Sunday, 13 November 2011

Never Mind The Love Lost

by George Bate

The latter part of this year sees the 20th anniversary of one of the most critically lauded albums in music history. The album in question is a landmark conceptually and sonically. It is stark and uncompromising but also warm and beautiful. It has an iconic, instantly recognisable cover and it changed parts of the music world both instantly and lastingly.
Many of you will by now have assumed that I was talking about Nirvana’s Nevermind (the misleading title probably contributed), but no. The actual record in question is far more ambitious and much more polarising than anything to ever spring from the grunge scene. Final clue? It's cover image, a fuzzy pink guitar.

The real object of my affections.

I am, in fact, talking about My Bloody Valentine’s magnum opus Loveless. Those of you who have heard it will almost certainly fall into one of two diametrically opposed camps: those that “don’t get it” (and probably can’t stand it) and those who think it is quite simply one of the greatest pieces of art ever created. The dichotomy is understandable – the record is overwhelming whether you like it or not. Most of its tracks are a wall of sound, bereft of anything even remotely resembling a hook and approaching melody in a way completely different to any traditional method traditionally employed in guitar music.

MBV live circa 1990

The methodology from the record came from the MBV live show – uncompromisingly deafening affairs where, near the end, Kevin Shields and his cohorts would release a blizzard of atonal guitar, at times up to 15 minutes in length, so incredibly loud and thundering that the experience became known as ‘the holocaust’. The aim of ‘the holocaust’ was to fool the listener’s brain into creating melodies of its own, and concert-goers would often report that halfway through the experience sounds that were simply not being played by the instruments on stage would begin to drift through their heads. These experiences were likened to that of a drug and whilst collective were also completely unique to the individual. Loveless aimed to recreate these sounds for the home listener, but the approach was different. The band could not rely upon sheer volume to fool their fan’s ears into creating melody, so they used layer upon layer of distortion, feeding each guitar track through literally dozens of effects pedals, so that by the time everything was overdubbed the instruments would segue into one and melodies would appear that would not resemble any of those originally played. This and Shields’ (almost every instrument on the record was played by the band’s perfectionist dictatorial leader) constant use of the tremolo arm, which he adapted so that he would never have to let go of whilst playing, led to the record’s peerless sound.

The face of a dictator: top left.

The effect was astonishing; there are times on the album where the guitar sounds more like a flute in a symphony orchestra than an electric guitar played by a spindly sleep-deprived Irishman. The approach also led to the stripping away of the masculinity of the guitar; whereas Jimmy Page or Matt Bellamy might wield their instruments like phallic totems, the atonal sound of Loveless has a more ambiguous, almost androgynous feel, neither masculine nor feminine in reality. This was furthered by the group’s approach to vocals on the album, which often found second guitarist Bilinda Butcher singing the lower register with Kevin Shields’ voice occupying the higher ends of the spectrum.
Whilst some might state that in the Creation (top marks if you already get the pun in the capitalisation) of Loveless MBV reinvented the guitar, it could also be argued that they completely deconstructed it, by removing the link that had always previously existed between what was played (or what appeared to be played) and what was actually heard. Despite this, Loveless remains undeniably a guitar album: powerful, loud and heavy, yet at the same time beautiful and epicene.

Shields' main pedal board 

The recording process, although obviously fruitful, was also costly. It claimed Shield’s and Butcher’s relationship, drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig’s health and almost bankrupt the then fledgling Creation Records, with estimates for the album’s cost ranging somewhere between £250’000 and £500’000 (Creation would go on to have massive commercial success with Oasis but that is an entirely different and more boring story). The label’s boss Alan McGee would later confess that he thought the work out of art that resulted was entirely worth the mental anguish and financial strain it caused him at the time (the stress probably wasn’t helped by the cornucopia of drugs he was taking whilst working with Primal Scream on their opus Screamadelica).

Sreamadelica pretty much bankrolled Loveless

Whilst MBV can boast no fallen star for whom the vestiges of fame became too much to endure, the band’s post-Loveless hiatus (save a few storming live shows in 2007) has undoubtedly served to increase the record’s legendary status. A record of this type will always lend itself to hyperbole, a degree of which I am sure I will have been guilty of, but this truly is a unique record. It may have been lumped in with the briefly fashionable ‘shoegaze’ scene but it far transcends that label, leaving an ethereal pink haze drifting wispily in its wake. If you have not already been fortunate to have your ears blessed by Loveless then I suggest all that remains is for you stop reading my ramblings and take a listen to some of the music below. Loud.

The opening gambit:

The bliss of my personal favourite:

Further listening

Sonic Youth - Teen Age Riot

Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (I prefer the longer album version)

Slowdive - Souvlaki Space Station

Primal Scream - Higher Than The Sun