My Bloody Valentine @ Palace Theatre, Melbourne (22/2/2013)

DOUG WALLEN keeps his expectations (and hearing) in check at My Bloody Valentine.

My Bloody Valentine have a new record out. But you wouldn’t know that from tonight’s set list, which hinges on 1991’s never-matched shoegaze classic Loveless. Seven of its 11 tracks make the cut, along with three from 1988’s Isn’t Anything and a handful from the band’s great EPs. By comparison, there’s only one song from the surprise-release m b v: the sweet and floaty ‘New You’.

Going in, there’s a lot of context beyond the usual experience of seeing a famous band offer up classic material. Besides the 22-year drought between albums and its sudden end this month, there was a wealth of iffy buzz following the band’s set at All Tomorrow’s Parties the previous weekend. There were complaints of poor mixing and talk of how such a studio band couldn’t really translate that well live – at least not in a way that fulfilled all those years of cherished listens and swollen expectations.

So tonight is best treated by keeping those expectations in check. Pretty quickly, though, it’s clear My Bloody Valentine know exactly what they’re doing. Filling every inch of the Palace’s gaping three-floor face, the band charge through a rollercoaster of emotions that lives up to the records while also being its own all-consuming thing.

As the set opens with the signature warped hook of Loveless centrepiece ‘I Only Said’, there’s a very real shock of finally seeing this band live – for those who missed ATP, at least. It’s also disorienting to hear this deeply mysterious, inward-looking music that we’ve long committed to muscle memory get played to so many other people out in the open. For music that so invites dissection and introspection, it seems bizarre at first to make it a public, shared event.

“In this sold-out, ultra-humid room, the 100-minute set redefines My Bloody Valentine.”

But that soon passes, and we’re left to marvel over all the rest. Like how a four-piece band using drums, bass and two guitars – albeit bolstered with samplers and, yeah, pedals – can make something so alien and special. Partly because my vantage point offers a direct view of him, drummer Colm Ó Cí­osí³ig seems like the centre of gravity for these impossibly fluctuating songs. He’s the main factor in establishing a range wider than My Bloody Valentine are often given credit for, from the garage-y menace of late-set highlights ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ and ‘You Made Me Realise’ to the syrupy pop and searing noise of other tracks and the dance allusions of ‘Soon’, which earns perhaps the biggest crowd reaction.

Other details aren’t as surprising. Like how thunderous and saturated the sound is, everything bleeding into everything. And how loud it is, presaged by free earplugs upon entry. By using pricier specialty earplugs from home, I get more nuance but feel exposed to more pummelling volume. (My ears are still ringing the next morning.) Whatever the earplugs, Kevin Shields’ vocals are so low in the mix that they become a fleeting background prop. While that keeps the songs from sounding exactly like the records, it appears to be intentional rather than a failure of the mix. Guitarist Bilinda Butcher’s vocals are mixed a bit higher, but the sheer colossus of noise and texture makes lyrics an afterthought – which takes some getting used to, but also trains the focus on the whole experience.

As we should know by now, nothing gets resolved in an MBV song; there are no tidy opportunities for closure. Rather, unknown portals are torn open and fragments of emotion swirl in half-formed dream logic (look at those song titles) until our perception seems unreliable and treacherous. Playing the band’s back catalogue in the car, I have to stop it at moments when a bit more concentration is needed, lest I believe I can simply melt into the next car, Salvador Dali-style.

In the same way, the band’s live tradition of an epic noise “holocaust” to punctuate set closer ‘You Made Me Realise’ seems to swallow time. The cymbal-washed monolith of drone is thrilling for a long time and then, finally, a bit boring. And then, as soon as it surrenders back to the familiar song, it’s thrilling again in the contrast between having gotten used to it and having it suddenly yanked away, this inescapable mass of frozen-in-its-path repetition.

In this sold-out, ultra-humid room, the 100-minute set redefines My Bloody Valentine. No longer are they the cryptic agents behind some of the most defining musical artefacts of decades past: they’re a band, alive and tangible, with a new record and the not-unrealistic possibility of more to follow. And as much as their songs lean on recurring motifs – form-defying sleights of hand and brain-busting sensory overload – it feels like MBV can do anything they want.