Shoegaze dimmed My Bloody Valentine's brilliance

Even before the band fell off the face of the Earth in the early '90s, My Bloody Valentine was a legend in the making. Now a reunion tour gives one of the most influential acts of its generation a chance to capitalize on its tale of love, theft, and apathy.

The beginning of My Bloody Valentine's plight was also its peak. Loveless, the group's second (and to date last) album, took two years and a rumored $250,000 to make. Once it finally saw the light of day in 1991, the trip seemed justified. Loveless was the sound of guitarist Kevin Shields catching the electrical storms he had been chasing in his head for the previous seven years. These visions came alive in the sweetly evasive tunes Bilinda Butcher whispered through his sculpted noise — or what the band members alternately dubbed their "glide guitar" and the "not really there" sound.

It's an aesthetic that was developed with care. When My Bloody Valentine formed in the mid-'80s, the U.K.'s independent charts were ablaze in '60s nostalgia. The Smiths, Aztec Camera, and Orange Juice were among the groups drawing inspiration from the jangly, wordy side of folk-pop. It would take three years and dozens of lackluster reviews for Shields and company to distance themselves from the fad. When they finally did so, it was with 1987's Strawberry Wine, a small collection of songs that put them in rock's vanguard by exhibiting their new fondness for crafting shrieking feedback into sleepy melodies. This approach, too, had precedents in the Jesus and Mary Chain and the American noise rock scene headed by Dinosaur Jr. But the next year, the band distanced itself even further from the pack by rubbing the song structures on Isn't Anything with a moody wash. The album spawned dozens of knock-off bands that the British press dubbed shoegazers, who chased this sound of the moment. But while shoegaze concocted formulas, My Bloody Valentine burrowed deeper into the warm, E-induced glow of its enveloping drone.

Though Shields' technique remained a mystery, shoegaze bands like Ride, Slowdive, and Swervedriver continued to ape its effect. Instead of developing from Shields' deceptively simple groundwork — which relied on earsplitting volume and an unconventional use of the whammy bar — shoegazers found a shortcut to My Bloody Valentine's signature sound in the flange, an effects pedal that works by instantly sampling the chord the guitarist strikes, slowing the sample down, then layering it under the original. When used subtly, the flange fattens a riff. However, Shields' followers lathered an excessive amount of its wobbly glaze on the guitar to distort it beyond recognition, a pale imitation of his multilayered drone. Listen to Ride's "Vapour Trail" next to My Bloody Valentine's "Glider" and you'll find they came close enough. But the spectral quality of Shields' glide guitar turned all too corporeal and conventionally riff-happy in the hands of his imitators.

Over the years, Shields' second-guesses have piled up as he's made multiple attempts to complete album number three. In a 1995 interview, he spoke of thrash and jungle influences that at various times had seized his work-in-progress — musical digressions he later called "wrongheaded." Throughout his band's hiatus, his most consistent line is that My Bloody Valentine would make a new album when the music moved them. But, with shoegaze's swift cheapening of the group's hard-earned style, it's no wonder the band went into meltdown when it came time to follow Loveless. Today, however, on the fragile first tour of its long-awaited reunion, My Bloody Valentine is synonymous with the genre that did it in.

 
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