Live review: My Bloody Valentine at the Aragon
U.K. aural arsonists My Bloody Valentine stormed a sold-out Aragon this past Saturday in their first Chicago appearance since a two-night stand at the Metro in 1992. Thanks to the interstellar speed of the media these days, hardcore devotees could easily follow the band's reunion—from the initial dates in London, through Europe, and over to our shores for last weekend’s celebrated All Tomorrow’s Parties appearance in Monticello, New York. MBV is notorious for its live show—a deafening sonic assault—and if concertgoers weren't sufficiently prepared ahead of time, then the free earplugs dispensed at the door were an explicit harbinger.
Backed by towering stacks of Marshall cabinets, Kevin Shields led the quartet through a set largely culled from their 1988 debut LP, Isn’t Anything, and their 1991 follow-up masterpiece, Loveless. Many of MBV's most memorable songs were abetted by samples, like on the set-opener “I Only Said” and “When You Sleep,” not to mention drum machines, as on “Soon.” Despite my affection for the band's back catalog, I found the entire exercise more tedious than transcendental, though the band was burning on “Nothing Much to Lose,” a far more dynamic song contrasting driving drum rolls with non-distorted verses—a standout in an otherwise monotonous set. Though the rhythms didn’t vary much between songs, they remained the only way to identify music played at such a punishing volume. The result is that I found myself piecing the songs together from memory rather than actuality. I braved the volume for a few minutes before begrudgingly slipping in earplugs.
What’s frustrating about MBV is that their live show has essentially been reduced to a gimmick. The melodic serenity of their recordings is completely lost in the deafening wall of white sound, and while earplugs may protect the ears, they only further diminish the quality. Bilinda Butcher’s vocals are central to MBV’s sonic bliss, but her vocals were barely audible, and forget about hearing Shields. On top of it all, Debbie Googe’s bass began distorting about halfway through the set.
Though I’d anticipated the volume, I wasn't anywhere near ready for the equally vicious light show—incessant, flashing white lights that surely would’ve reduced any epileptics to seizures. At one point, my friend Kara asked if she could trade her earplugs for eyeplugs. A series of projections were a welcome alternative to the blinding light, thought that still couldn't make up for Shields' and Butcher's lackluster stage presence. Not that I expected them to prance about—there’s a reason its called shoegazing.
Still, neither acknowledged the audience at all for over an hour before Butcher uttered “Thank you very much for coming." Shields followed with a terse “Yeah, thanks” before launching into the set-closer, “You Made Me Realise,” featuring the now legendary “sonic holocaust”—the most predictable and offensive gesture of the evening. The light show washed over the crowd like rippling heat waves while the band sounded off at full blast for at least 20 minutes. It’s one thing to endure loud volumes when you're watching a band work at it (see Sonic Youth). However, watching someone adjust a knob or step on a pedal is far from engaging, and the noise just sounds like, well, shite (especially with ear plugs jammed in, lest you develop tinnitus like Shields and Butcher). As the crowd exited the theater, there were clearly many who reveled in the assault. But I found myself wondering what Shields would think were he standing beside me or any of the other 4,500 fans in attendance.