How to Make Noisy Guitars Sound Beautiful
Throughout the world of popular music, there is always something that changes the idea of what popular music is. In November of 1991, the Dublin-based band My Bloody Valentine changed all of that with their second album Loveless. While it wasn’t a big-selling album nor a record that got a lot of attention when it first came out. It was the album that proved that noisy guitars presented into an ethereal yet dream-like context could be defined into something in the world of pop music. At first listen, it doesn’t seem like that a song like Soon or Sometimes could fit in with something like the music of Michael Jackson or Nirvana at the time it came out. In the 20 years since then, the legacy that Loveless has left has proven to be truly insatiable.
While My Bloody Valentine (MBV) started out in the mid-1980s as a post-punk band that was heavily influenced by the Jesus & Mary Chain through a series of EPs and singles. It wasn’t until 1987 when vocalist/guitarist Bilinda Butcher joined the band, that had consisted of band leader Kevin Shields on guitars and vocals plus bassist Debbie Googe, and drummer Colm O’Ciosoig, where MBV was starting to forge a sound that was truly on its own. It had the post-punk energy of their early recordings with a dreamy sound that dwells into dream-pop sound of bands like the Cocteau Twins.
When their first full-length debut album Isn’t Anything came out in 1988, it was a breath of fresh air for many people in the indie music scene. The album along with the non-LP single You Made Me Realise indicated something new that was happening as the energy of post-punk and the noise-rock of bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain and Sonic Youth with dreamy vocal textures seemed something out of this world. To many, it was the beginning of the shoegaze or shoegazing era of popular music where bands would play their guitars while gazing down at their shoes. The album was extremely different as it features waves of chainsaw yet blistering guitars with loud, pummeling rhythms to songs where things were a little slow and dreamy with bits of noise.
Yet, Isn’t Anything was just the start of a band ready to emerge at a time when the music scene needed something different. Particularly in Britain at a time when the indie music scene was in transition following the disbandment of the Smiths and the emergence of the rave culture in Manchester. Kevin Shields was interested in what was going on in Manchester and this rise of house and acid-dance music that would later become bigger in the early 90s. One of those early indications of Shields’ interest towards electronic music into the band’s music was in a two-track instrumental record that was released with early copies of Isn’t Anything. The second instrumental track featured drum loops sampled from Public Enemy’s Security in the First World.
This instrumental track was just the start of where the band was going for their second full-length release as the band entered the studio in February of 1989 following a small tour to promote Isn’t Anything that came out in November of 1988. For the band’s label Creation, that was headed by Alan McGee, everyone thought a follow-up record to Isn’t Anything would come immediately but that didn’t turn out that way. Instead, the album that would become Loveless was recorded for over two-years with various engineers present for many sessions including Alan Moulder were there to help with the recording of the album which was helmed by Kevin Shields. Though the album was credited by the band, it was largely made by Shields as bassist Debbie Googe was unable to play due to Shields’ perfectionism while drummer Colm O’Ciosoig was going through various personal and physical issues that prevented him to play drums for most of the album.
The two-year work to make the album would result in the near-financial collapse of Creation Records as the final cost for the album was 250,000 pounds. During the two years in the making of the album, two EPs were released to keep things going for the band. The first was Glider released in April of 1990 and the second in Tremolo released in February of 1991. The two EPs would show a major progression into what the band was making at the time as each record started off with two songs that would end up in the album Loveless.
Opening the Glider EP, that would later be the closing track of Loveless, is a near-seven minute song called Soon. Featuring an array of rhythmic dance beats that is followed by Shields’ driving yet noise-blaring guitar that carry the song through with its groove-laden bass and hypnotic keyboard swirls. Shields’ vocals sounds like as if he has just woken up while singing strange yet fragmented lyrics that really doesn’t say anything. Then again, Shields nor Bilinda Butcher were really lyricists as it was more about what the music said. Soon is really the beginning of something as it’s a track where band had taken their shoe gaze sound of strumming the guitar with the tremolo bar and meshed it with the rhythm of Manchester.
