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My Bloody Valentine
Sonic Boom
Roundhouse, London
Saturday June 21 2008

When is a comeback not a comeback? When the band never quite split up in the first place.

Even in their heyday My Bloody Valentine were never likely to win any awards for the hardest working band in showbusiness – it took two years years for them to follow up their first album, 1988's Isn't Anything, with their second, Loveless, which finally arrived in 1991. After that, a lengthy and inconclusive silence.

It's only now, a decade and a half after they were last active, that My Bloody Valentine have finally hauled themselves back into the fray, with an extensive tour that takes in many substantially bigger venues than the band ever played in the early days – and, just in case we failed to get excited, there's a veritable media frenzy to go with it.

Sonic BoomIt might seem bizarre that there's so much kerfuffle over the belated return of a mid-eighties indie band that vanished below the parapet long ago. I mean, you'd never get such a frenzy over, say, the June Brides, would you?

But My Bloody Valentine aren't just any mid-eighties indie band. They count as one of the key artists of their era. Their combination of swirling dreampop and battering nightmare noise, psychedelic mantras played with minimalist reductionism and maximum volume, were a genuine sensation then, and have passed into legend now.

That's why the Roundhouse is sold out tonight – in fact, it's sold out four nights running – with old school alternorockers and youthful indie heads. It's time to test the legend against reality.

Holding down the support slot, ex-Spacemen Three man Sonic Boom cuts an affable, if somewhat awkward figure. Along with his band of heads-down musos, he creates an assortment of psychedelic workouts that start a little hesitantly, with Mr Boom fiddling with a table laden with effects gear. Eventually, however, he builds the effects into slabs of heavily-treated sound, feeding guitar into the mix as he goes. The band joins in - and yet, even as the sound scrabbles up to lofty crescendos, it all somehow contrives to be a bit of a low key experience. The most exciting moment comes when the bass amp falls off its speaker cabinet.

If I was here specially to see Sonic Boom I suspect I might feel a little underwhelmed after that nice, but not exactly earth-shattering, performance. But I'm here to see the headliners – me and, I suspect, everyone else in the Roundhouse. In his support act context, Sonic Boom does the right stuff. But now it's time to bring on the stars.

Uncannily, given that they all must be well into their forties now, the four members of My Bloody Valentine still look like a bunch of dishevelled college kids on their way to the end of term indie disco. They stand, introspective and reserved, in front of the largest collection of backline I've ever seen on stage – I mean, why use just one Marshall amp when umpteen will do?

Kevin Shields, lead guitarist and the creative mainspring of the band, must have at least ten amps (and yet more speaker cabs) ranged behind him. Surely this is a gesture intended merely for effect, given that the stage is well supplied My Bloody Valentinewith monitors while the out-front sound comes from the venue's own PA, which should hardly need such an elaborate pile of gear to generate an incoming signal. It's hard to escape the notion that My Bloody Valentine are shamelessly indulging themselves here, as well as deliberately playing up to their myth.

What My Bloody Valentine are also playing is a set of golden oldies instantly familiar to indie kids of a certain age. 'When You Sleep', 'Come In Alone', 'Thorn' - alterno-anthems all - surge from the speaker stacks like a rising tide. The sound, dense and roaring and definitely louder than it needs to be, sweeps all before it. Bilinda Butcher, switching guitars between almost every song (not that this makes the slightest discernible difference to the sound) stands demurely before her microphone, her vocals a barely-there croon.

One of the key My Bloody Valentine axioms was that vocals should be treated just like another instrument, and not given any particular prominence in the mix. Maybe that's why the vocals are a mere sonic blur in the overall sound tonight, or maybe it's because neither Bilinda Butcher or Kevin Shields, who share the vocals between them, are particularly strong singers. It's noticeable at times that the sound engineer is obviously trying to push their voices forward in the mix as much as possible - you can hear Belinda Butcher's vocal creep up to just below feedback point, and then drop back a little as the engineer tries to find his level.

The real problem, I think, is that the band rely very heavily on the mix to bring the vocals out. That technique might work in the studio, but on stage, with all that backline blasting straight at the vocal mics, there's a limit to how far up you can push the fader before horrible noises start to happen. Odd that for all the big-budget scale of the current My Bloody Valentine shows, they haven't managed to get this detail right.

But the gig powers on. The relentlessly rising tide of sound never slacks. It's all a deafeningly fuzzy swirl of effects, effects and more effects - and yet, standing close enough to Billinda Butcher to watch her hands on the strings of her guitar, I realise just how simple My Bloody Valentine's songs are in their natural state, as it were.

A few chords strummed repeatedly, and a mere murmur of a vocal. Everything else is multiple layers of effects and a take-no-prisoners mix, all ramped up to maximum volume. The end result is undeniably impressive in its sheer overwhelming force, but in a way My Bloody Valentine songs are like musical meringues: impressive confections without much substance under the surface.

mbvmbvmv My Bloody Valentine  

The grand finale of the sonic assault course of the show is 'You Made Me Realise', a song which originally featured a swift burst of random sound by way of punctuation. Tonight, that swift burst of random sound is extended – and extended, and extended – until the audience is cowering under a 20-minute onslaught of blasting, screaming noise.

On and on it goes, Colm Ó Cíosóig on drums moving around his kit, here an extended burst of rack-tom action, there a cymbal solo, as if trying it out with a view to purchase, while the rest of the band seemingly enter a trance-like state. Bilinda Butcher keeps stroking her guitar, a faraway smile on her face, as if, in her head, she's sitting in a sunlit glade strumming plangent folk ditties. (Perhaps, if we could remove all the effects that turn her guitar into a screaming jet engine, we'd find she's doing just that.)

At first, this hurtling bulldozer of noise is a dramatic gesture, a defiant poke in the eye for rock 'n' roll convention, but after about five minutes of almost physical decibel-battery it starts to seem uncomfortably like a tiresome gimmick. Having set up the sound, My Bloody Valentine don't actually do anything with it. They just keep it going - on and on and on.

After ten minutes, it occurs to me that, quite simply, I'm bored. So I wend my way back through the crowd, heading for the exit while the band continue to stand, glassy-eyed, amid their howling hurricane.

On my way out, a possibly heretical thought occurs to me. For all their towering reputation, maybe, when you boil it all down, My Bloody Valentine amount to a fine demonstration of noise over substance.


Essential links:

My Bloody Valentine: Website | MySpace

Sonic Boom: Website | MySpace


For more photos from this gig, find My Bloody Valentine by name here.

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