Volume is a drug.
Nobody knows this better than My Bloody Valentine fans. The band will start their 2018 tour tomorrow night at London’s Royal Hall. Next month, they’ll bring that tour to these shores, for their first American shows since 2013. As far as fans are concerned, MBV remain the loudest live band in the business.
Seeing (and especially hearing) the MBV show can be an intoxicating experience. But why? Why are we so fascinated with a stack of amps and a wall of sound?
Naturally, it is human nature to want to be heard, understood, and appreciated. The louder we are heard, the more satisfied we become. Harness volume, and it becomes a powerful weapon.
The best artists know how to handle the power of sound. Frances Quinlan of Hop Along can summon the peak of an emotion through her vocal-chord-tearing yelps. Deafheaven who are masters at maneuvering the high wire balancing act between dark and light, loud and soft dynamics in their songs. But not any musician is so nuanced. Even with the softest of drugs, it’s hard to quit after one hit.
From the moment John Lennon knelt, guitar in hand, in front of his Vox amplifier to create the growling feedback at the beginning of “I Feel Fine,” rock has been in an arms race to see who can play the loudest. The Beatles’ iconic 1965 Shea Stadium concert was said to be louder than a jumbo jet, although that was probably more due to the incessant screaming from the rafters. Musically, it was the Who who held the record for the loudest concert, registering a ridiculous-for-its-era 126 decibels (dB) at an open-air stadium in Charlton, London called the Valley in May of 1976.
Then over the years, as bands grew more daring and technology became more advanced, the loudness wars intensified on stage and on record. In the ’80s, bands like Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., and the Replacements, the latter of whom were notorious for their ungodly noise in their early days.
“We played loud in the basement, out-louding one another,” said Paul Westerberg. “Bob [Stinson] never turned it down, and Tommy [Stinson] was as loud as anyone, so you had to fight to be heard.”
As far as the official Loudest Band On Earth Award is concerned, however, metal juggernauts Manowar took the title when they registered a 129.5 dB concert in 1994, a record they still possess to this day (despite what Liam Gallagher might tell you).
But what is it that makes us want to play so loud? Why does every kid who has ever picked up a guitar want to turn it up to 11? Why do these bands feel the need to shake the foundations of a small club by pummeling it with noise and feedback?
Well, it’s human nature.
We all know “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” would’ve sounded better had the Gallagher brothers showed a little sonic restraint. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s something about the thrill of it all, like an adrenaline junkie chasing that next big thrill ride.
Dr. Barry Blesser, a former professor at MIT who is considered one of the grandfathers of the digital audio revolution, explains that despite its destructive nature, loud music has an arousing effect on the human body. “Raising the loudness of music, like a double shot of whisky, elevates the intensity of the experience.” Blesser argues that loud music is like a drug, and “can transport the listener into an altered state of consciousness.” Researchers have found that loud music activates those brain regions that are associated with euphoria drugs, such as cocaine. It elevates endorphins connected with pleasure centers in the brain.
A lot of this pleasure we feel in sound has to do with something inside our ears called the “sacculus,” a component of the inner ear’s vestibular/balancing system that, while it doesn’t have any hearing function per se, responds to sound frequencies that predominate in music. It has a connection to the part of the brain responsible for drives such as hunger, sex and hedonistic responses. The researcher who made this discovery, music psychologist Neil Todd, says we have fish to thank for this, as our saccular frequency sensitivity appears to mimic that of fish – the only type of creature known to use its sacculus for hearing. At 90db, the sacculus becomes engaged. Todd believes this is why people get a pleasurable buzz from music, and why musicians and fans alike seek volume over nuance. Blessar also writes, “By activating the sacculus, loud music may be a form of vestibular self-stimulation.” So, next time someone tells you go fuck yourself, just go to a concert instead. Same thing.
Yet, like with any hedonistic pleasure, too much of it can be harmful.
You know that Bob Marley quote, right? “One good thing about music / when it hits you feel no pain.” God I hate that fucking quote. It reminds me of every stoner kid I knew in college who discovered their parents’ copy of “Legend” in high school. Most of all, it’s simply not true.
Music CAN physically hit you, and our bodies can actually FEEL sound, for better and for worse. Greg Anderson of Sunn O))), the experimental metal band known for their dark, grumbling death drones, has attested to the power of volume and the philosophy of feeling the music, rather than simply hearing it. “Basically, [it’s] like a sound massage,” says Anderson. “This escalation of cabinets and amplifiers is about being able to feel it. If you couldn’t feel it on the back of your legs, it wasn’t loud enough.”
Scientifically, Anderson’s explanation checks out. According to Tony Ro, a neuroscientist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, hearing and touch are related (validation for all you Quiet Riot fans out there). Nerves in our bodies react to vibrations set off by sound waves, and depending on the intensity of the vibration or sound, it can have harmful physical effects. Over time, exposure to loud music causes your ears to lose the ability to hear certain frequencies, which is why some people hear Yanny and others hear Laurel (it’s totally Laurel, by the way). More seriously, extreme loud music can negatively affect your psychological orientation, core temperature, heart rate, vascular blood flow, and immune system.
“As soon as volume exceeds 80 decibels, blood pressure rises,” writes Jazz historian Joachim-Ernst Berendt. “The stomach and intestine operate more slowly, the pupils become larger, and the skin gets paler…Unconsciously, we always react to noise like Stone Age beings. At that time, a loud noise almost always signified danger.”
Kevin Shields knows all about this danger. He’s made a living off making a thunderous, beautiful noise with My Bloody Valentine.
“If you want to hear music played quietly, that’s what record players are for,” Shields, who suffers from constant tinnitus, told The Guardian back in 2013. “Back in 2008 we were very loud. It was kind of an experiment, something we’d always wanted to do. I heard people were coming out of those gigs looking like they’d just witnessed a car accident. But in a world where blandness and OK-ness is a dominant factor, to do anything that’s a real experience is a positive thing.”
For My Bloody Valentine, it isn’t merely about hammering your audience with heavy guitar riffs, it’s about pushing frequencies to the limit and unleashing a dense avalanche of sound. Their notorious set closer, “You Made Me Realize,” concludes with what has been dubbed the “holocaust section,” a cacophony of noise and disorienting visuals that has caused concertgoers to literally shit themselves.
As for the tinnitus, which Shields has had since the Loveless recording sessions, he wears it as a badge of honor. “I’ve come to treat the tinnitus as a friend,” Shields has said. “It filters unwanted sounds and actually protects my ears. It becomes your first line of defense against audible stress. I’m not boasting because my hearing has always been average but I hear things that a lot of people don’t hear. That part of my brain that processes sound works a lot harder than average.”
Shields has been known to record his guitar with his ears right next to the amplifiers. Don’t be like Kevin Shields. Be smart. If you’re going to go to a My Bloody Valentine show this summer, make sure you bring some damned earplugs, okay? Because if you don’t, you won’t be able to hear the new MBV EP when it comes out 20 years from now.