The fourth track on Loveless, that is the opening track on the Tremolo EP, is a much dreamier song called To Here Knows When. While the version in Tremolo is an extended version due a very different coda of ambient-layered keyboards. To Here Knows When is a key track to help differentiate between the rest of the album in terms of musical dynamics and presentation. The song opens with this flurry of sprinkling sounds of synthesizer washes with soft, tribal beats and whale-like sounding guitars that soars through as Butcher sings in her evocative yet hazy vocals as she sings these esoteric lyrics of some strange dream or something.
These two tracks would help shape the rest of the entire album as it would range into a series of musical presentation for each track. Many of the material album would dwell into loud yet performance-driven cuts to more dreamier material that emphasize on mood and texture. The album opener Only Shallow and its following track Loomer played up these different dynamics in mood and guitar textures. When one listens to Only Shallow for the very first time, the sound of blaring guitar noises nearly sounds like a robotic elephant wailing as drums pound through that sheer sound of noise. Then the song’s tone starts to change once Bilinda Butcher sings in her dreamy voice with lyrics that are very fragmented in its presentation. That section of the song just has Shields and Butcher strum their guitars to a steady mid-tempo rhythm as it returns to that noisy dynamic as it would move back and forth throughout.
The song closes with this coda of droning guitar textures that then segues to Loomer that is led by rumbling beats and driving guitar riffs as Butcher sings in her cool vocal to non-descript lyrics that recalls a world of its own. Featuring this wave of seductive guitar that sounds a bit like a fuzzy synthesizer, it adds to this sheer noise of something that can be extremely intense but also intoxicating in its delivery. The third cut of the album is its sole instrumental track Touched as it’s also the only cut not written by Kevin Shields as it’s helmed mainly by drummer Colm O’Ciosoig. Featuring a guitar that sounds like an animal wail, it is largely an ambient cut that is filled with soft, timpani-like beats and swirls of synthesizers that adds to the dreamy texture of the album.
To Here Knows When would follow but with a different coda which is essentially a droning guitar playing slow, sludge-like riffs with all of the metal power chords that goes on for nearly a minute and then segues into When You Sleep. With that blaring, high-pitch guitar solo, the song takes charge with its fast, driving guitar riff and pummeling beats. Shields’ vocals is presented in a hazy fashion as he sings very esoteric and dream lyrics. Throughout all of this chaotic sound of guitars and beats that is carried through this production that is unlike anything in terms of what is traditional with rock or pop music. There is a pop element to this song that really defies the idea of what pop music is.
Pop music is often known for something that is often safe and radio-friendly but there has always been someone or some act that will reinvent pop music to either fit with the times or to give it a new spin. I Only Said is the best example of MBV as a pop act although it the idea of that wouldn’t initially across to anyone at first listen. Through this swirling guitar riffs, walloping yet heavy rhythms, driving guitar drones, and Butcher’s vocals that sings these abstract lyrics. This is not what pop music is to the ears of someone who might think that pop music is something is often played on top 40 radio. Well, not at first but when listening to riff that Shields plays and the structure of the song through this production. There is a very accessible element to the song that makes it than just noise. It’s noise being turned into a thing of beauty.
Shields’ guitar work throughout the entirety of the album is among the reasons why this album has managed to endure over the years. While bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain and Sonic Youth brought new ideas to what noise could do with guitars. Shields took it to the new level by strumming with the tremolo arm continually to help create a sound that really defines the idea of noise. Whereas Sonic Youth had a more sense of brutality to their music as they also used the tremolo bar. Shields takes it back to more ethereal context in terms of creating something that he claims had a sound that glides through. The work that Shields did was something that wasn’t like anything at the time as he remains probably one of the last few innovators, with the exception of Tom Morello of the rap-metal band Rage Against the Machine, to reinvent the idea of what guitar playing could be in terms of rock and pop music.
