PRINT November 1992


My Bloody Valentine

DREAM POP—THE WORDS CATCH in your throat like swallowed bubble gum. Which is why they summarize so well the music they’ve been glommed to. Eventually popularized by such bands as Ride, Lush, and My Bloody Valentine, the sound that inspired dream pop originally lofted up from the clubs of Manchester, England, in the mid ’80s, where an emerging generation of teen alchemists patched strobe lights and fully cranked guitar noise into acid-house sequencers, wrapping rock metal around house’s sensual yet faceless motifs of process and repetition. Opposed to the civic-mindedness many postpunk acts had adopted (read: U2), such music concocted a decentering dance ritual that sought not to inform minds but to undo them; it proposed an impersonal psychedelia for the cybernetic age, an esthetic privileging of engineering over expression, loss of self over self-consciousness.

Distinguishing the Manchester sound was its odd take on sampling, the computer procedure—the basis of house—that makes it possible to abduct all things audio and transform them into pure form, into aimless, intransitive gestures cut off from motivation or intent. True, the first Manchester bands to gain wide recognition, Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, used little if any sampling, but they achieved a similar effect: referring to ’60s pop without reviving it, their music conveys distance more than anything, the sound coming through like a far-off radio signal, all echo and distortion, under which a hypnotic dance beat pulses and over which pass lifeless, bleached vocals. Collapsing ’60s humanism with acid house’s antihumanism, the Manchester sound was at once thunderous and alienating, orgiastic and anesthetic. The ’60s were not being relived here but celebrated as afterlife, the forms of that era gaining in beauty and poignancy precisely because they were treated as dead.

My Bloody Valentine have cut a different path. Veering from the nature-morte melancholy of Happy Mondays et al., bands whose formalism mourns its own emptiness and inertia, MBV treat distance as mobile and active, something that structures experience even while displacing it. “(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream,” is how a 1988 song by the half-female, half-male quartet puts it. MBV don’t hold out dreams as vibrant, if static, idealizations placed at some unattainable remove. Rather than suppressing a familiar sound in order to create a desire for it, they demonstrate how desire creates and deforms its own sound all at once. Theirs is a hallucinogenic music as immediate as it is elusive, a sonic volcano that erupts and devours at the same time.

Until 1988, MBV were also crafting antiquated pop hum-alongs buried beneath a patina of guitar buzz. But with their release of two EPs that year, You Made Me Realise and Feed Me With Your Kiss, as well as an LP, Isn’t Anything, they suddenly began phrasing their somnambulism in the present tense, opening craters of nowhere in the here and now. The difference was effected subtly, through unconventional, haunting progressions, a more urgent rhythm section. But the most noticeable change came in the guitars—dismantling the opposition between noise and melody, the band grew adventurous in their treatment of guitar sound, as axe-man Kevin Shields made the instrument heave long sighs by incorporating slow turns of the whammy bar into his strumming. Noise was no longer caked over chords, but rather seemed to corrupt them from within; it drove rather than suppressed the songs, and it also drove them all over the place, past plotted destinations, straight off cliffs.

On their two subsequent EPs, Glider, 1990, and Tremolo, 1991, and especially on last year’s Loveless album, MBV intensified their music’s sense of sublime skidding, both by adding more sampled and treated sound and by unbolting the bottom end of bass and drums. The heightened influence of house music is apparent on Loveless in the heavy reliance on sampling, in the slower, more mechanized beats, and in the absence of breaks between songs, suggesting not a series of discrete units but a dissolution from one provisional state to another, a journey without end. But unlike the zero-gravity space house explores, In which the absence of binding song structure leaves all parts to float free from one another, the Valentines, following the logic of dreams, generate disorientation through compression, as the high and low ends are sucked into a dense, undifferentiated middle. The effect is like a whirlpool, the music’s center feeling at once charged and collapsed, all distinct identities lost as everything melds together—the players and their instruments, the instruments with each other. Even Bilinda Butcher’s voice, which exists at the farthest edge of exhaling, in the end seems breathed by the music itself, her words bobbing like leaves on turbulent water. Syntax is not so much unchained and dispersed as melted and condensed, the sound building without progressing, pulling listeners into a rush of moments without location, a here and now that’s nowhere.

In his book Music for Pleasure, Simon Frith concludes an appreciation of postpunkers Hüsker Dü with some downbeat thoughts about alienation, mentioning along the way that the band’s grinding wail seemed to include within itself the sound of its own audience, as if Hüsker Dü had been listening to The Beatles Live at Hollywood Bowl but couldn’t distinguish between the guitars and the screaming crowd. Pop has long chased its own forever unfulfilled promise to “break on through to the other side,” as the ’60s Doors anthem announced; to create an experience without separation or mediation, an experience transparent and whole. My Bloody Valentine also take up this promise, only to reinterpret it: their implosive crescendos reach not toward a realm of seamless presence but into the very illusion of seamlessness itself. It’s this illusion they break through, over and over again, until the sound of desired completion surrenders to desire’s own incompleteness, its constant discovery of loss—which leads to perpetual discovery, an unending search to arrive no place for good.

Lane Relyea is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.