Monday, September 29th, 2008
Feed Me With Your Kiss
Photo by Frank Yang
It had never occurred to me, in the decade plus that I’ve been listening to Loveless, that I’d ever experience it live. For starters, My Bloody Valentine were completely defunct for almost all of that time, Kevin Shields’ reclusiveness and eccentricities having become a topic of musical urban legend.
No, like much of the music I’d discovered in the ’90s, I was at least a few years to late to the party to experience it in real time and so I’d have to make do with the recordings. And those songs existed as that single, definitive recording – I’d never heard any live material, any alternate versions, I don’t even know if any exist. Loveless was Loveless, like the statues on Easter Island – unique and monolithic, able to be experienced and wondered at, but not ever fully understood. And I was okay with that.
So when the news came last November that the band were not only back together but planning live shows for this year and releasing new recordings, followed this May by the announcement of a brief North American tour that included a Toronto date, the response was disbelief, excitement, disbelief again, then a general sense of confusion. Would it be good? Would it be awful? Where would they play? Would it sell out? Do people still care? In time, the answers came – reviews of the first London shows were a blend of awestruck and rapturous. The band were still deafening loud but amidst that din, sounded amazing. And when the Toronto show was downgraded last week from the 5000-capacity Ricoh Coliseum to the cozier 2000-capacity Kool Haus, well there was the other answer. But this venue shift made it a near-sell out, with the atmosphere that goes with such events – a feeling that would have been lost in a cavernous arena. Rarely do I cheer about having to go to the Kool Haus to see a show, but this was one of those times.
Though there really wasn’t a need for an opening act, we got one anyways. Two, actually. The first was The Flowers Of Hell, a sprawling instrumental ensemble based half in Toronto and half in the UK that sounded like an orchestral tribute to Spacemen 3 and The Velvet Underground, but without the pop angle. And interesting and ambitious project, they sounded like a series of phrases, beautifully elocuted but lacking any underlying narrative. The second opener was unbilled and thus, missed by me as I was out in the lobby sorting out press access business. And so what I thought was the DJ playing a Gemma Hayes CD – an odd choice for entertaining the masses – was actually Gemma Hayes playing a short solo set. If not for the fact that I was going to see her do her own show the next night, I’d have been absolutely gutted to miss her play. As it was, I was just a bit miffed.
But that was all preamble. A little after 10PM, the band strolled onstage – all looking remarkably well-preserved – and with “I Only Said” from Loveless, the onslaught began. Actually, that’s not true. For all the talk about how unbelievably loud My Bloody Valentine once were and were yet again, my earplugs did a fine job of bringing things down to a manageable level and from the photo pit at least, the mix was actually quite good – vocals were audible, the rhythm section of Deb Googe and Colm O’Coisig much louder and urgent live than they ever were on record and the guitars… By my count, Kevin Shields had something on the order of 700W of guitar amplification run through some 32 12″ speakers (that’s 25 square feet of speaker cone) and an ungodly amount of pedals. That’s a lot of sound-wielding potential.
And what sound. Listening to the band as they drew evenly from both Loveless and Isn’t Anything plus some b-sides from the You Made Me Realise EP, you realize that as legendary as they are and much as they’re used as a reference point for countless bands that followed them, no one has ever managed to sound like them. Many have picked up a Fender Jazzmaster, run it through mountains of fuzz and volume and worked the vibrato bar just so (myself included), but unless you’re Kevin Shields or Belinda Butcher, it just doesn’t sound the same. There is only one My Bloody Valentine, and they were most definitely back. Accompanied by blinding light show and projections, the band were able to give new meaning to the phrase, “sound wave”. I’ve heard that standing in a tall building during an earthquake creates a sensation not unlike surfing, a feeling of undulation while remaining stationary – when My Bloody Valentine played, it felt like surfing (or swimming) in an ocean of sound.
Dwelling on the volume, however, is to only get part of the picture. My Bloody Valentine have also always been about the pop song, the blend of breathy, dream-state vocals with hazy (and deafening) guitars. For all the bludgeoning decibels they generate, at the core their songs are unbelievably delicate, like a butterfly in the eye of a hurricane. Gems like “When You Sleep”, “To Here Knows When” and “Soon” – oh my goodness “Soon” – certainly attest to that.
And yet you cannot discount the loud. If there was one prevalent topic of discussion leading up to the show, it was the anticipated hearing loss amongst attendees. Anyone who didn’t fully understand why people were excited about going to see this band may have wondered why we didn’t just get someone to punch us in the kidneys and save us the $50, so anticipated the impending injuries seemed to be. The thing is, My Bloody Valentine don’t indulge in volume for volume’s sake. Shields has said in interviews that he believes that there’s a a sonic quality, an interaction between musician, instrument, amplifier and listener, that can only be achieved at a certain decibel level. It probably sounds at least a little crazy, but it’s this experience that he’s seeking to create – not simply to deafen. That’s just a pleasant side-effect.
And it’s in set-closer “You Made Me Realise”, and in particular the infamous portion of the song dubbed “the holocaust” that this is most clear. Starting earlier in the song than I’d anticipated, it began as a slowly but steadily growing wall of sound – not in the metaphorical Phil Spector sense, but in a very literal and tangible one. You were actually feeling the air in the room move past you, reflect back off the walls and ceiling and basically envelop you, all from the band. Again, thanks to my earplugs I was able to contemplate this experience without doubling over in pain or needing to flee, as many of the concert-goers around me were doing. And after a while, the wall began to shift, to expand, to modulate. It was like a magic eye picture of a space shuttle engine at take-off, but for the ears. It was a 24-minute look into the mind of Kevin Shields, and while some found it unbearable, I found it fascinating. I also couldn’t feel my teeth and had the inexplicable desire to adopt a chinchilla.
Despite the enormous weight of expectation on this show and the very real possibility that the band today would be unable to live up to the myth that’s grown around them in the past fifteen years, the reality of it was, in a word, amazing. Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and unless I get the opportunity to see them play again, probably unlike anything I’ll ever experience again.
The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, eye and Exclaim! have rave reviews of the show. Chart opts to play fifth dentist. Guitar Player Gear Guide has an expansive analysis of the tools of My Bloody Valentine’s trade, complete with photos and updated for the current touring setup (warning: heavy guitar geek content) and Audio Pro International has an interview with the band’s live sound engineer that covers just how they manage to keep “Realise” constantly building and shifting for the length of an episode of Seinfeld.
Photos: My Bloody Valentine @ The Kool Haus – September 25, 2008
Video: My Bloody Valentine – “Only Shallow”
Video: My Bloody Valentine – “Soon”
Video: My Bloody Valentine – “To Here Knows When”
Video: My Bloody Valentine – “Swallow”
Video: My Bloody Valentine – “You Made Me Realise”
Video: My Bloody Valentine – “Feed Me With Your Kiss”
MySpace: My Bloody Valentine
MySpace: Flowers Of Hell