February 3, 2013

My Bloody Valentine

MBV01

 

My Bloody Valentine

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013, 7:00 pm

Uniqlo AX Hall (www.ax-korea.com/)

Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, South Korea

 

 

It seemed fitting that this live concert and personal music history event fell on Groundhog Day back home in the West and right before February 14th here in Korea. To say that it was like a Christmas holiday to most longtime MBV fans would be a dreadful cliche’ and a gross understatement. When tour dates were announced for 2013, including tickets for multiple nights in Japan, the shows sold out quickly and my hopes were initially dashed. As new dates were added later, including a stop in South Korea, I wasted no time scooping up a ticket for myself before the half Irish, half English quartet changed their minds about the whole comeback-thing.

While the band did reunite in 2007 after 15 years away for a few gigs in London and several festival dates in ’08-09, rumors of a full tour (and mythically elusive third album) were met with little hope from those familiar with the band’s troubled, iconic existence. The night proved to be both highly entertaining and slightly revealing, as it left me with just as many questions as answers about a band, a man (MBV founder and frontman Kevin Shields), and an influential sound that is truly like no other.

Shield’s isolation and rumored mental and artistic breakdown can quite rightfully be compared to the life  and times of resident Beach Boys genius, Brian Wilson. Unable to ever fully duplicate his artistic and professional high-water mark, Pet Sounds, Wilson toiled for years on the follow-up, Smile, his “teenage Symphony to God,” which not only led to his departure from the band, but also to his subsequent mental breakdown. While Wilson was able to complete a resurrected version of the album in 2004 to much critical acclaim, the original sessions, begun in 1966, were largely scrapped, abandoned, or tragically lost in a mysterious studio fire.

Likewise, the recordings for the follow-up to their seminal 1991 shoe-gazing classic, Loveless, were rumored to have been dumped, restarted, and left half-finished for years while Shields struggled with indecision, depression, and writer’s block. Recording Loveless also nearly bankrupt the band’s label, ironically named Creation Records. A large portion of the band’s Island Records signing bonus went towards building a South London-based home studio in which it has been speculated by fans that several album’s worth of material has been recorded over the years and then shelved or scrapped altogether due to Shields artistic struggles, studio perfectionism, and mental uncertainty. Indeed, given the heaps of critical praise Loveless has received in the years since its release (the album failed to chart in the states and peaked at #24 in the U.K.), any artist would find recording any new material, let alone a suitable follow-up, an impossible and thankless task indeed.

(Please click on each image in the galleries below to view full-sized.)

The day of the show therefore proved to be both historic and worth celebrating, as not only did I get a chance to see one of the most celebrated and reclusive bands of the last 20 years perform live and right up close, but I got to do so on the very same day their first new release was made available in multiple formats on the the band’s website. The site, (mybloodyvalentine.org), which promptly crashed due to all the downloading activity, was perhaps simply not prepared for all the demand after all this time away. Some (namely me) would say the band has had 22 years to prepare – for a lot of things really. But the truth about how those years away were actually spent may always prove to be a mystery and, in fact, better left unknown. The victory for the band and its loyal followers this night to me lie in the event itself. Had the group’s performance and new release, MBV, both been complete rubbish, I would have gladly forgiven my heroes and instead, relished in the sheer impossibility of the circumstances leading up to this unforgettable night.

Some clues as to the direction the evening and comeback might take, however, were offered on a snowy Sunday before the band’s blisteringly loud 90 minute live set at the AX Hall in Seoul. The first thing that caught my eye in the promotion leading up to the show was the use of a Loveless-era photograph of the band on all their posters and printed material. The band’s reclusive image and overall detached aesthetic has been a large contributor to their growing influence and mystique since the heyday of the scene they helped create. Could the conspicuous use of this image actually foreshadow the fact that nothing has changed for the band in their time away? Could the whole thing simply be a money grab to cash in on the name and growing cult-like appeal of the band’s limited yet treasured catalogue? The bigger issue, however, lay in the fact that a live performance and release of new material not up to par with now fever-pitched expectations could break the magic spell and artistic resolve of the band once and for all.

Further clues arose upon entering the concert hall with this mix giddy excitement, polite Korean restraint, and wide-eyed trepidation as each ticket holder was given a set of earplugs in a small, silver “My Bloody Valentine” canister. Having seen the warning signs regarding high decibel levels posted outside the venue, I thought it also potentially foreboding, should the performance and new music simply be something you would rather not want to hear altogether.

Ax Hall is a relatively new venue and is laid-out quite simply, with a large, open general admission area on the floor, and a small private seating area in the balcony. Korean concert crowds are extremely reserved and in fact sterile compared to their drug and alcohol-drenched counterparts elsewhere. I have found myself both thrilled at the general punctuality of the shows here (although MBV hit the stage 20 minutes late), yet also longing for the drawn-out, boozy anticipation of those exciting moments waiting for the lights to go down and the show to start at any time.  Since there was already a large crowd gathered in front of Shields’ guitar rig downstage left, I decided to camp out in front of singer-guitarist Bilinda Butcher’s set-up on the right. Butcher and bassist Debbie Googe were both born in England, while Kevin Shields and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, were both born in Dublin. Googe also plays bass in Primal Scream and replaced Mani, who departed in 2012 to rejoin The Stone Roses.

The show turned out to be a combination of incredible, dizzying visuals, a deliberately muddled and dense audio wallop louder than any concert I have yet attended, and a few minor technical difficulties which briefly stopped the show altogether. Given Shields’ distinctive guitar sound, it may be like The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, simply impossible to recreate their studio brilliance live. However, Shields’ attention to detail, which may have accounted for much of the 22-year delay, was also evident in several songs being stopped midway and restarted again to be performed more to his liking. Given the seemingly indistinguishable nature of the bands’ live music, it seemed funny to me that any minor imperfections in the mix or execution were noticeable at all in such a powerful and amped-up performance.

The highlights of the setlist (below), like “Honey Power” and the opener “New You,” were where all the madness and meticulousness came together for sheer aural bliss. There were also moments of just extreme and unrelenting loud noise, like the 20 minute wall-of-sound closer, “You Made Me Realize”. This track, which the band have dubbed “the holocaust,” seemed more like the group just playing extreme and random sounds as loud as possible for a very long time.  The affect, while maddening at first, shook my clothes, my whole body (including my undigested dinner) and ultimately produced a calming and peaceful resolution.

Ultimately, no one looks, sounds, or acts quite like My Bloody Valentine. Certainly no one would ever attempt to duplicate their road to limited mainstream commercial success. Additionally, no one can claim to sound like them- which in some cases clearly includes the band themselves. Much like the recent release of Peter Jackson’s new film version of The Hobbit, there is almost no way to please everyone, so I was inclined to believe that the victory lies in the very fact that they tried. The same can be said for the new album, which I am happy to say is at times quite brilliant, and is worth picking up or downloading just to support the effort and persistence that went into its very creation. Welcome back, My Bloody Valentine. It was all worth the wait.

SET LIST  (Courtesy of Setlist.fm

New You (originally called ‘Rough Song’)

I Only Said

When You Sleep

You Never Should

Honey Power

Cigarette in Your Bed

Come In Alone

Only Shallow (aborted due to amp issue)

Thorn

Only Shallow

Nothing Much to Lose

To Here Knows When (aborted)

To Here Knows When

Slow

Soon

Feed Me With Your Kiss (aborted twice)

Feed Me With Your Kiss

You Made Me Realize