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Kevin Shields

After brief stints in Asia and Australia, My Bloody Valentine have returned to play in the UK for the first time since Kevin Shields promised and delivered the impossible. This O2 Academy Birmingham show was a late addition to the UK tour, added after alternative music fans everywhere became swept up in the chatter leading up to the possible release of the band’s new album m b v. Many would have bet that by this gig the album would still be unreleased, but the Birmingham show improbably happened in a post m b v world, and while it wasn’t an official sell out, it was pretty damn close. Certainly not bad for a band who have disappeared completely several times, and whose most critically acclaimed album, Loveless, only sold 200,000ish copies worldwide.

The Birmingham audience was dotted with aging, deafened-veteran fans, but they were in the minority, some of those in the crowd seemed to be so young that not only were they not born when Loveless was released, they probably couldn’t even legally drink when the remastered version came out. The crowd was comprised of people that had discovered My Bloody Valentine’s amazing and truly unique music (unique before they inspired droves of imitators that is) at some time in their life, even if it was years after the fact. But some people had probably just been dragged along by someone else that had found the band’s music, and were about to get the shock of a lifetime.

Even with the focus on their new material being at an all-time high they opened with the melodious duo of “I Only Said” and “When You Sleep” from Loveless. The woozy synth leads from both boast two of band’s biggest hooks, and for ten minutes people seemed to forget that the band has a new record out. As “New You” started they were quickly reminded, Shields played his oscillating guitar line with head almost pressed to his speakers. The band stood in front of video loops that were as cohesive as their production is. The images were marked with the same corroded and kaleidoscopic beauty that defines their songs. It was only upon seeing “New You” live that it finally became clear that it’s Bilinda Butcher who provides the sweet lead vocals. Her and Shields androgynous vocals were just as similarly inaudible as they sound on their studio recordings, almost to an irritating extent. It becomes a noticeable problem with their music when you lose the intimacy of headphones or home speakers, getting the right balance between quiet-but-audible vocals and louder-than-hell guitars must be close to impossible in a live setting.

They became the ear shredders that legend foretold with “You Never Should”, which completely did away with the laid back serenity of “New You”. They started the Isn’t Anything track with a significant volume bump to what was already a loud show. The legends must have spread, because this gig’s audience had the highest percentage of people wearing earplugs that I’ve ever seen. By the time Shields’ liquid slide guitar on “Honey Power” started, people were likely thanking the pieces foam in their ears. The addition of some aggressive and lesser known early EP songs made for a nice mix of sonically varied material that continued throughout their set, and it was a testament to their new material that m b v’s songs fit so seamlessly next to older and beloved tracks. With “Only Tomorrow” the volume somehow seemed to increase again, the warbling guitar drop and pained outro licks shook the stage.

Except for Butcher, the band members’ gazes were still fixed firmly upon their shoes; only Bilinda looked out at the crowd, as she softly sung with her guitar hanging motionless at her waist. It was the band’s lone acknowledge of their audience, and with the vocal mix being what it was, it was hard to tell whether Shields had said nothing, or merely little, to the similarly sedate crowd. He seemed to be lost within his guitar sound during a dissolving “Come In Alone”. Colm Ó Cíosóig’s snare queued up the wonky “Only Shallow”, with its guttural bass and reanimated six string squeal. Their set’s final visits to Loveless’ came in the form of the gorgeously muddled “To Here Knows When” and its stomping post punk closer “Soon”. The two songs bookended and overshadowed a messy version of “Slow” that seemed to leave the crowd unmoved.

They began their final act with the scraping slam of “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, an excellent blurry rocker with a dual vocal lead that trades between Shields and Butcher. But even midway through it you could feel people gearing up for the much hyped “You Made Me Realise”, with its supposedly apocalyptic and famed ‘holocaust section’ wherein the band play one note for as long and as loud and they can endure to. The beginning of the song came with another, possibly imagined, increase in volume, but the beginning of the holocaust section came with a definite and undeniable increase that redefined your definition of ‘loud’. As they dropped into it from the main riff you could feel the rays of sound tearing through your body and shaking your nervous system. Some of those without earplugs wisely covered their ears and others threw their hands above their head to fully embrace its might, as the volume slowly climbed past Jupiter and beyond the infinite. It sounded as if a rocket’s thrusters were burning and reverberating through the venue, conjuring visions of a hectic speed of light re-entry into our atmosphere.

