Godspeed You! Black Emperor live review

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O2 Academy, Brixton, 21st November 2013

‘I’m sorry my comments are harsh’, I write in the dim light of the coach as it lurches on, ‘It’s not your fault. I was watching some disappointing post-rock at the time.’ I read a classmate’s draft final piece in the cold culmination of hours of travel, sickness, boredom. The unsteadiness of the floor that never let you get comfortable, always making you feel as if you were falling backwards.

The supporting act was dismal, completely unsuited screaming in which the solo female started it all by playing a droning note and staring into the audience for a full minute in an attempt to intimidate. She then played a succession of synthesized loops of her bashing metallic things and screamed unintelligible lyrics to an audience of people looking up at the architecture rather than face their embarrassment. I’m not going to give her name because I’m not qualified to say whether her work was objectively bad, just almost maliciously badly chosen. A middle aged woman weaved through the crowd in front of me to take the lady’s picture. I can only assume it was her mother. Her set ended ten minutes later to polite applause.

I’d like to say Godspeed‘s main set made up for this but the more I look back on it, the more it just strikes me as more of the same. The band themselves performed in typical standoffish style, creeping soundlessly onstage and then weaving tortured tuning-up into a droning opening track, ‘Hope Drone’ to be specific, only so lurching and so un-inspiredly tortured I couldn’t find much hope except relief that they’d started so they must logically finish. Working tuning up into a song is a thing that sounds cool until you’re experiencing it. It wasn’t the interesting glimpse into the musical craft I was hoping for, just a kind of twisting of the knowledge that the audience has to take what they’re given.

The films loops and little animated effects projected onstage as accompaniment was to me one of the most effective parts of their set. With the band either shrouded in darkness or facing with their backs to the audience, there wasn’t much to look at except the swinging of the violinist’s bow arm, repeatedly betraying the fact that the violin’s audio itself kept dipping in and out of audibility. It just wasn’t as lush as you’d expect from them, just muddy, and this was from near the stage.

Godspeed‘s tracks are long, I was no stranger to this going along to see them, I knew what I was getting into. But whereas on their recording each note seems poised at just the right point to tear emotions from you, every note they played live seemed lurching and dragging. The songs didn’t really build just continue, the middle of the set blurred into indistinct droning in which I had a good stare at the floor and those around me. The anomalies in the crowd bobbed their head in unflinching 4/4. Ordinarily this wouldn’t work, shouldn’t work, this is post-rock, but no, they seemed to get it. They bobbed and bobbed ad infinitum and the songs droned on until there was a pause and I was obligated to applaud.

They ended their set with palpable reluctance with something most of us selfishly wanted from them, something from f#a#. A cut down and mechanical segment from East Hastings played out with finality. As it ended my friend said, ‘let’s go, it’s over.’ People stayed to clap, to try and wring them out again but in was obvious there was nothing more to come. Again, without a word they slunk offstage and joyfully we got to leave.

What I always liked about Godspeed was that with their records you never quit know what you’re going to get next. A simply, slow succession of notes can floor you, make you wonder why no-one has recorded that sequence before. But their performance that day just reminded me how galling it can be when music is calculated to give you the bare minimum of feeling. You can’t complain, you technically got what you wanted, but it’s a betrayal. Reading a fellow student’s work I latched upon a sentence that summed up the epidemic of pandering in Creative Writing, just like such half-arsed gigs. There’s an equation I developed for a passable sentence in Creative Writing, based on this sentence that burned in my head as a remembrance of this gig. Here it is;

[Noun], [quantity of abstractly related nouns with abstract related quality] in [anthropomorphic space].

And so it goes;

The band, eight painful constrictions in aloof cement.

Sarah K.