You know you’ve reached some exalted height of geekdom when you find yourself walking into a Godspeed You! Black Emperor gig with a David Foster Wallace book1. They are a band that have tended to attract the more cerebral end of the music-loving public; dense instrumental songs that can go on for tens of minutes and once got a somewhat overwrought NME front cover quoting their lyrics3.
"And On Next Week's Cover, It's Kylie!"
It is terribly easy to become overwrought when talking about Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who will be known as GY!BE for the rest of this post). That’s because GY!BE’s music is music for the end of the world. On 9/11, after the towers fell, there could be no other soundtrack to that horrendous, confusing day than GY!BE; no other music could so appropriately choreograph those billowing clouds of dust and smoke churning through a broken and deathly lower Manhattan (the voice at the start of “The Dead Flag Blues”, all broken metal rising upward4, pre-empts the event by a good four years). This music sound-tracked the opening sequence of “28 Days Later”, in probably the most appropriate movie/music tie-up ever5,. The whole of The Road could just have had a Godspeed playlist on shuffle; it’d all work.
They are the product of their backgrounds; clever, troubled kids, characterised by broken or failing homes, substance abuse, and general teenage/twenties rubbishness. Living in an old loft overlooking the railroad tracks and the wrecks of Montreal industry, this was the music that they came together to make. Clever, troubled music; slow-burning, dreadfully building to endless crescendos. A sense of a coming cataclysm seeps through all their music, with the ambient sections between each huge orchestral explosion ratcheting the tension further.
Where's That Band Gone?
And as is typical, I missed seeing them live first time round, so to see them reform is a huge joy6. Initially booked in at Troxy, in East London, for one night, overwhelming demand made them book two successive nights. Which is, as the Fast Show chap once said, nice. Good to see a genuinely pioneering band getting their props some ten years after their last London gig, and years of near obscurity. The fact that some 7,500 people want to see them warms the cockles of my shrivelled heart. Even better is that one of those people was a charming gentleman, well into middle age, chaperoning his teenage daughter and friends, turning to me and saying “Weren’t you at the Silver Mt Zion gig a few years ago?”. Am I really that recognisable? Sheesh7.
All this introductory guff is here for a reason. Scene setting, if you will. Because as I touched on before, writing about GY!BE’s music is tough. Some vocal samples aside, there are no lyrics, no singing, so there is little point in talking about how the singer (the normal focus of any gig) did this or that, or what the inter-song banter was like, or how the band engaged with the crowd. GY!BE do nothing of that. They mostly sit, in a semi-circle facing each other, with just enough red light to see what they are doing. Two drummer/percussionist/keyboardist/bugger-abouterers and two bassists do their stuff at the back, and the rest of the band – three guitarists and a violinist, play without hardly acknowledging our presence.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Not that I mind this, but it seems a touch odd when some of the people in this lovely, polite and most of all quiet crowd have been waiting a decade or so to see them live. And the sense that the band is a collective with no leader comes to the fore when, for all the thrill and wonderment of watching eight people create this sometimes astonishing and majestic music, something isn’t right. The band just aren’t precise enough to make that sort of visceral impact that Swans or Tortoise have managed in recent months.
Those two bands, whom GY!BE clearly adore, produced stunning live shows by clearly understanding how to make themselves heard. Yes, Swans played astonishingly loudly, and Tortoise’s musical chops are absurdly good, but there was a sense of both bands as finely-honed machines. Swans live rendition of “Jim” was stunning, beautifully paced, and played with utter, brutal discipline. And that’s what was missing from GY!BE’s live performance; that sense of clarity and purpose that marks out a truly great experience.
Of course, there were large parts that had me nodding my head in an appreciative manner, or smiling like an idiot, but nothing took my breath away. “Gathering Storm” suffered from muddy sound; apparently there had been a problem with the soundcheck and it was clear they hadn’t been entirely resolved, with the drums barely audible above the clamouring din. “Monheim” was better, opening with the voice of Murray Ostril, telling stories of Coney Island, backed with old footage of the archetypal run-down seaside resort. Indeed, the projections were by and large excellent, with one particular section showing sped-up footage of oil refineries at night, making them look like bizarre models. “World Police and Friendly Fire”‘s sudden acceleration was stunning and provided some necessary variety. After all, there’s only so many times you can start slow and quiet and build to a crescendo before things start getting tedious8.
You're Not So Bad Yourself, Mate
The set list was almost entirely taken from “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists…” and “Yanqui UXO”, along with the unrecorded “Albanian” (according to Songkick). The only older song was “BBF3”, the final song, which demonstrated to us all that for the real Godspeed Experience, you can’t beat “Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada”, the perfect distillation of their sound in an easily digestible 27 minute bite. After all, “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls”, played tonight, was easily that length too. At the song’s culmination, the band left the stage to feedback and timid waves, and we called for more, but the lights came on and they weren’t to return.
I left Troxy confused. Yes, I’d enjoyed it, but there was something special lacking. They rarely reached the heights that I was expecting, and heard they were capable of. And the one, true test of a gig, that emotional reaction of arm hairs standing on end, never happened, not once, not even during “BBF3”. That’s a shame. I can’t fault their effort – two hours plus on-stage time – and they make truly wonderful records. Maybe this was a bit of an off-night. Maybe they need more time playing together. Maybe it’s just me. I’d love to see them again, though, as I get the distinct feeling they could be better than this. Don’t get me wrong, they are still an amazing band. Give them a try if you get the chance, as they’ll be gone before you know it.
1 “Everything and More“, since you ask. And since you ask, yes, I’m a fan, and yes, my reliance on footnotes is in part a homage to the sadly departed2 DFW. And yes, how strange it is to be reading a book about Infinity whilst listening to a band who called an album F#A#∞.
2 Or sadly self-departed, since the silly bugger topped himself last year. We miss you, DFW.
3 Not that I’m complaining. I’d rather they put something challenging and interesting on the cover than the next bunch of Oasis/Libertines aping The New Best Band Ever! embarrassment to British music goons.
4 “The skyline was beautiful on fire\All twisted metal stretching upwards\Everything washed in a thin orange haze”. I can imagine the band hate being referenced in this way, but sorry, folks, once you release your music it has a life of its own.
5 Danny Boyle states that the whole of 28 Days Later was inspired by GY!BE. So there you go, Godspeed – your go-to band for soundtracking terrorist atrocities and zombies.
6 Only Cocteaus and The Smiths are higher on my list, now, and neither are likely to get back together any time soon.
7 Maybe it was me shouting “FREEBIRD!” once between songs, that sparked off a huge discussion between crowd and band about cover versions and shitty racist bands, of all things. I did not repeat this tonight.
8 Which goes to show how well Swans have done to keep their sound fresh, and how post-rock contemporaries Mogwai have done well to still keep things varied.
Blaise Bailey Finnegan III by Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Monheim by Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Buy “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” (CD/MP3)
Buy “Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada” (And You Must) (CD/MP3)