realise,” a pretty conventional song that gives way to an extended, 20-minute drone. The effect was similar to that of sticking your head out of a moving airplane, the roaring feedback stirring into your gut while the strobe lights provided an equally intense visual counterpart. This part of the song epitomizes everything the band has ever tried to do, musically and philosophically. For those 20 minutes, it was nearly impossible to do anything except stand or sit, stare straight ahead or shut your eyes. It was over-stimulation in extremis: Noise so powerful, so beautiful, so all encompassing that, in the end, it went full circle and approached blissful silence once again.
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