It’s been over fifteen years since I was introduced to the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor in a cold, shabby living room by a miscreant with hair that was almost as unorthodox as his nick name. Luckily Clit (that was the guy’s name) left his copy of F # A # ∞ (their debut album) at my house and I was able to devote much time to gorging on it’s drones, ominous spoken word samples and beautiful instrumental peaks. Over the coming months, the band became an adjective in our little gang of friends to be used in times of emotional intensity. For instance, a Welsh mountain on a particularly fierce winter evening, or a vast disused industrial complex at dawn, anything along those lines could be refered to as “so Godspeed”.
So fast forward fifteen years and I’m in the distinctly clean environment of the Warwick Arts Centre due to a friend being nice enough to buy me a ticket (cheers Matthew Osborne). It almost feels too sanitised in here for what we are about to see, like a vast sports hall chosen as the venue for the apocalypse. Eventually, a warm but eerie bass note starts to throb through the P.A, the lights go down and the atmosphere switches. The inane chatter around me almost disappears entirely. Punters peer over each others heads to try what’s going on as the stage lighting is minimal. There seems to be someone playing a cello, who is then joined by a violin player. More musicians join the two onstage, slowly thickening the sound.
These musicians will play for almost an hour before there is even a break in the sound. At no point will anyone sing, or even speak into a microphone. The closest you get to any words are a spoken word sample that’s so indistinct it’s unnerving, like hearing an argument in the flat next door when you’re trying to get to sleep. And when I said the lighting is minimal, I meant it. I’d imagine the musicians onstage have basically enough light to see what they are doing, and not a shred more. I’m not even sure how many people they have up there. Instead of obeying the rules of standard rock concert lighting, like making sure key members are brightly lit, there are two film projectors providing images on a massive sheet behind the band. The two sections of the sheet often show similar images, but never totally sync up. The footage is things like large buildings, or birds in the sky, occasionally interspersed with the odd piece of text, a rare nod to verbal communication at this gig.
In the wrong hands, all these potentially controversial choices could be empty posturing or perhaps worse, the sign of a band trying to cover up for the fact they don’t have much actual content. However, on this occasion the things I talked about in the last paragraph really help you focus on the music. Godspeed are not the sort of band you enjoy as a boozy sing-a-long or whilst grinding up against someone you want to bump uglies with (believe me, there’s loads of music like that I have time for). Godspeed have always been an introverted kind of trip, and all these tricks with lighting and what not just help you go deeper into yourself which is quite a gift. The emotional impact of the band’s performance is richer than one might imagine. At some points my mind races with a million thoughts in a kind of mania,at others I close my eyes in order to go deeper into whatever reverie the band is inspiring, at other points still I find myself grinning from ear to ear.
The set goes by surprisingly quickly. Afterwards, I learn a large chunk of the material was culled from their latest album “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress”, a work I’d previously dismissed. After around two hours of performing, they close with probably the closest thing they have to a big hit, East Hastings, which was used in the soundtrack to 28 Days Later. It gets a big cheer when the opening riff rings out across the room. Fifteen minutes later we stumble out into the strip lit corridor, dazed by the weight of the last couple of hours and almost blinded by the sudden brightness. We all agree on the band’s greatness, it seems hard to imagine a performance of that kind of music being much better than the one we’ve just experienced. Experimental music can be a one way ticket to uncomfortable boredom that’s aggravated by pretension. However, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are a band that can use the trappings of feedback, noise, and drones in equal balance with melody and rhythm to lead you to genuinely higher place.
*UPDATE! Added bonus footage from their set the next night in Bristol from King Dave*