Wednesday, November 7, 2012

‘Godspeed You! Black Emperor’ at the HMV Forum, 5th November 2012

The gig began with a low bass hum.  An oscillating, throbbing sound coming from the huge speakers to the side of the stage.  The noise built and built. I could feel it shaking my innards around, gently bashing my brain around about inside my skull.  I glanced down at my drink in the hopes that it’d be making little Jurassic Park concentric ripples.  No such luck, but the way things were going they surely couldn’t be far off.  Soon, wordlessly Godspeed You! Black Emperor took to the stage, and kicked into the first of their five songs.  The gig was about 2 hours long.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor are pretty much the polar opposite of last week’s gig.  These songs are epic, ambitious and hypnotic.  It’s almost cliché to say that their music is apocalyptic, but it’s an accurate description.  This is music that feels portentous, the kind of thing to soundtrack a nuclear war.

They’ve recently put out their first album in 10 years, titled ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’.  In keeping with the band’s slightly reclusive and eccentric image, it was released unannounced at the merchandise shop in a concert in Boston at the start of October.  It’s a suitably sinister, foreboding bit of work, only let down slightly by the inclusion of a song which has either bagpipes in it (or possibly bagpiping sounding strings).  I hate bagpipes in (nearly) all circumstances, but the rest of the album is good enough to allow me to get past it.  Fortunately, there were no bagpipes played during this gig, although I did keep an eagle eye on the stage for any sign of this vile instrument.

One thing that surprised me was that Godspeed You! Black Emperor actually slip into the straighforward rock n roll from time to time.  The dissonant strands of melody fuse together,and a driving, propulsive guitar riff suddenly dominates.  For brief and intense moments they're like a serious evolution of ‘Black Sabbath’ or ‘Hawkwind’.  It’s in these brief moments that the hypnotic trance the band weaves over the crowd is temporarily broken and we can nod our heads to a recognisable beat.  These sudden riffs feel like a note of triumphalism, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor is not that kind of band so they're necessarily fleeting.  Perhaps the highlight of the set is the aptly named ‘Behemoth’, which clocks in at about 45 minutes. It's almost painfully slowly put together, bombastic riff s evolving and melting into a delicate arrangement that’s so subtle some members of the audience begin to applaud thinking the song is over, to be shushed by those who know better.

By and large though, when Godspeed You! Black Emperor are playing, you’re going to be aware of it.  ‘Behemoth’ begins with a harsh drum snap, which at this volume is a very literal sonic weapon.  I was standing quite near the front, near the left hand amps and very quickly began to get a twinge of pain in my ear with every jagged beat.  I’ve been out to quite a few loud things lately, so I was genuinely worried about getting some semi-permanent hearing damage.  Eventually I decided to make some improvised earplugs out of a tissue in my pocket.  This made things a bit more bearable, but it bears repeating that Godspeed You! Black Emperor are a very, very loud band.  The success of their shows relies on sucking the audience into the sonic landscape they’ve created.  It's like they're aim is to give listeners a kind of sensory overload using these high volumes. 

This music has some odd effects, the audience are definitely some of the most placid I've encountered at a gig.  People just stand there glassy eyed, staring at the stage.  Some people sway their heads a bit, but generally the consensus seems to be for a kind of dead-eyed, vaguely cult-like absorption.  Occasionally goggle-eyed, pale skinned, sweaty people lurch out of the crowd, staring at you with saucer pupils.  I suppose if one was inclined to take recreational drugs and listen to music, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are an appropriate choice.  The slightly zombified nature of the audience begins to get to me after a while, and I find it very difficult to gauge the mood of the crowd.  Is everyone enjoying themselves?  It's impossible to say.

Adding to this general atmosphere of dissociation is that the band never say a word to the audience.  This depersonalises the experience and causes you to focus entirely on the music to the exclusion of any of the band members.  It’s a refreshingly egoless way to perform, and without knowing anything about the band its very difficult to tell who the leader or composer is.  On the other hand, it does mean that there is absolutely no rapport between the band and us.  The extent to which this band communicates is through the music and the visuals.

Throughout the gig, cut up super 8 film is projected behind the band.  The imagery is generally of run down semi-urban landscapes, views shot from cars, trains or helicopters.  The film looks damaged, and it’s unclear as to whether this is genuinely old found footage, or video that’s been very carefully computer processed to give it an effect.  In keeping with the anonymous, non-communicative nature of the band, the only human figures we see are either specks on an enormous landscape or people shot from far away seemingly unawares.  Whoever is directing this seems to take a special interest in these people, repeating the footage again and again, this gives these non-descript actions a kind of ritual quality.  At one point the film burns through over and over and over again.  In keeping with the literally destructive nature of this music it's entirely appropriate.

Later in the show the video takes on a slightly more narrative form, showing us footage from a stock exchange, followed by an anti-war protest.  This I thought was a little less effective than what was on before.  What I’d liked so far in the gig was the band’s near total refusal to tell us what conclusions to reach about what we’re seeing.  But here, by straying into the directly political it forces the audience to try and fit their abstract music into the framework of the world of finance.  Later, when the footage switches to the anti War in Iraq it feels a little bit old hat and I found myself wondering why we weren't looking at footage of Occupy instead.   I have no doubt that Godspeed You! Black Emperor have some quite interesting political and anti-corporate views, but as someone with only a passing familiarity with them I don’t think I can work them out from this footage.  It’s like they imagine just showing us the imagery is enough to make their point. 

 As immersive as the experience is, as the two hour mark approaches I’m a bit aurally and physically worn out.  The constant loud droning, coupled with standing rooted to the spot for so long takes it out of you a bit.  I wouldn’t exactly say I was bored, but at the same time I was anticipating the show being over.  As the final song gradually unravels itself into a buzz of discordant feedback the band leaves the stage.  The audience applauds, but the houselights stay down and the feedback continues.  I surprise myself by finding myself hoping that they don’t come back for an encore.  I think an encore in Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s case would entail at least another 15 minutes of standing around, by this point I had had my fill of their neverending sonic apocalypse.

I haven’t seen a band like this in a very long time.  Even though their songs are long, complicated and occasionally very discordant there is clearly a strict musical discipline at play.  More than most musicians they have the enviable skill of entrancing their audience.  They’re consciously intellectual, playing music that appeals to the head almost to the complete exclusion of the hips.  Godspeed You! Black Emperor bring a sense of ominous doom that few other bands could even dream of, and manage the task of making the abstract seem weirdly personal.  I hesitate to say I had ‘fun’ at this gig, but it was one hell of an experience.

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