If you don’t already know Godspeed You! Black Emperor, then let me explain.
Well, ok, that’s actually quite hard.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor (hereafter, and forever in my head merely “Godspeed”) are arguably the most successful band in the strange Canadian/Icelandic-dominated genre known as Post-Rock. This style blends layered, heavily distorted guitars and strings in very long pieces of music inspired structurally by prog. rock, classical and electronic music. There are rarely lyrics (though notable exceptions to this include Sigur Ros, who invented their own language for the purpose), and Godspeed never indulge in more than extended samples. It is also characterised by clumsy, over-long band, song and album names, presumably to draw attention to the relative unimportance of such trivial things. It sounds weird, and it is, but fans of this genre are loyal and serious. Oh yeah, it’s really hella serious!
The band start exactly on time, which just goes to show that anarchists aren’t necessarily disorganised.
And, indeed, they do begin with a long, droning, low-level guitar-hum distortion. I don’t think even the most ardent fan could argue that this is interesting. It isn’t, it just builds tension.
The band members appear slowly, one by one. Few bands really demand having four guitarists, two bassists and two drummers, as well as a violinist, and indeed nor do Godspeed very often, so members regularly come and go from the wings. But in the climactic moments when they’re all on stage, you can see why they paid for the extra hotel rooms. About ten minutes later, when they all start screeching and screaming together, the effect is truly unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
Well, I suppose it is quite like a GY!BE record, but louder, clearer, more nuanced. Whatever technicians have been doing to get the PA system to sound like this, I can testify that their hard work was entirely worth it.
“Fucking hell!” breathes a woman behind me as the sound dies down a bit for the first time. And then they launch fully into the main refrain from new album “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress”, and, yeah, fucking hell! I can’t really explain where they go next, but it takes nearly half an hour, finishes back on that triumphant riff, and it feels every bit as intense and extraordinary as I hoped it would.
Behind the band, two square films play throughout the concert. They show mostly black-and-white or sepia film; a lot of scratchy static, which feels in keeping with the music. Other images come and go, none ever really adding sense or coherence to the music, but adding to the general atmosphere in a nice way. The musicians often glimpse up at the screens, and I wonder whether they use the images as prompts for when to change speed, or shift into another movement of the music.
I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised had Godspeed done away with the idea of “songs” entirely for their live show, but not a bit of it. We have the aforementioned opener from the new album (characteristically called “Peasantry, or ‘Light! Inside of Light’”), they visit 2000’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven with “They Don’t Sleep Anymore on the Beach”.
And, to my utter delight, they close with the astonishingly evocative East Hastings. All three tracks from the first commercial album f#a#∞ are outstanding, but I was overjoyed to hear that song’s iconic guitar riff echo through the Brighton Dome.
The sheer theatricality of a piece of music that starts so slowly, yet builds to such orgiastic crescendos was powerfully highlighted to me in this environment. I wallowed, allowing the music to writhe and twist about me, letting the hypnotic nature of it set me free from wondering about whether we’re ten minutes or ten hours in.
In short, I had very high expectations of this band live, and to my joy, relief and gratitude, they met, and occasionally even exceeded them.
This is a five-star gig because I can think of no obvious way to improve on it. This is a five-star gig because it made me feel things I couldn’t have felt anywhere else. This is a five-star gig because Godspeed took us to another place, that doesn’t feel like the everyday world, and that is surely what art is supposed to do.