There are unmuffled Harley-Davidsons, close-proximity jackhammers, and skull-rattling jet engines. There are shotgun blasts, freeway traffic, and the acute distress of someone shouting in your face. Then there is the sound of My Bloody Valentine in concert. The band amplifies its music to an altogether foreign degree of physicality, plays rock 'n' roll so loud — as those who saw the band's last San Francisco show in 2008 will remember — that it basically becomes wind.
Ostensibly a pioneering, hugely influential Irish rock band, and the progenitor of the beautifully sludgy subgenre "shoegaze," My Bloody Valentine is also, infamously, the loudest band in the world. To stand inside SOMA's Concourse Exhibition Center on Sept. 30, 2008, at the band's last concert here, was to stumble for footing inside a wind tunnel, one whose gusts occasionally resembled some of the prettier heavy guitar songs ever written, like "When You Sleep" and "Sometimes." It was overwhelming: dizzying, disorienting, disembodying and — if we're being honest — not entirely pleasant.
Especially not during the encore, when, as expected, My Bloody Valentine played the early single, "You Made Me Realise," which contains a short burst of clattering noise. Live, the band expands this section into a horrific 20-minute meltdown of sound, what MBV regulars affectionately refer to as the "holocaust section." In 2008, it drove me away, and a taxi driver who picked me up during the noise holocaust was visibly alarmed, even with the barriers of the building and a car separating him from the band. "What the fuck is going on in there?" he asked, eyes wide. My explanation of "rock concert" did not seem reassuring.
My Bloody Valentine is touring again this year in support of m b v, possibly the most anticipated indie rock album of all time. It was released upon the Internet with no warning (or at least none we could reasonably believe) this February, 22 years after the band's second album, Loveless, became a generational touchstone. And for its current run of shows, band figurehead Kevin Shields says over the phone from Croatia, My Bloody Valentine has turned it down. A little.
"We're not quite as intense," he mumbles in a soft lilt, almost apologetically. "Sometimes we try to make the sound better, and if it means sacrificing a bit of volume then we do." Even for a band whose obsession with pristine sonics is near-mythic, putting on a live show that approaches 130 decibels isn't easy. One of the problems on this tour, Shields says, was his nuclear guitar setup. "It was like 120 decibels at the microphone from my guitar amps, and it's pretty difficult to sing over that," he says, nonchalantly. "We've got it to a more manageable level now."
Still, the memories of post-My Bloody Valentine tinnitus are long. Shields claims that after its 2009 shows in the country, Belgium passed a law that basically prohibits the band from appearing at festivals there. He says worriers in Europe often badger their local politicians to put a volume cap on the band's shows. "But I think it's just a bit of, whatever, hysteria, based on reputation as opposed to reality," the 50-year-old says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an album that took 22 years to release (and sat on the shelf for 17 of those), m b v is a worthy successor to Loveless. The dreamy grind of "Only Tomorrow" could have been a lost track from 1990. But little in My Bloody Valentine's past would prepare you for the rhythm-forward propulsion of the last third of the album, where the band fuses its sensual textures with almost-danceable, sometimes abrasive beats.
My Bloody Valentine usually works four of the new songs into its setlist on the current tour. How its live setup will handle the low-end of the new songs without dissolving into a barrage of fart noises remains to be seen. But whether the sound is crisp or (as it was in 2008) harsh and muddy, we can promise one thing: It will be very loud.