My Bloody Valentine at San Francisco's Concourse Exhibition Center was more an example of aural sculpture than a traditional 'Rock' show. The band's history, influence and 17-year absence have been well documented. But the visceral effect high volume has on an audience at a My Bloody Valentine show is akin to be dropped into a war zone.
My Bloody Valentine's sound is synonymous with ear-splitting decibel levels. The wash of sound they create combined with actual or imagined overtones within that wash, bludgeon the senses. In effect, their sound is a physical experience. The sound waves, even from 100 yards away, rattle your joints. Sheets of sonic rain drench you where you stand. The sound passes through you, rearranging your internal organs in the process. It’s a tribute to MVB’s artistry that the sheer force of volume doesn’t nullify the melodies. If this is possible, there is as much subtlety at work as bombast.
One clear casualty of playing so loud is the vocals. They are sacrificed at the stentorian altar, reduced to a faint hum for most of the show. It is a shame that one of the components on record that made My Bloody Valentine so influential – Belinda Butcher’s breathy, melancholic vocal delivery of is often imitated by any number of pretenders to the shoegaze throne – seems to have been disposed of live.
There were several times during the performance when I had to laugh out loud in response to the overwhelming force emitted from the speakers. At one point I was convinced I had to use the bathroom. Upon entering one of the few sanctuaries from the onslaught, I just stood there. It wasn’t the bathroom I needed but rather respite from Debbie Googe’s pulverizing bass line driving the song “Soon”.
As the final squeal from Kevin Shields’ guitar sliced through the cavernous barn that best describes the Concourse Exhibition Center, a stunned silence befell the room. Even that proved deafening.
The band had just finished performing “You Made Me Realize”, which included 20 plus minutes of a sublime cochlear holocaust. During this onslaught audience members were either fighting their way through the din, or fighting their way out. The rest were held in stasis by the relentless torrent.
Drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, maniacally flailing away at his symbals for most of it, created a shattering crescendo before the band launched back into the chorus. I couldn’t help but think that this is what Londoners heard as their city was shelled by the German Luftwaffe during World War II.
The final note still ringing in my ear, I watched the shell-shocked audience make their way to the exits. Most had the confused torpor of refugees who had survived a vicious attack. Slowly, as senses began to return, bemused grins appeared and exhilaration took over. It was the same wondrous feeling you have after an earthquake. Excited voices began to retake the room.
The night air greeted my nostrils like smelling salt to a boxer who had been subjugated to the canvass. I walked out into the fold of people, the scene strangely resembling a triage unit. Turning to my friend I said, “WOW!” It was all I could muster.
This was the exact sensation I remembered feeling when I saw My Bloody Valentine some 17 years ago in a small club. The rush of years was reduced to a single word. WOW!