‘Earplugs are available everywhere! Just ask a member of staff’. The signs are displayed prominently around a packed out Hammersmith Apollo, for the reputation of Kevin Shields’ enduring ensemble as provocateurs of noise inevitably precedes them.
On Twitter, reports are divided between those who are all too happy to take the advice (and the free earplugs) and those who seem to think it is a badge of manliness (for it does appear to be mostly men) to induce raging tinnitus. Either way, there’s a palpable sense of excitement for these shows, My Bloody Valentine’s first UK tour since 2009. This time, of course, there is much more to it than mere nostalgia, Shields having recently unleashed new album m b v following 20 years of procrastination and months of rampant speculation.
It is perhaps slightly surprising, then, that so little of the new material has worked its way into the band’s live set. This may of course reinforce perceptions of Shields as a meticulous craftsman and perfectionist, whose studio creations take similar time and effort to reproduce live. These performances retain the core of the live set they have been delivering since 2008, with a strong focus on the towering achievement of Loveless and the band’s fine catalogue of stand alone singles. Thankfully, it’s uniquely satisfying material on which to rely.
Further warnings of the torrent of sound and volume to come can be gleaned from an inspection of Shields’ set-up, which appears to incorporate numerous amplifiers. It looks more like a defence system. Yet for the first fifteen or so minutes, the volume is actually tolerable and whilst I Only Said has a dependably lithe groove thanks largely to the superb drumming of Colm O’Coisoig, it lacks intensity. Whilst discernible lyrics are hardly the purpose of Shields’ music, and the vocals have always been subsumed within the layered textures of the band’s sound, Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s vocals are rendered almost completely inaudible for much of the evening. It’s hard to ignore this problem when the discreet melodic sensibility contained within the maelstrom is such a crucial part of the band’s approach and of their appeal.
Things really shift into a different gear with Only Tomorrow, one of just three tracks from m b v. On record it is a frazzled, fuzzy pop song but in the context of live performance it has precisely the kind of scorched intensity long associated with this band. It feels layered to a near-impossible height and is completely mesmerising. That it sat comfortably alongside subsequent brutal, excoriating renditions of Come In Along and Only Shallow suggests that it is already an accepted part of the My Bloody Valentine canon.
This is hardly a group from which much in the way of communication beyond the music will ever be expected or demanded. Shields remains an aloof performer, largely silhouetted against the projected visuals. Bassist Debbie Googe is a compelling presence, however, and has a clear and effective symbiosis with O’Coisoig that makes for an exemplary, ceaselessly powerful rhythm section. Respite from the relentless urgency comes only with the dreamy heat haze of To Here Knows When and the more psychedelic undertones of Cigarette In Your Bed.
Little of this serves as adequate preparation for You Made Me Realise, one of the band’s most infectious and punchy statements in its original form – but now brutally interrupted by ten minutes of unrelenting white noise that has become known as the ‘holocaust’ section. It is a sonic assault from which escape is just impossible, leaving some covering their ears. Even though it is expected (and whether this kind of noise-as-provocation can have value when so carefully calculated and pre-determined is a question that could be debated further), the sheer force of it remains surprising. The bass frequencies rumble so violently as to make the entire body vibrate, whilst the high frequencies in the feedback squall seem to rise ever higher and higher until they threaten to become audible only to dogs. It is followed by a final act - the miraculous shimmer of Wonder 2, with O’Coisoig emerging from behind the kit to add yet more guitar textures. It suggests the kind of impact the group could achieve if they tackled some of the wilder fringes of m b v, a record that seems to grow in stature with every listen.