On August 1st, 2018, My Bloody Valentine, legendary members of the musical movement known as "shoegaze", performed at the Hammerstein Ballroom to a sold out crowd. Live performances are few and far between for this elusive band, with this tour marking their first performances since 2013. The crowd was clearly excited but also oddly calm for a rock show. Conversations throughout the room were punctuated by sidelong glances toward the stage even before the sound crew began pre-flight checks for the opener (J Mascis's side project, Heavy Blanket). For many, this would be the first time they had seen MBV in person, and everyone seemed acutely aware that it could be quite a long time before they'd have another opportunity.
Founded in 1983, My Bloody Valentine first drew widespread critical acclaim in 1988 with their initial releases with Creation Records (the EP You Made Me Realise and their debut, full length record Isn't Anything). The band is and always has been experimental, pushing the limits of typical rock instrumentation, tone, production methods, and perhaps most famously, sheer volume. A lot of shoegaze's characteristic whammy bar antics, buried vocals, and fuzzed out, wall-of-sound textures can be credited to guitarist and founding member, Kevin Shields. Their groundbreaking and ever influential 1991 full length release, Loveless, is still often considered one of the best records of the 1990s and the prime example of MBV's signature sound.
To say the show was "loud" would be both an incredible understatement and an egregious oversimplification of what was one of the most moving live shows I have ever been to. The sound was well balanced and true to their style, despite a few minor technical problems here and there, and the performance was fluid, emotive, and flawless. MBV certainly lived up to their reputation for volume, with levels pushing the limits of comfort even with foam earplugs, but hearing damage potential aside, the sheer level of sound imposed an almost trance like state which lasted, for me, throughout a dazed train ride home. I've been processing the show ever since, listening to their records with fresh ears, and reading about the band, their shows, and their fans, and it seems that this lethargic daze is very commonplace at their shows. Volume, it seems, affects humans in some very interesting ways.
Generally speaking, most people understand that listening to very loud music is not good for their hearing, but the bodily, psychological, and behavioral effects of volume seem to remain somewhat sparsely-researched. These effects are certainly talked about though, and most fans of bands like MBV, Swans, Manowar, or Dinosaur Jr. will often describe concert experiences that sound more physical than aural. Stories of spiritual trances, broken ribs, and volume induced vomiting seem to be taken for granted in these thrill seeking concert communities, but this shouldn't be mistaken for mere bravado. Bands like Manowar, MBV, or even the Who, have historically obsessed over finely tuned rigs from instrument(s) to pedal chain(s) to amplifier(s) to speaker cabinet(s) all in the pursuit of sonic clarity and vibrational power, not simply to provoke venue sound technicians but to explore the emotional and psychological effects of sound.
There have been some studies into the physiological effects of loud music including one Canadian study which reported in 2004 that at volumes above 95 decibels human reaction times drop by about 20%. A French study from the same year connected rising volume with increased drink sales in nightclubs and bars. Other studies have analyzed the effects of tempo on the human heart and some have looked at how perceived musical pleasantness can change serotonin levels in the brain. Clearly the effects of music are powerful, and considering the fact that the Who set the record for concert volume at 126 decibels (later broken by Manowar), it's not difficult to understand why concert goers and musicians alike can get hooked on the unique experience of bathing in sound.
In an exclusive interview with Adrian Deevoy for the Guardian, Kevin Shields made his focus on crafting experiences with volume abundantly clear:
Even today, MBV's live presence reflects an ethos keen on unique shared experiences. Their performance forcibly drags attendees on a wild ride complete with blissful head bobbing beats; surprisingly furious, angular guitar riffs; and anxiety inducing, suffocating feedback. Their music, while beautiful and exciting in headphones or home speakers, takes on an entirely new, raw energy in person. Going to an MBV concert takes both an emotional and physical toll on you, and it's exhilarating. I, for one, left the Hammerstein ballroom last week speechless, exhausted, and grinning from ear to ear.
Sources & More Info:
Feel the Noise: Behind the Chase for Ear-Bleeding Volume — Christopher R. Weingarten's article for Spin.com about volume hungry musicians
Bad vibrations: Is it time to crank down the volume at concerts? — Elisa Bray's article for the Independent about concert volume levels