Those of you who know me can aver my passion for music in all its forms. As a musician and aspiring composer, I’m always fascinated in the way that other artists find ways to evoke timeless feelings and experiences of the human psyche through sound in new and adventurous ways. While I have long considered starting my own blog to discuss the subject, it wasn’t until my dear friend Anthony suggested writing a column for the Orange Drink Social Network that I felt any real need to make it happen. So here it is. My sincere thanks go to Anthony and the rest of the Orange Drink Social crew for bestowing on me the esteemed privilege of sharing my thoughts on new music with you.
As a matter of practicality, I will try to avoid the use of music theory jargon that may hamper the understanding of the subject matter for the casual reader. These “reviews” will not function as traditional critiques, but rather serve to bring greater understanding and appreciation for the music itself through illustrative language and insightful observations. I will be writing about recent releases that have struck me as particularly noteworthy, although I am open to reader requests. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section at the end of this post. Thanks for reading.
It’s been twenty-two years since shoegaze legends My Bloody Valentine claimed their rightful place as one of the world’s preeminent rock bands with the release of their magnum opus, Loveless. The album redefined the sonic possibilities of the guitar, introducing the world to a plethora of unique and enthralling sounds that had never been known, and have yet to be effectively emulated by others. Time has proven the work to be a major influence on countless music acts since, and an inspiration to rock lovers everywhere.
So when word got out in late 2012 that a new album was in the works, you can imagine the anticipation amongst fans. However, some remained skeptical this was just another tease from My Bloody Valentine mastermind Kevin Shields, who has developed a notorious reputation for hinting at new releases, only to leave fans waiting in the dark for years at a time. Not this time. This time was the real deal, and when the official announcement was made late January that a new album was soon to be released, everyone had to wonder: how do you follow up on one of the greatest rock albums of all time? I had to admit, I was a bit unsure myself. Seldom does a band return from decades of obscurity with a masterpiece. More often, these reunion albums end up being little more than a pathetic attempt at emulating a tired formula from the past, usually to the band’s reputational detriment.
Not so with MBV. The album shows a whole new side to a band we thought we had all figured out. While keeping their characteristic warbly guitar sound, Kevin Shields and company delve into new territory, exploring an expanded harmonic palette with timbral variety ranging from their classic wall-of-sound guitars (“Only Tomorrow”) to pitch-bending jet turbines (“Wonder 2”), and everything in between. The album as a whole offers a more diverse spectrum of song-craft than its predecessors. As a consequence it lacks the kind of consistency and flow found in Isn’t Anything and Loveless. In a way, MBV feels more like a collection of songs than a proper album. Given its relative shortness and stylistic diversity, it’s easy to understand it in this sense. Despite this potential shortcoming, the content found in these nine tracks demonstrates a clear evolution for the band in an age when sounding original is as challenging as it’s ever been.
Album opener “She Found Now” finds the band in familiar territory and serves as a perfect transition from the expansive soundscapes of Loveless to the glossier, more refined sound of MBV. Like the group’s previous ballads, the atmosphere is dense and dreamy, filled with intimacy and warmth thanks to Shields’ and Bilinda Butchers’ wispy unison coos and dark guitar fuzz reminiscent of Loveless highlight “Sometimes”. Amidst the steady drone of rhythm guitar, a distorted lead gently wails stabs of nostalgic yearning and meandering melodic lines. The percussion here is light, a constant thumping downbeat that barely draws attention to itself. Overall an excellent return to form that displays the band’s sense of modern pop sensibilities while maintaining their definitive sound.
Standout track “Only Tomorrow” comes crashing in next with glorious roaring guitars after an abrupt drum upbeat. The dramatic chord sequence has a classical feel in its complexity and shows the band’s capacity for exploring more daring harmonies than in previous efforts. Butcher’s hazy vocal delivery provides a stark contrast to the pounding guitar riff, but it melds together seamlessly in typical My Bloody Valentine fashion. After an ominous transition section, and restatement of the verse, emerges a bizarre, unorthodox guitar solo to close out the latter half of the song. While fairly simple from a technical standpoint, what makes it so interesting is how the distorted melody intertwines with the surrounding harmony, at times clashing with the music and creating an alien sense of disarray, and then falling into place triumphantly and concluding with a victorious cadence, only to begin anew. This one is a personal favorite and stands amongst the bands best.
