Walking into the Aragon Ballroom to see My Bloody Valentine (MBV) for their first Chicago visit in half a decade, I was greeted by a young skinny man, offering me a pair of earplugs sealed in a miniature plastic bag. Being the concert-going geek that I am, I had brought my own, but wandering through the venue’s antique hallways, I realized just how crucial earplugs apparently were for a MBV show. Signs on printer paper were plastered among the walls reading, “Due to extreme volume at this show, it is highly recommended that you take and use the earplugs provided.” Hmm.
The band arrived right on time with “Sometimes”, a surprisingly heavy song for an opener. The group was stoic and robotic, Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields in the front, dressed in all black, their silhouettes strumming in perfect synchronization as a giant spiral spun in the background. Audience members hurried over clutching overpriced cups of beer, filling in the gaps, and losing themselves in the eclectic crowd of ages—really, some fans looked like they were still in high school, others could be my grandpa. No matter the age, everyone appeared to be in a daze as they watched one of the most influential bands of the nineties play before them.
To be honest, “Sometimes” was pretty tame as far as decibel levels go, but MBV blasted the crowd out of whatever daze they had put us in with “I Only Said”, eliciting a collective bobble of heads as if a switch were turned on. Loveless favorite “When You Sleep” followed, feeling oddly hurried, frantic, and sped up. Colm Ó Cíosóig was furious in the background, rattling the walls of the Aragon with his drumming, while Butcher and Shields appeared unmoved, cool as always.
But of course, this wasn’t a Loveless reunion tour, and the group mixed things up with slightly slower songs off this year’s Top Star-earning mbv with “new you” and “only tomorrow”. The latter really was an impeccable performance. While several of MBV’s songs were unfortunately muddled by the venue’s whacky acoustics, “only tomorrow” was perfectly distorted, Butcher’s vocals just seeping through layers of dense guitars that screeched and crunched.
MBV is a band that works in contrasts. “Feed Me with Your Kiss”, for instance, made an appearance, Butcher and Shields’ vocals soft and sweet, just barely audible over the immense growl of guitars. The group poses a challenge for live audiences, in that you really have to listen for the melodies. I was up in front right near a speaker for “Feed Me with Your Kiss”, and was initially blown back by the sense of wrath panting down at us from the stage, until I had that moment of—oh, the two aren’t mad. They’re desperate and hungry; they just want a kiss like all the rest of us. During “Cigarette in Your Bed” off of You Made Me Realise, the background was a hazy murk of gray smoke, interspersed with sharp bursts of light as the heavier guitar parts crackled. That’s really what MBV is, isn’t it—foggy and dark, with flashes of clarity.
Set highlight “To Here Knows When” shimmered into existence on stage, a projection of gold liquid washing over the background. This performance lulled everyone into a state of stupor, and shortly following we stood stunned and silent. But MBV doesn’t like to let anything sit still for too long, and “wonder 2” shattered the room next, a drum machine rattling steadily but frantically as Ó Cíosóig picked up a guitar and joined the rest of the group. The song built up to what eventually was a series of shrieking guitars, followed by a soft “whoaaa” from an audience member behind me.
After “wonder 2,” someone in the crowd must have come to his senses enough to realize that, up until that point, the band had essentially not uttered a word to us. “Say something!” the brazen concertgoer demanded. Kevin, who had been tweaking his guitar, shook his head and offered what I’m pretty sure was, “Fuck!” Butcher, slightly more compliant, offered a knock-knock joke, but alas it was told in that adorable, meek voice of hers, and it seemed like no one in the crowd (myself included) was actually able to hear the punch line.
Shields spoke only once more after that, thanking us for coming out to see them and warning us, “This is our last song. Sorry for all the trouble.” I was a little confused at first but overall didn’t think much of the apology, and the band proceeded to play their go-to closing anthem, “You Made Me Realise”. Some people call it the “holocaust” section of the performance. I call it a big fuck-you to the people who hadn’t put in their earplugs yet.
It was loud. Fucking loud. But it was still a song—at least until a few minutes in, when it began to morph into a horrifying, thrashing interlude of pure feedback and noise, ripping the walls of the gorgeous Aragon apart nail by nail as the venue crumbled into a cavern of thunderous roars. I was still near the speakers when it began, and I could feel my body actually shaking with sound vibrations, my throat feeling like a hand had enveloped it, slowly gripping tighter and tighter. In front of me was a white-haired man who had appeared to be having a great time for the majority of the show, and he played along for a few minutes, throwing up the rock-n-roll “sign of the horns” symbol with hands, shaking his head along with the, uh, beat. I glanced around to see what other people were doing. Most were just staring, mesmerized, but also trying to pretend like this didn’t hurt their heads. I had earplugs in, and even I was uncomfortable after about four minutes.
I started to retreat, noticing the white-haired man was long gone. I passed the bar, and saw that a few bartenders were smiling in disbelief at what MBV was doing, while one unfortunate bartender gripped his ears with his hands and frowned, searching for a spare pair of earplugs. I made my way to the very back of the crowd, and continued to scan for reactions. I caught the eye of one man, who grinned back in recognition of the absurdity of the moment. I had lost track of time at this point—perhaps it had been around 10 minutes of noise—but suddenly the band shifted back to “You Made Me Realise”, and the song itself sounded unbelievably quiet in comparison to what we had just experienced—comically quiet. Meek, even.
Soon after, it was all over, and the band’s latest album art was projected onto the stage. People slowly shuffled their way out of the Aragon, some turning to their friends to share various remarks—“That was insane!” “What the fuck just happened?”—while others moaned about like shell-shocked zombies. Once outside, I took a breather in the crisp Chicago wind, trying to take in a concert that I thought I never would be able to experience.
Collage by AJ Giovannetti.
I Only Said
When You Sleep
You Never Should
Cigarette in Your Bed
Come in Alone
Nothing Much to Lose
Who Sees You
To Here Knows When
Feed Me With Your Kiss
You Made Me Realise