Towards the end of 1988, the London-based group My Bloody Valentine released Isn’t Anything their debut, much anticipated, full-length album. The record arrived fully formed towards the end of a decade, during which guitar bands had generally been overlooked for more innovative experiments in electronic pop production. Isn’t Anything had been preceded by two arresting EPs: You Made Me Realise and Feed Me With Your Kiss, both of which had arrived in quick succession earlier that year; the ...
Towards the end of 1988, the London-based group My Bloody Valentine released Isn’t Anything their debut, much anticipated, full-length album. The record arrived fully formed towards the end of a decade, during which guitar bands had generally been overlooked for more innovative experiments in electronic pop production. Isn’t Anything had been preceded by two arresting EPs: You Made Me Realise and Feed Me With Your Kiss, both of which had arrived in quick succession earlier that year; the three releases had appeared in record shops within the space of a mere six months and met with unanimous critical acclaim.
In part, this reception was due to the difference between the music My Bloody Valentine were now making and that of their previous recordings. New or curious listeners, drawn to the band by the sustained waves of interest they were generating, heard a band making music that was difficult to describe. Ostensibly a conventional guitar four piece, the quartet of Bilinda Butcher, Kevin Shields, Deb Googe, and Colm Ó Cíosóig met one of the key criteria of late 1980s independent music by being signed to the talismanic Creation label. Within a few seconds of hearing the opening bars of You Made Me Realise the listener would acknowledge such an assessment was not only incorrect, but that the band’s music now defied any hitherto agreed definition of UK-based indie music. During an era in which British guitar bands denoted, at best, a retro-classicism, not only did My Bloody Valentine sound unlike any of their contemporaries, the band had achieved the rare feat of sounding like the future.
At the heart of the music My Bloody Valentine released in that landmark year of 1988 is a sense of disorientation. Shields and Butcher frequently sang in a similar vocal range that allowed their voices to blend together. This had the effect of making their genders indistinguishable, to the point where their voices could be used as another melodic layer to complement the vertigo-inducing sounds made by Shields’ guitars. In these new recordings the conventional dynamics of a guitar / bass / drums band had been dissolved.
At other moments, such as on ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’, Butcher and Shields traded lines with an airy menace, which highlighted the band’s ability to effortlessly shift between contradictory states, from the innocent to the erotic, from the agitated to the soporific. In terms of creating drama the rhythm section of Googe and Ó Cíosóig was the equal of Butcher and Shields. The aggression and relentlessness with which the bassist and drummer approached the band’s material was a crucial element that distinguished My Bloody Valentine from their peers. That the rhythm section contained the same gender balance as the band’s vocalists added to the impression that the band were now the perfectly formulated quartet.
Rather than attempt to understand how their songs were created, let alone distinguish its component parts, the listener was seduced into yielding to My Bloody Valentine’s music. Isn’t Anything is a record characterised by the ominous sense space that inhabits many of its songs, which veered between the harried and propulsive: ‘Nothing Much to Lose’, ‘Sueisfine’ ‘Several Girls Galore’ to the subdued and eerie: ‘Lose My Breath’, ‘No More Sorry’.
In interviews the band mentioned that they had slept little during the recording of the album and many of its song replicate the debilitating sensations of the altered reality produced by having foregone an entire night’s sleep. This was a state in which the band frequently found inspiration, using it as a means to explore the music’s subconscious and harness its nervous energy. The uncanny atmosphere at the album’s heart was characterised by the presence of Shields’ increasingly distinctive, abstract and at times sinister guitar lines that crested across the music as if driven by a force of their own.
Given that the band had been so productive in the period leading up to Isn’t Anything the listener might have almost considered the band to be prolific, but after touring the album My Bloody Valentine retreated into the recording process, which for Shields, a man determined to recreate the ideas he could hear in his head, was now a psychological as much as a physical activity. Almost a year and a half would pass before any new My Bloody Valentine music would be released.
