My Bloody Valentine at O2 Academy Birmingham

Although My Bloody Valentine has a history spanning from the early 1980s, it was only last month the band released their highly anticipated third album entitled m b v. Such a gap is mostly due to frontman Kevin Shields being such a notorious perfectionist, reluctant to follow up ground-breaking second album Loveless with anything short of spectacular.

I often try explaining their music to someone, but it’s difficult to sum it up in words. Shoegazing, post rock, noise rock, ambient, dream pop. Beautiful, obscure vocals accompanied by noisy, distorted guitars. That’s the best I come up with, but it’s better to listen for yourself.

My Bloody Valentine at the O2 Birmingham Academy was a very last minute decision as all their London shows were sold out. Only after I booked the Birmingham gig did I remember that another gig in London I had booked months ago would take place the following night, and together they would take up a whole weekend. A weekend mostly spent on a train or asleep on a friend’s sofa.

‘Damn it! I’m too old and lazy for that!’ I thought.

I just hoped the gigs would be epic enough to justify all the effort. Having seen MBV four times previously, I had a sure feeling they wouldn’t let me down.

The O2 Academy at Birmingham is a fine little venue. I really can’t stand humongous arenas for live gigs, and to find such a small venue for such a legendary band was a pleasant surprise.

After a short wait the band silently emerge. Guitarist Belinda Butcher shyly acknowledges the crowd with an “’ello” before they launch into “I Only Said”, an instant blast of yearning, visceral guitar-pop based on the strangest of riffs.  The decibel level is cranked high, and on first impressions this is like any discordant rock track for an audience to jump around to (and many of them do). But this track is melodic at its core and looking around I see I’m not the only one who’s been put into a pensive trance by it.

Three songs in and we’re treated to “New You”, one of only three tracks tonight from the new album. This is pop by MBV’s standards and one of the quieter songs of the night, a lovely mid tempo bass driven song with both Butcher and bassist Deb Googe providing vocals for the “do do do” refrain almost conventional enough to be described as a chorus.

They’re an odd bunch really. Kevin Shields with his mad scientist hair spent much of the evening grumpily gesturing with his guitar neck to a guitar tech off stage. Could he possibly have been trying to tell him his guitar wasn’t loud enough?

To his right the gorgeous, ageless Belinda Butcher always looks so out of place. Shouldn’t she be tucking her children into bed at this time? And almost in their own little band within a band, Googe and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, rocking out at the back of the stage, Googe acting as conductor with her bass during the frantic “Nothing Much to Lose”.

It’s amazing how well they come together to put on such an intense live show. Next up the densely ambient “To Here Knows When”, Butcher delivering a wonderful vocal that sends shivers down my back.

The abundance of more obscure EP tracks is refreshing, with five tonight that don’t feature on an album. Among these “Cigarette in Your Bed” is an exercise in shifting dynamics that Mogwai or the Pixies would be proud of, and “Thorn” is an awesome piece of acoustic indie pop juxtaposed with a discordant, wailing guitar line.

Butcher’s caress of her tremolo armed strings on “Slow” had me in a hypnotic trance before being woken out of it by “Soon”, meshing a Madchester-style beat and more euphonic, ethereal  guitars. It provoked a weird combination of reactions; a desire to dance outrageously versus absolute solipsism and introspection.

It ends the set before the encore. Except that they don’t do an encore. Or they do, it’s just that they don’t bother going offstage and coming back on again. Wasting no time, instead they launch straight in to the raucous “Feed Me with Your Kiss” followed by “You Made Me Realise”. The latter features a ten-minute-long section known by fans as “the Holocaust”, where each band member hammers on their respective instrument, all amps turned up to 11, to produce a deafening 130db cacophony comparable to a rocket take off.

The first time I saw them I made the mistake of not bringing earplugs with me and just about had my eardrums blasted out from the other side of my head.  Not this time! You might question the point of such a racket, but standing there with my eyes closed, swirling soundscapes filling my brain, I forget where I am. It is the most surreal, otherworldly feeling.  Just as though it never happened, the band break out of it and finish the rest of the song, cue the biggest applause yet.

They sign off with the epic “Wonder 2″, the final track from their new album receiving its live premiere tonight. Ó Cíosóig comes out from behind his kit to add to the army of guitars set against a wild jungle beat.

After the gig I hopped in a taxi to my friend’s place in the Jewellery Quarter. I had invited her along, but she declined when a friend told her they were crap live. Thinking about it later tucked up on a rapidly deflating blow up mattress I couldn’t comprehend how someone could possibly describe them that way. Maybe one just has to have an ear for these things.

Anyone who doesn’t quite get My Bloody Valentine perhaps doesn’t realise that beautiful music doesn’t have to be quiet or gentle. Twenty-two years after their last album, My Bloody Valentine are still showing us that noise can be ever so beautiful.

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