Through the Looking-Glass: my bloody valentine’s Unreleased Drum’n’Bass Record

By Rocco Prioletti, Contributor

[Photo courtesy of Domino Recording Co.]

“The truth is, you can’t expect anything but, I really am dead if I don’t get my record out this year. Nobody’s threatening me, [by the way], I just have to,”

-Kevin Shields, 1997

A little over 20 years would pass until my bloody valentine’s much anticipated follow-up to their universally acclaimed sophomore record, Loveless, would grace the public census. Amidst this gap, speculation behind auteur frontman Kevin Shields’ notorious inaction would in some ways mistakenly rewrite the narrative behind the group’s prepartum departure. 

Read more: 20,000 Albums for Eidelyn Gonzales: Low 

Parting ways with Creation Records after their Faustian work-relations had made the company’s second-in-command Dick Green’s hair turn gray overnight, their partnering with Island Records afterwards wouldn’t alleviate any hope of a more productive work ethic. As during their six-year-long stay, only two covers would transpire:  “We Have All the Time in the World,” being a tongue-and-cheek nod to Island, amusingly doubling down on their notoriously terminal aversion towards fufilling deadlines. Understandably, as toppling such a monolithic landmark for pop music whilst teetering on a rusted see-saw of perfectionism and procrastination could be no easy feat. Shields relayed the reason behind their decades-long drought being that “’it wasn’t as good [as Loveless]. And I always promised myself I’d never do that, put out a worse record.’”

From UFO sightings, staying awake for 24 hours only to then sleep for four, apparitions of hooded monks looming overside the tape machine (unparalleled foreshadowing), shutters indefinitely reeled shut to stray off any passerbys who happened to be looking for a studio to ransack, and an overgrowing colony of twenty pitter-pattering chinchillas who’d declare the entirety of the group’s upstairs for their taking –– their stint with Island would prove to still be rattled with such unusual circumstances. 

Like when the president of Reprise / Warner Bros. Records, Howie Klein, would spontaneously offer the group $250,000 to use their tooth-achingly sugarcoated demo of the 1994 composed “new you” as the opening theme to the television sitcom series, Friends. Or how they ended up scattering pines of barbed wire onto the front lawn as like a natural remedy and fool-proof deterrent for any of the estranged local ex-convicts who had uncovered an instinctual calling to the tops of other people’s trees during a milked-out moonlit stroll down from the halfway house that sat some ways further down their street. 

During this period, Shields’ and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig’s would start to enkindle a devouring interest in ragga-jungle and minimalist drum’n’bass music. Its innovatively vectored percussive loops and staggering manipulation of Amen Break samples being the much-needed script of tainted ecstasy for the motivationally deflated group after trudging through semi-meltdowns and Island’s apparent disinterest and disapproval in their subsiding grasps onto dear sanity.

Brought to their collective infatuation via frequent signal-hopping through South London’s pirate radio stations and underground clubs, sewing Colm’s lively rhythmic personality within programmed drum patterns, creating an enthralling and lively collage of both analog and digital, and deviating from the vertigo-inducing high-speed breakbeats of jungle’s forerunners, their efforts would envision a slower more mid-tempo and freeform jazz-oriented styling to fit their baggier liking. 

Shields would start fixating too on amassing particular amps (predominantly older Fender Tweed’s) that produced a certain natural rippling rhythm at the tail-end of its vaportrails of distortion. Evoked by a personal allure with naturally occurring rhythmic patterns in non-musical functions and moth-drawn to the way that relentlessly distorted sounds will tremble and shake the amplifier or speaker it’s coming from, it created an entirely new rhythm of its own volition. 

Creation Records’ co-founder Alan McGee would visit their home studio in 1995 and be subjected to these recordings of pure, unadulterated, rippling guitar feedback. To which Shields would proclaim that you could hear patterns inside the noise of aliens communicating with Earth.

The unfounded proof of concept was to effectively meld these rhythmic swells in together with fast-tempoed drum’n’bass breakbeats, so that the two were wavering in tandem with one another, dragging along a more loose and spontaneous feel. Aspired in weaving their 130db peaking 15+ minute-long ‘Holocaust’ section of “You Made Me Realise” to be matted within classic pop and rock arrangements, the group wanted to imitate the adrenaline-laced intensity of an airplane’s takeoff within a delicately wrapped bouquet of deceptively thorned roses. 

On paper, these idealized blueprints really do live and breathe as what could possibly be the next shape for avant-rock to come, especially when regarding Shields’ endearment towards jungle’s foreseen importance, proffering it as though it could’ve been the new millennium’s hip-hop: a moment rich with uncharted possibilities, re-educating the masses as to what rhythm really could be. He would be partially correct, as their unrealized school of slowed jazz-tinted d’n’b would eventually become the norm for most of jungle’s future offspring. 

In their odd valentinan fashion, dialing the bpm of 1988’s “instrumental no. 2” up a few clicks spins the song into a hypnotic ambient jungle track, years before the genre’s inception. If all crumbs led back to drum’n’bass as being the natural progression for the group, why didn’t the conceptual ever come into fruition?

Their inevitable breakdown would divulge from persistent writhes in overcoming technical hurdles. As Ó Cíosóig, who had taken on the bulk of the responsibility in learning the SADiE Hard Disc (an archaic Pro Tools) to program the drum patterns, had no prior experience with the technology. Further complicating the already rhythmically dense and intricate drum sequencings, and inevitably slowing down their already sluggish pacing off the cliffside when realizing that they hadn’t even been programming the breakbeats correctly in the first place. 

The balance between the concrete and the abstract had all been tipped, as the process became too conceptual and too intellectualized, losing any of the remaining spontaneity the group had left. Shields would expertly surmise their ongoing struggles with:  “We melted. I thought we pretty much destroyed ourselves.” Their hands-on approach would no longer fit the mold needed when developing the digitally-restrictive instrumentation.

These severely intricate and idiosyncratic concepts, while being quite detrimental towards their overall well-being, would be part of the reason as to why Island would tolerate their staggering inaction for as long as they did. Shields said, “I’d go and have a meeting with [Island] and they’d go, ‘Well that’s at least two album’s worth of material:’ And then they’d just tolerate me for another year.” Even though Shields would end up writing and recording a slew of tracks during this period, very few would be centered around these concepts, simply due in part to how inherently difficult it was to successfully transfer these ideas onto tape.

Only one song would end up surviving their d’n’b addiction and make its way onto their third record. Brought-on by experienced jungle engineer Alex Buess, their first successful drum programming done the ‘correct way’ would be seen within “wonder 2.” Though their workflow would increase tenfold, Buess’ technical prowess could only assist in just barely prolonging the group’s inevitable dismantling. 

It was until Shields had well-exceeded £500,000 in expenses that Island would thirstily yank out Excalibur-like their financially luxurious life-support out from under them. Surrendering all concerns during Island’s final farewell visit to the purgatorial home studio, where they would tell Shields to go on unemployment.

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