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Saturday, 27 October 2012

My Bloody Valentine - Isn't Anything (1988)

When I was 19 I was obsessed with creating a particular guitar sound. I wanted to replicate the strange fluctuations that occur when perceiving sound as you are falling asleep, where sound waves twist and warp in your mind and seem to drift in and out of phase. I wanted to create something of a musical mid-point between Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins’ open guitar chords dripping with fuzz and dreamy feedback; Spiritualized’s soporific drones and ethereal soundscapes; and the breathed, almost inaudible vocals of some of Suicide’s less-barmy numbers.

I wrote about half a dozen tracks that utilised a homemade fuzz pedal turned up beyond normal levels, with open guitar chords allowed to ring as I gently kept the notes drifting in and out of sync by using the guitar’s tremolo arm to stretch and twist the notes, creating the warped effect that I had been seeking. I was impressed with what I’d created: I thought it was original and unique. I played it to quite a few friends, and they were all taken aback by the sound, apart from one friend who popped my bubble and sent me crashing back to earth: “sounds like someone’s been listening to a bit too much My Bloody Valentine” he said accusingly. I’d never heard of My Bloody Valentine and protested my ignorance. Rather than trying to explain why I was such a duck-billed plagiarist, he simply put on a CD of Isn’t Anything. He played the track ‘I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)’ and I was immediately crushed. I had convinced myself that I’d created something unique and innovative, and then I found out that I’d managed to come up with something that had been done better over a decade before. I was gutted, but grateful that I’d been introduced to a band with whom I seemed to share such a close musical affinity, and after leaving my friend’s room, I went into town and bought Isn’t Anything and fell in love with the album immediately.

Isn’t Anything opens with machine gun snare pops and the fiddly bass intro of ‘Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)’, a song full of lysergic guitar chords and strange vocal hums that sound like a giant hulking Manga robot creaking to life and striding across the post-apocalyptic ruins of Neo Tokyo. ‘Lose My Breath’ seems to splutter over a slightly discordant acoustic dirge before Bilinda Butcher’s breathy “ooh”s create an oddly haunting melody that can’t but make your nerve endings tingle. Beneath the off-key guitars and whirring feedback of ‘Cupid Come’ lies the pop sensibility of bands like the Byrds. Kevin Shields has an uncanny ability to come up with unexpected and amazing chord progressions that seem to defy all sense of song-writing logic, and the progression in the verse to ‘(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream’ illustrates this perfectly. It is a song that seems to take punk into a new and exciting direction, with the urgency of A Minor Threat’s straight-edge hardcore, but with a unique and undeniable sense of musicality. ‘No More Sorry’ is an absolutely heart-wrenching piece of music. I imagine that if an alchemist attempted to transmute a feeling of desolation and loneliness into musical form, ‘No More Sorry’ would be the result. Its chord changes capture an overwhelming sense of dull aching sadness – this isn’t self-indulgent teenage misery, it is a quiet, subdued sense of loss and genuine sadness. ‘All I Need’ foreshadows the intense wall of sound that characterised Isn’t Anything’s seminal follow-up, Loveless. The droned guitars reverberate and flood the mix with an almost unrelenting torrent of noise. I say almost because it always feels controlled, as if being gently guided by supernatural forces. ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ echoes Mudhoney’s ‘Touch Me, I’m Sick’ with its deep distorted bass riff, but there is a level of unabashed excessive noise and intensity that even Sonic Youth at their most chaotic might feel inclined to shy away from. I saw My Bloody Valentine play this song live, and the blast of white noise that comes near the end of the song was extended for about 20 minutes. The noise was so loud that my jeans were flapping, my septum started to tingle uncomfortably and it was impossible to remove my hands from my ears in fear that my brain might have blasted out of my head. ‘Sueisfine’ provides a welcome respite after the sonic brutality of ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’, with its jangly guitars and pop melodies. ‘Several Girls Galore’ manages to produce a sugar-coated pop song with thundering drums and warped overdriven guitar chords that sound as if they are being stretched and contorted beyond recognition. ‘You Never Should’ strikes you with bursts of guitar noise and fuzz-laden bass. It is a song that would drift into dreariness were it not for its amazing vocal melody. ‘Nothing Left to Lose’ bursts in with some of the strangest out-of-time drum rolls you could possibly care to hear. The guitar is light, and the rhythm driving. Sheilds’ and Butcher’s vocals work in bizarre harmony during the chorus – it shouldn’t work, but sounds amazing. Isn’t Anything closes with the stunning ‘I Can See it (But I Can’t Feel It)’, a gorgeous acoustic number held together by fat fuzzy bass and sensitive vocals, reminding me of the almost hummed sweet melodic tones of some of James Iha’s solo efforts.

In recent years I’ve come to love this album more than Loveless, and I really love Loveless, but as much as do I love this album, this is one for the charity shop... I’m being slightly misleading here: earlier this year I purchased the remastered version of the album which is a far superior pressing. So technically, although one version is being culled from my collection, I’d be lying if I said that the album wasn’t a keeper.

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deep-blue said...

I found Isn't Anything to be harder to get into than Loveless.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Loveless is a much more accessable album, Glider EP is worth listeningto

Jonesy said...

the actual review bit of this article is brilliant. you're a phenomenal music writer. I've never listened to this album but now I can picture it and feel it and now I want to hear it.

JC said...

@Joney - aww, too kind. Enjoy the album, and check out Loveless too!

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