“Who Sees You” is recognizably the most Loveless-y song on the album. The offbeat drums and insistent shakers chug along at an easy pace amidst familiar waves of warped guitar and the characteristically androgynous vocals of Shields and Butcher. The yearning melody eventually gives way to a wailing guitar solo that beautifully transitions to the final statement of the verse before returning to close out the song with a melancholy cry. While perhaps not the most original track on the album, “Who Sees You” takes the best elements of My Bloody Valentine’s sound and synthesizes them into one of their most solid ballads to date.
“Is This and Yes” comes as a welcome surprise after the heaviness of the first three tracks. The listener notices at once the absence of the band’s characteristic distorted guitars which are replaced here with gentle organ drones and shimmering synthesizers that meld into a beautiful ambient soundscape unlike anything the band has released to date. The lush, spacey instrumentation is accentuated by a single pulsing heartbeat of bass drum and Butcher’s soft, wordless coos. The harmonies here are rich with hypnotic dissonance and wonderfully textured, taking the listener on a contemplative journey of self-discovery. Though obviously meant to evoke romantic notions of bedroom intimacy (and what My Bloody Valentine song doesn’t?), the nerd in me can’t help but liken this to the soundtrack to some mysterious cavern in a Final Fantasy game—and I mean that in the best way possible. The work not only demonstrates the band’s evolved talent for using provocative and exotic extended harmonies, but also shows a new side to their sound palette by embracing ambient electronic music in lieu of their typical guitar heroics. This soft-spoken interlude will likely be overlooked among the noisier, more bombastic “rock” tracks on the record, but its presence here is a sigh of relief for those looking for something “different” from the usual guitar fare.
“If I Am” continues the band’s use of strange, suspenseful harmonies with pulsating guitars and a mechanically steady, slightly offbeat rhythm section. The chorus is as beautiful as anything they’ve done, this time with Butcher harmonizing with herself alongside a wistful guitar countermelody. Stylistically this one is quite similar to “Who Sees You”. The song fizzes out with a seemingly random pulsating synthesizer segment.
“New You” brings renewed life to the album as it begins its second half. An insistent bass-line bounces amidst pulsing guitars and Butcher’s dreamy harmonies, which often diverge into multiple melodic voices. The track is highly accessible in its simplicity and has an addictive groove and charmingly hypnotic verse. While not particularly experimental on some fronts, it captures the band’s knack for catchy songwriting.
“In Another Way” makes itself known with a sudden burst of piercing electronic drones and a ferocious dance beat that paves the way for bending guitar harmonies and Butcher’s urgent melody doubled on lead guitar. The dramatic buildup of the verse eventually gives way to the most celebratory moment on the album, a chorus featuring screaming guitars bouncing in time to a joyful, soaring synthesizer melody that ends in abrupt uncertainty.
“Nothing Is” comes across as the “jammiest” song on the album, a repetitive groove with heavy minimalist overtones. The track is entirely instrumental, consisting primarily of a relentless jungle beat and a looping distorted guitar motif that gradually grow more intense until the end of the song, which comes to a sudden quiet end.
Finally, the album ends with a bang with “Wonder 2”, the band’s most eccentric song to date. A rapid, precise jungle beat clicks incessantly as layers of guitar and organ intertwine with strange sounds akin to jet engines that roar throughout. Butcher’s melody is filled with a sense of urgency amid the ever-shifting chaos of the surrounding noise. A honking lead guitar blurts out after some time, buzzing like a chainsaw over ambient guitar textures until the song fades out with the sound of a jet plane disappearing into the horizon. If there were ever a song that captured the excitement and nervous expectation of modern flight, this would be it. “Wonder 2” works as an effective closer that leaves us wondering what could possibly come next.
So there you have it. I would recommend this album to anyone who enjoys good rock music, regardless of usual taste preferences. Loveless was the album that got me into the noise rock and shoegaze scenes, and I believe MBV will do the same for young people today. Its smart fusion of endlessly enjoyable guitar tones and textures, informed by strong pop sensibilities, makes for a promising beginning to the year of music in 2013. Better than Loveless? I wouldn’t say so. A worthy addition to a discography of classics? Absolutely.