In their absence, a genre seemingly devoted to the music the band had created in 1988 flourished. Tailor-made to function efficiently within the strictures of indie music and the weekly music press, these groups, which were quickly labelled ‘shoegaze’, mainly succeeded in highlighting the distance between their own recordings and those of the band that had inspired them. Too often over-reliant on short cuts such as vague lyrics and effects pedals, many of the bands lacked the base intensity of My Bloody Valentine, to say nothing of the group’s musical ability.
The idea that My Bloody Valentine were operating in a field of their own was given even more credence by the two EPs released in the gap between Isn’t Anything and its follow up album, loveless. The first of these EPs, Glider (1990), sounded unlike anything the band had previously produced. While many of his contemporaries flirted with drum machines and sequencers, Shields was using these same studio tools as the foundations for an avant-garde pop music. At one level one of their most straightforward compositions, the EP’s lead track ‘Soon’ consists of a breakbeat and a riff, over which a delirious, arpeggiated guitar part weaves back and forth as Butcher and Shield’s voices hover airily. Startlingly immediate and physical Shields had created its ghostly atmosphere by treating its production as a remix.
The other songs on the Glider EP were among the densest material the band had released, often constructed from drones that sounded more woven than sampled. The title track’s only familiar precedent might be The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, although it lacks any of that song’s tendentious spirituality. ‘Don’t Ask Why’ features an especially plaintive vocal by Shields sung over a chord progression that never quite settles or resolves. The effect of the entire record is to leave the listener in a woozy state of almost bliss.
These techniques were continued on the subsequent Tremolo EP, (1991). Its opening track ‘To Here Knows When’ is almost indescribable. ‘Swallow’, the song which follows it sounds equally mysterious, as though it has been recorded onto gauze rather than tape.
The music on both the Glider and Tremolo EPs pioneered a form of contemporary psychedelia that could only have been created in early 1990s Britain, which swims in the same currents as those of their contemporaries operating in the post Acid-house dance music of the era. In many ways, these two EPs can be considered a response to the effects of that scene’s energies. If perhaps not as direct and functional as the contemporary white label twelve-inch singles released on dance imprints at the time, Glider and Tremolo share their euphoria and its aftermath.
After protracted delays the second My Bloody Valentine album, loveless, was released in 1991. Given the relative length of time of its gestation and the mystique that surrounded its recording, which included a seemingly endless nocturnal procession through the mid-range studios of London; a breakdown in communication with the record company; and the sense that Shields was now pursuing a music that was almost impossible to transfer to the physical world of vinyl and CDs, the sense of anticipation around the release was considerable. If it were not synonymous with art world installations, perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions of the record might be aural sculpture. loveless contains music that has the authority, depth and lyricism of large-scale carved stone, to say nothing of the sense of labour inherent in such objects that renders them so prepossessing. Glider and Tremolo had suggested Shields and the band had moved towards a music of pure sensation, one that could be felt as much as heard; loveless is the culmination of this endeavour. The album is a flawless whole and rightly regarded as a masterpiece, a 1990s equivalent to Pet Sounds, In A Silent Way or Innervisions, a record constructed by exploring the edges of what a recording studio is capable of. loveless is also possibly the last record on which vintage equipment such as Fender guitars and Vox amps were used without reference to the past, but in the enterprise of innovation. It is a record best experienced as a whole, in one sitting – a listening experience like no other.
And then, after a year spent touring loveless and another period of relative silence, My Bloody Valentine effectively broke up, though not, Shields stated, with any great animosity. In the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s Shields, while working on the successor to loveless, undertook occasional remixing work and played guitar in an expanded line-up of Primal Scream. In 2008, seventeen years after releasing any music, My Bloody Valentine reformed for a world tour, during which their performances were marked by the authority and skill of their musicianship. The tour was accompanied by rumours of new music having been created and that the My Bloody Valentine record Shields had begun making in 1996 was near completion.
Then, in 2013, My Bloody Valentine released m b v, their third full length album and first recording in over two decades. m b v is by turns their most experimental record but also their most melodic and immediate. Its release was inevitably accompanied by its backstory, listening to it today without such distractions, it’s clear that it is easily the equal to anything My Bloody Valentine had previously recorded; an album of astonishing music, some of which could lay claim to being of a type that never been made before. As with everything this unique group has created, it is music that is best experienced, rather than merely heard.