My Bloody Valentine have never followed the established rules of pop music. After a five year absence from the stage, tonight (23 June) is their second show in as many days, a performance where they shift from the subdued to the sublime and debut a brand new song.
The quartet of Kevin Shields, Debbie Googe, Colm Ó Cíosóig and Bilinda Butcher rightly remain revered by both peers and devotees of their game-changing career. It’s nearly thirty years since Isn’t Anything reinvented the possibilities of the guitar, creating shoegaze in the process and their masterpiece, 1991’s Loveless, is over a quarter of a century old. The two decade plus wait for 2013’s m b v heightened their reputation for perfectionism even further. Regardless of time frames however, the music they make together shares a consistent narrative, they sound like no one else you've ever heard.
Tonight at London’s Royal Festival Hall they play the twenty-fifth edition of the Meltdown Festival at the invitation of this year’s curator Robert Smith. When Meltdown started My Bloody Valentine were about to enter their post-Loveless hiatus and it’s Shields second appearance here, having collaborated with Patti Smith on The Coral Sea in 2005, shortly before he returned to his alma mater. Tonight provides another milestone, where a new song reveals a thrilling glimpse of the next chapter in their tale.
As Shields’ blast of feedback ushers them into Loveless’s “I Only Said” the sound is somewhat muted however, the guitars cut in and out and the vocals, which have always been low in the mix on record, are virtually inaudible. Shields initially cuts a frustrated figure, turning to face an enormous stack of six amplifiers, but when they hit the fourth song, tantalisingly titled “New Song 1” on the set-list, there’s a noticeable upswing to the evening.
Audience members start to make their way toward the aisles and then everyone stands up. The new song is the sound of the heavier version of My Bloody Valentine, with a sharp, repeated rock riff at its core. It’s thrilling to hear, they’re clearly still learning to play it, Butcher doesn’t feature on the song, yet the camaraderie between them is touching, as Googe and Ó Cíosóig look towards Shields throughout, seemingly watching their frontman for the chord changes as well as checking if he’s OK.
Shields plays an acoustic guitar for “Cigarette in Your Bed” and the sound starts to even out, revealing the wonderful nuances of their recorded work. The following “Come In Alone” comes to an abrupt stop and whilst they gamely restart it, it’s on the seldom played “What You Want” from Loveless where they really hit their rhythm, with the time signature changes sounding both effortless and dizzyingly complex.
Two more songs are stopped and restarted but by the time “To Here Knows When” ushers in, not only are they on the home straight of the set, they run it like it’s a victory lap. With the technicolour lighting matching the layers of the music and the volume rising to a level that justifies the earplugs handed out on the way in. As it ends a member of the audience shouts “You’re a genius Kevin”, which draws a wry smile from Shields.
They get even better with “Soon”, released at the height of the 90s’ indie-dance movement, it was closer to Hip Hop than the “Funky Drummer” sample used by bands of the period. And for all of the accolades lavished on Shields guitar sounds, the stars of the song are Googe and Ó Cíosóig, the unsung heroes of the story, who remain a formidable rhythm section.
“Wonder 2” sees all four of them playing guitars and as sampled drums carry the rhythm Shields’ EBow adds brilliantly warped frequencies to the extended noise section, a precursor to the closing double-whammy of “Feed Me With Your Kiss” and “You Made Me Realise.” The former is built around Ó Cíosóig’s frenetic drumming and a guitar hook that still sounds ferocious, whilst the latter is surely one the most menacing sounding songs to be played in this salubrious hall. The holocaust section is brief by their standards, clocking in at a mere eight minutes, yet it still sounds like a jet plane in perpetual take off, immersing the room and the audience in white noise.
Despite the technical glitches tonight, when My Bloody Valentine hit their stride they sound untouchable. They’re a band who remain gloriously outside of time and fashion, who’ve always taken the road less travelled and that’s made all the difference.