My Bloody Valentine in Santa Monica: How Could Something So Loud Be So Subtle?
During the “crescendo” of My Bloody Valentine’s final song last night at the Santa Monica Civic Center, “You Made Me Realise,” I started looking for cracks in the ceiling, for shit wobbling on walls that shouldn’t be. The volume was overwhelming, and I wondered whether the architects had ever considered such extremes when designing the building. Or whether the makers of the chains that held hanging speaker cabinets had figured on this level of intensity. Is it possible for a floor to vaporize? Could sound destroy steel, I wondered? Probably not, but still, this was the loudest fifteen minutes of my life by far. It sounded like standing in the sweet spot of an atomic explosion.
All photos by Timothy Norris
I could go on about that sound, because it permanently altered my cellular makeup, but that’s not the point. The point is all the stuff inside that noise that you could hear (when you mustered the courage to take out your earplugs) because of the volume – the overtones, the layers of auditory detritus, the orchestral feedback. The volume Kevin Shields and his three bandmates created was no mere stunt: it was, and has always been, an experiment, a theory.
This is what MBV sounded like last night
“Loud music saturates the auditory system, causing neurons to fire at their maximum rate,” writes Daniel Levitin in his great book This is Your Brain on Music. “When many many neurons are maximally firing, this could cause an emergent property, a brain state qualitatively different from when they are firing at normal rates.” Like when you squeeze your eyes shut real tight to see the colors, high volume creates sonic chaos.
We’d been warned. You don’t arrive at a My Bloody Valentine gig unaware. The band has always traded in Fucking Loud. Back when they were creating this sound with their remarkable run of releases from 1988-1991, they were the aesthetes’ favorite band. They had an idea and executed it perfectly, a prettier, more Anglo version of Husker Du: Those sugar-sweet melodies wrapped with barbed-wire feedback, the inheritor of Jesus and Mary Chain’s experiments in sound. If you paint the canvas black with noise like a Rothko painting, the colorful melodies pop out.
Anyone reading this probably knows the My Bloody Valentine saga. The band released the classic Loveless in 1991, and has yet to deliver a follow-up. In the intervening years, the album has become a hipster make-out classic – hard enough for the boys but pretty enough for the girls; more orgasms have been achieved during Loveless than any album this side of Purple Rain. Rumors of a follow-up record elicit boners from corners of the music world for many different reasons, so the arrival of live shows at the Santa Monica Civic Center were highly anticipated.
This first of two nights did not disappoint. The band played the songs we wanted the way that we wanted them. Each song, whether the gorgeously tangled guitar of "Only Shallow," on which guitarist Bilinda Butcher somehow cut through the layers of noise with her supple voice, or the post-rave anthem "Soon," which at the the time of its release single-handedly revealed a whole bunch of poser Brits like Inspiral Carpets and EMF to be spineless wussies, slammed into the crowd with the force of a locomotive. They played
"Suck," "Slow," and at least a few panties got a little wetter. It was a monster performance.
And yet I wonder whether Shields struggles with the corner he’s painted himself into. To wit: all those beautiful overtones, all the monster melodies that separated MBV from lesser shoegaze bands like Slowdive and Pale Saints, vanish the moment you plug in your cheap-o earplugs, which by design block out a lot at least 50 percent of the frequency range. All that stuff that rises from the din gets smushed into mud the moment the plugs go in the ears. To truly appreciate what Shields is doing, you actually have to damage yourself. Which is a cool concept in theory, but in practice I don't think it's worth it. If, indeed, the volume was at 132 decibels last night (the threshold for pain and eardrum damage is 130 dbs), how are we supposed to hear this and still be able to appreciate the beauty of the Glider EP the next morning? Ironically, if Shields and company delivered their music at the average 120 dBs, we'd actually be hearing more of what he's trying to do than we did last night when we plugged our ears with plastic.
It's something to ponder as we try to decide whether to hit tonight's show, too. Can the body handle it? Will two nights of My Bloody Valentine singe the little hairs on my eardrums? Will I lose my hearing at 68 rather than at 72? Why so loud, so brutal, so damaged? Why must something so pretty be so dangerous?
(Note: it was surprisingly uncrowded last night. Anyone thinking about going tonight -- and you should go, but race to an audiologist right now and get some high quality plugs -- will probably be able to get a face-value ticket on the sidewalk. It's general admission, too, and it was relatively easy to navigate to a good spot.)