Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Album Review: My Bloody Valentine: mbv

My Bloody Valentine:  mbv
Label:  self released
Released:  February 2, 2013


There's a reason why I named this blog what I did.  I'm obsessed with music.  To a fault.  I troll the web and the music trades inhaling information like a junky.  When's that new album dropping?  Is there a single I can hear now?  Two-second audio snippet?  Yes please!  

In the months and weeks before release-date, anticipation grows and expectations soar.  I'm downright spoiled by the scraps, and the magic of "New Music Tuesday" I knew as a teenager inevitably whittles away.  I'm rarely surprised by a new music release anymore.

Not so with My Bloody Valentine's mbv, an album released independently by the band, 22 years after their last, online, by surprise, on a Saturday night in February.  Who does that?  The magic was back and, serendipitously, I happened to be home that Saturday night to download giddily (for a hefty $16 fee).

For those who don't know, My Bloody Valentine is a four-piece rock band formed in Dublin, Ireland, in the early 80's by enigmatic guitar and effects-pedal alchemist Kevin Shields.  They're largely known for pioneering a style of noise rock known as "shoe gaze" - a sub-genre characterized by smothering waves of buzzing six-string throb paired with angelic serenade, simultaneously abrasive and saccharine.  My Bloody Valentine's 1991 sophomore album Loveless is widely revered as a classic of the genre and a "masterpiece" alternative-rock album in the same league as Nirvana's Nevermind released that same year.

Hitting "play" on an album that fellow music obsessives had been eagerly anticipating for over two decades was a surreal and rare thrill in and of itself.  What would this thing sound like?  I braced for the worst, but as the opening chord hit my ears my doubts melted.

The languid swirl of fuzz-guitar and Shields' forlorn whisper on opener "she found now" feels immediately familiar and comforting.  This is the classic inimitable sound of Loveless, and with the jolt of a snappy drum break, mbv picks up the pace with "only tomorrow" then "who sees you."  Both tracks feature a muscular guitar tone that growls and screeches, fluttering and bending as if resurrected from old tape, paired with the breathy lullaby intonations of co-vocalist (and co-guitarist) Belinda Butcher on the former and Shields again on the latter.  A great trio of opening tracks.

mbv throws the first of several curve-balls with "is this and yes," a twinkly interstitial track featuring only a synthesized church organ, a muffled bass drum beating sadly, and Butcher's nonsense cooing.  This hazy dirge is a misstep - overlong and aimless.  Luckily it's followed by "if i am," possibly my favorite on the album, with Butcher's beautiful lilt flowing over a steady drum break, blissed-out wah-wah guitar, and intermittent dub echo and reverb.  With a bouncy bass groove and Butcher again on vocals,"new you" is the cheerful summertime pop single that could have been, but never had a chance.

The latter third of the album is where Kevin Shields truly pushes the My Bloody Valentine aesthetic into bold new territory, and tempo. Shields apparently developed a keen interest in the rhythmic gymnastics of drum & bass music in the late 90's, and was rumored to have been working on material in this style.  "in another way" is our first taste of that experimentation and it's a doozy.  The track blasts off like a rocket with a furious breakbeat and distorted guitar squeal, roaring skyward with Butcher on the mic and Shields wrenching the tremolo bar wildly as if trying to wrest control of the wayward ship's yoke.

"nothing is," an instrumental, follows with another violent drum loop that sounds closer (no pun intended) to Broken era Nine Inch Nails than classic My Bloody Valentine.  No sweet pixie murmur or melodic hooks here - just the relentless stab of downstroke guitar riffage and crushing drums that increase in volume and density during the course of the piece, daring the listener to hit "skip" before their ears bleed out.  Nine out of ten times, I do.  In this game of musical chicken, Kevin Shields wins, but sadly this repetitive and caustic detour tarnishes the album and drops my overall rating.  Closing out the record is "wonder 2" with a turbulent flurry of heavily phased and flanged drum & bass breaks panning across the audio canvas like an outtake from Goldie's 1998 sophomore album Saturnz Return.

With that in mind, it's worth mentioning that, stylistically, mbv could have been released in 1998.  However, that is not to say that the album sounds dated.  Shields composed, recorded and edited these tracks over the course of two decades, which lends a sense of timelessness to mbv and makes it one of the more unique and exciting releases of 2013.

Was mbv worth the 22 year wait?  Absolutely.  Despite a couple dodgy experiments ("is this and yes" and "nothing is") and a sketchy mastering job that left some of my favorite tracks a little low in the mix ("if i am" and "new you") mbv is a worthy successor to Loveless.  While mbv does have one foot in the past, the other confidently steps into the future.  I just hope I don't have to wait another 22 years to hear a new My Bloody Valentine album and relive a little of that "New Music Tuesday" magic.

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