Another example of Shields’ amazing guitar playing is in the song Come in Alone with this wave of blistering and squealing noises drills through the song with a drum machine that just pummels throughout as Butcher sings. There is this level of noise in the guitar that squeals and drones in the way Shields allows it to just soar in a gaze as if he’s playing based on the way he’s feeling. It’s a song that really up plays to the idea of just letting go into a gaze both lyrically and musically as the former has these weird lyrics of just going into a dream as it’s one of the tracks that help elevate the album even more as it progress.
Then there’s Sometimes, which is essentially a love ballad in the most unconventional form but it’s also the most accessible song of the entire album. Armed with just a driving yet droning guitar riff with backing acoustic guitars in the background that is later followed by soothing, ambient synthesizers. Shields sings the song with his soft yet dreamy vocals that has very touching lyrics of longing. It’s a song that is another great example of MBV as a pop act while the song would have an even bigger life during a scene in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation in a sequence where both Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters are on their way back from a party as Johansson stares at the lights of Tokyo while Murray’s Bob Harris finally sleeps. It’s a scene that really captures the song at its best as it’s also probably the song to play when driving at night in a city.
Blown a Wish is the dreamiest song of the entire album that is awash with layers of vocals swooning through with ethereal synthesizers and wavy guitars. Butcher’s vocals comes in as if she’s woken up in a trance while singing, once again, indecipherable lyrics with esoteric imagery. With the production of this song maintaining that dream-like tone, it also cools the album down after going through a barrage of noisy material to just get the listener lose itself in the waves of guitars and vocals. What You Want brings back the barrage of noisy guitars with a more bopping rhythm and driving guitar blares with its sound of droning distortions and warbling riffs. Shields’ vocals maintains its indecipherable presentation to its abstract lyrics while it has this very simple structure of where he’s singing and then just playing. It’s part of Shields’ brilliance as a songwriter as the song would later close itself into a texture of wavy keyboards that would lead to its closer Soon.
When Loveless was released on November 4, 1991, it came out to rave reviews with critics praising the album in the U.S. and in the U.K. although sales for the record were modest as it reached number 24 in Britain but didn’t chart in the U.S. Due to the staggering cost of the album that nearly bankrupted Creation Records, Alan McGee reluctantly dropped the band in order to save the label that would later sign the mid-90s Britpop band Oasis to great success. The band would eventually sign with Island Records in the fall of 1992 but only made contributions for the label with two covers for compilation albums in 1993 and 1996. Despite a tour throughout the year of 1992 that gave them lots of exposure, the band was never able to capitalize whatever momentum they had following the release of Loveless.
Though My Bloody Valentine were eventually able to reunite in 2008 for some shows with claims about making a new record. The legacy that Loveless has left has managed to endure 20 years since its release. For the alternative bands that were around for the album’s release, it was a big deal of what could done not just musically but in terms of ambition. Acts like the Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails both benefited from the album’s release as both worked with engineer Alan Moulder by having him as a producer for their albums. Particularly with the latter as Moulder would be one of the key collaborators for Trent Reznor as he utilized a lot of the band’s shoe gaze sound for the band’s 1999 album The Fragile.
The album would also allow bands to take risks with guitars as the British band Radiohead cited the album as its influence for Shields’ textured guitar work that gave them a chance to create the sound they wanted for their 1997 masterpiece OK Computer. A more recent band that definitely benefited from the album’s influence is the Atlanta-based ambient-punk band Deerhunter whose layered yet exotic sound definitely bears the dreaminess of Loveless. Notably their 2007 album Cryptograms which has a lot of layered guitars and a sound that mixes chaos and beauty.
Whether or not My Bloody Valentine will ever have another record out anytime soon. Loveless is the album that many will remember them for and it remains an album that is truly ahead of its time more than 20 years since its release. There isn’t an immediacy about after one listen but repeated listens do make it something worthwhile. Whether it’s driving at night or playing something very loudly in a bedroom. It’s an album that really takes whoever is listening to that album right now into a journey that isn’t unlike anything. That is what great albums do and that’s why My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is among one of the greatest albums ever made.
© thevoid99 2011