There was a time when the word “alternative” meant something in the music world. A slew of artists rejected the crass commercialism and pre-packaged sugar high offered by mainstream pop and rock. The glory days of this genre saw artists playing around with a wide range of styles and the more obscure an act was the better. By the time groups like Pavement, Sonic Youth and Husker Du got any type of mainstream acceptance, it was over. My Bloody Valentine, on the other hand, burst into flames before they could become yesterday’s news.
Their music dared engagement - adding layer upon layer of noise, sound effects, pitch bends and reverb to underlying songs that seemed to meditate on the themes and aural expressions of loneliness, isolation and apathy. It was clear that this music was for them. There were no grand gestures. No flying out into the crowd. No pyrotechnics. But over the span of just two albums this Irish/English band literally changed the course of modern rock and then slunk back into the caverns and crags we Americans loved to think they sprang from.
Now, some 21 years after the release of their second album, Loveless, My Bloody Valentine is back with mbv, a collection of songs that have been anticipated for over a decade and a half. Kevin Shields, the creative core of the band, first announced the release of this new set last fall. Then he said it would be released before the end of 2012. Last week, with no more fanfare than a Facebook post, the band released the long sought-after mbv on its own website, promptly crashing their server and leaving fans, once again, temporarily in the dark.
The set seems to suggest that despite all of the supposed progress the world has seen since 1991, nothing has really changed.
For the most part mbv sounds like a continuation of the Loveless sessions. The guitar tones, the vocal processing, the melodic motifs and the overall ambience are absolutely consistent. It’s not likely that this wall of noise will earn them many new fans, and without a single hook-based song such as Loveless’ “Soon,” it is unlikely these sounds will be transmitted via radio or television. It’s as if the last 22 years never happened. Shields reunited with his best-known line-up for a handful of live shows at festivals around Europe and the United States and picked up right where they left off. The set seems to suggest that despite all of the supposed progress the world has seen since 1991, nothing has really changed. Shield’s longing to connect is still drowning in a sea of noise - and many of his fans can no doubt relate.
The band’s “shoegazer” ethos influenced an entire crop of faith-based artists 20 years ago, including The Prayer Chain, Morella’s Forest and Fold Zandura. It seemed their model of melody beneath borderline chaos fit well for young artists trying to connect the dots of their faith in a meaningful way amidst a backdrop of excess, commercialism and gloss. No doubt many of those fans crashing the servers for this record were people who couldn’t shake their faith any more than My Bloody Valentine could kill the song that haunts their noise.
Although not well known until the ’90s, My Bloody Valentine sprang from the same late ’70s Dublin arts scene that spawned Boomtown Rats, Hothouse Flowers, Gavin Friday and U2. Ireland got its recessions early and often, and this generation of artists captured that energy perfectly - and yet so very differently. For Valentine it is so much more about feel than thought. The lyrics are barely discernible and not all that expressive. The essence is in the layer upon layer of distorted, broken sound. There is a melody under the madness if you have ears to hear. If you’re not already a fan, though, don’t expect a welcome mat.