On the way to the Electric tonight we get assailed in the street by a middle aged hippie with a Scandinavian accent and a trembling youth in a scruffy parka. As long term Brixton residents we know this is nothing out of the ordinary, but what is different is what they were after – tickets to see My Bloody Valentine.
Its mind boggling that these two people had anything in common, let alone a desperation to see a band whose last album came out 22 years ago and whose biggest hit single reached the glittering peak of number 29. But that illustrates the power of My Bloody Valentine’s last two albums. They were like uranium: there wasn’t a lot of material, but it had a megatonne impact and an extraordinary, lingering half life.
Why do My Bloody Valentine still cast such a long shadow over music when so many of their peers are barely remembered footnotes to eccentric blogs? Anyone who tries to answer this question usually talks about how influential they are, but very few bands have actually sounded much like them. There was the early 90s shoegaze movement, but that swiftly withered in the absence of its chief architects and is now chiefly notable – in the form of Andy Bell – for enabling Liam Gallagher in his eternal quest to eradicate all modernity from pop music. A few bands have incorporated elements of MBV’s white noise and shimmering FX into their music – Smashing Pumpkins being the most commercially successful – but none have been quite so fearless in their disregard for traditional song structure or bold in their pursuit of beautiful, mind bending, ear shredding noise. And perhaps that’s why they are still so revered: their sound was so distinctive that nobody has been able to recreate it.
Including, for much of tonight, My Bloody Valentine. The band were, of course, never a vocally driven outfit but tonight’s mix buries most of the singing under a blanket of heavy, shrieking noise. The effect can be deeply frustrating: only the cooing “ooohs” in the chorus confirm the identity of “When You Sleep”. In fact, the first scraps of real melody have to wait until the sixth song, “Cigarette In Your Bed”, and even then they emerge only briefly, like frightened rabbits, before the sheer shrieking squall of Kevin Shields’ guitar sends them scurrying back into their burrows. Only insanely good drumming holds together “Only Shallow”, which has its chainsaw guitars replaced by a rusty axe.
In fact, the first half of tonight’s show is disappointing musically, for all of its fearsome volume. During the long gaps between songs the crowd is strangely muted given how long most of them have waited for tonight. The biggest cheer comes when Kevin Shields reveals, in response to a yelled question, that the new album will be out in “two or three days.” This may have been Shields’ idea of a joke (the band have never been known for hilarious banter), but the debut of a genuine new song – a choppy, angular, rhythmic beast with no discernible melody – means it may not be quite as fanciful an idea as it was a few hours before.
Luckily things improve dramatically and the reason we are here reveals itself. The turning point comes with “Thorn”, which see Shields finally put the same effort into his singing as he puts into his guitar playing. The result is half adrenaline and half relief, and finally sees the crowd become enthusiastic in their response. This in turn seems to spur the band on to greater efforts, to the point where Shields actually restarts “To Here Knows When” because “it doesn’t sound right.” You sort of wish he’d applied the same rigour earlier, but any churlishness is pushed aside by the final run of songs, which include a gloriously soupy, soporific “Slow” and a feral race through “Feed Me With Your Kiss.”
The band close with a literally deafening “You Made Me Realise”, but it’s “Soon” that lingers in our minds after the show. Its fusion of fluttering dance beats, serpentine harmonies and downwardly spiralling guitars are still as exciting, original, bold and utterly futuristic as in 1991. We get helplessly lost in its sonic beauty, it’s ocean-like relentlessness and rippling, and remember that whether they release a new record on Wednesday or never, My Bloody Valentine will always own a bit of the future until someone else is able to match it.