For me, it provoked one of the strongest reactions that I’ve ever had due to live music or music in general, if ten minutes of intense distortion can even be counted as music. I was in disbelief that something so simple and theoretical had hit me so powerfully, that something so monotonous could be so beautiful and invigorating. Its frightening volume was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in person, definitely for such an extended period of time. That such a colossal, all-consuming noise was created by a small group of people with nothing but pedals and guitars is simply incredible. I feel bad for anyone that didn’t experience what I did within its blissful, troubled cacophony, and when the ten minutes were over my body was tingling.

It was awesome in the rarely earned non-hyperbolic sense of the word, an overwhelming and physical experience that no review or video will ever be able to faithfully capture or prepare you for, even I expected everything I’ve heard about it to be a ridiculous over positive appraisal of something that had to be a self-indulgent boring mess. But I’ve never been happier to be wrong, and for almost a quarter of an hour “You Made Me Realise” turned their good set into a great one. The section is completely dependent on its teeth shattering volume, and to turn it down would be to fatally defang it. Anyone who endured it without earplugs is dumb, but they have my respect. When the band returned to and finished the actual song part of it, it actually seemed quiet in comparison.

They broke tradition by not finishing with the song, and instead closed with the live debut of “Wonder”. Cíosóig left his drums and picked up a guitar as the pre-taped jet fuel percussion was piped into the Academy, and Shields’ unnerving vocals struggled to drift through the rumbling guitar layers. Following the distorted behemoth of “You Made Me Realise”, it was an unneeded but welcome addition to their set. It showed that My Bloody Valentine can still create loud and formidable anomalies that deafen you in the best way possible, even if their release dates are now twenty something years apart.

4/5

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Even before their set began Converge’s Jacob Bannon stalked around the stage, getting used to his surroundings as the 4th drum kit of the night was assembled. There were enough opening bands that a fenced off area, which blocked off the venues second bar, was required to house the vast array of various drum equipment. Their request for help with the problems with their hi-hat microphone and monitors went completely unanswered for several minutes but the band remained in a playful mood until someone finally arrived from the absentee sound crew, greeted by Bannon asking the audience to “Give it up for the employee”. You’d never guess he was in such good spirits just seconds into their set, as he lets loose his aggressive snarling energy. His tattooed neck veins bulging with ferocity, moving so much that every live photo of him is probably blurry. He only lets his intensity waiver as he says his surprisingly polite thank you’s over Kurt Ballou’s guitar distortion.

As the front section of the crowd goes wild, the crowd surfers are only momentarily airborne before being mauled over the barrier by security. Seeing this Bannon is quick to call the barrier a “buzzkill” which “doesn’t make this a Hardcore show”. Bannon overcame his gripes with the barrier by performing the majority of the first half of their set stood atop it. Unleashing his guttural bark whilst lying on the heads of the first few rows, pausing to shove the microphone into the faces of the most diehard, crushed and bruised fans. Allowing them to inaudible shout along during a fevered version of new album opener “Aimless Arrow”. The fans at the front were the most eager to embody the definition of a Hardcore show, and a wide gap in the crowd separated the violent throb of the front section from the remaining crossed armed, beer sipping others. Bannon moved back to the stage during the second half of the set, crouching next to his monitors or swinging and slamming his microphone hard to the floor or into his chest.

The drumming of Ben Koller was faultless throughout, and the toughened riff/snare ending of Jane Doe’s “Bitter and Then Some” was a ragged toughened highlight. Bassist Nate Newton provided furious backing vocals along with Ballou, and the shouted near ‘harmonies’ of Axe to Fall’s “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast” added an ever darker edge to the crushing and bleak epic. The slower new album title track “All We Love We Leave Behind” demonstrated some progression in Bannon’s vocals, as he eased into its full power after the agonised bass intro.

It was a thrilling but exhaustive set, and the audience shouts for “Concubine” despite them opening with it, suggest that even their most diehard fans have difficulty distinguishing between their tearing Hardcore songs. These songs form a convulsive and brilliant set, but it’s hard to ignore that it is at times a little samey and that not all of the guitar work can be as memorable as the melting, mournful guitar croon and coarse riffs of “Sadness Comes Home”. Many seemed to have had their fill even before the pre-encore set was finished, and several people began to leave before the band returned for a second helping. It comes down to too much of a good thing, but I suspect that many would subject themselves to having their mind fried again by Converge’s excellent, suffocating barrage.

4/5