Based on the reviews in the British press of their celebrated reunion tour, I expected My Bloody Valentine to offer an evening of nostalgia when it pulled into the Aragon Ballroom for a sold-out show on Saturday night.
Though the group's last album remains one of the most inventive, influential and unique recordings of the last two decades--a record the equal of any psychedelic-rock masterpiece you can name--the legendary guitar rockers haven't released any significant new music in 17 years, and their current set draws almost entirely from "Loveless" (1991) and the EPs that preceded it.
Guitarists-vocalists Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher, drummer Colm O'Ciosig and bassist Debbie Googe quit at the top of their game in 1992, with bandleader Shields suffering a mysterious breakdown/artistic paralysis that marked him as the Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett of Generation X, unable to follow up his masterpiece. This was a band with a lot of unfinished business, and one that still sounds undeniable today--at least on record.
What I didn't expect was that the Valentines of 2008 would sound so horribly dated onstage--as much of an oldies act as the Eagles or the Rolling Stones--and as blatantly a comeback cash-in as other recent reunion tours by alternative-era peers such as the Pixies, Rage Against the Machine and the reconstituted Smashing Pumpkins.
During the group's long absence, a technological revolution has taken place in digital sampling and real-time computer looping, but the once groundbreaking musicians seemed to be unaware of it. The tinkling, toy-like keyboard loops that weave in and out of the dense mix on record were only cursorily evoked onstage, and the triggered drum parts that augmented O'Ciosig's animated live kit-bashing sounded leaden and clumsy.
Notorious in the '90s as the loudest band anyone had heard, the Valentines returned with a sound system powerful enough to qualify as a weapon. Earplugs were handed out to every concertgoer to offer some measure of protection, but it hardly mattered, since the sound was loud enough to set your internal organs vibrating.
Volume alone was not enough. Never an animated or charismatic group--not for nothing were they called shoegazers--the Valentines seemed to be on autopilot, hiding behind the sonic assault as they robbed the brilliant "Only Shallow," to cite the most egregious example, of all of its ethereal, multi-layered subtlety, nuance and atmosphere.
Even the traditional set-closing "You Made Me Realise," with its more than 20-minute mid-song breakdown of shattering white noise and endless cymbal crescendo, failed to deliver the transcendent, out-of-body experience that was the goal. Instead of the clangorous hidden symphonies of "Metal Machine Music" or "Sister Ray," its obvious models, it just sounded like a lot of unending noise.
I last saw My Bloody Valentine in '92 at First Avenue in Minneapolis--a room about the size of Metro, which they also played on that tour--and that show stands as one of the most extraordinary I've ever experienced. Throughout Saturday's 85-minute return engagement, I kept wondering if it was the more intimate size of the venue or the shock of the new that made the last gig so much better, and I'm still not sure.
No doubt many in the packed Aragon were thrilled by what they heard, especially because they thought they'd never have the chance to hear it, and quite a few were of an age where they were barely out of Pampers when the band last toured. But for them and for me, the question lingers.
Will this once timeless band pick up the creative thread it lost so long ago, or has time finally caught up with it?