Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Chevron Festival Gardens on Monday February 11, 2013
Review by Matthew Tomich
Photos by Caroline Forsberg
It’s hard to expect anything less than a transcendental experience from a GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR show. The 20-year-old Canadian outfit have maintained a mythos that would be impossible to recreate in the modern digital age; interviews are rare, and the lucky few media outlets to speak to the group find themselves dealing with a loosely defined, confrontational and many-headed beast.
So it was with bated breath that I walked into the Chevron (yep) Festival Gardens for this, one of the centrepieces of Perth International Arts Festival’s fine selection of shows. PIAF must be lauded for their excellent production – they’ve turned an often ignored part of the Perth Cultural Centre into one of the most inviting and exciting spaces in the city. Beck’s Music Box was beautiful, but the Festival Gardens have the atmosphere of an open-air party, while the main stage offers ample room and excellent vision for about a thousand folks.
On the flipside, a thousand packed into a small space on the tail end of a 40 degree day does not scream comfort. It was near impossible to tell sweat from scattered rain drops in the sweltering humidity. Around five minutes to show time a low rumbling drone emerged from the PA, not unlike the opening minutes of ‘The Dead Flag Blues’ from the group’s first album.
Then they emerged: first four of them, taking up one of the two drum kits, a guitar, a cello and a violin. The crowd applauded but that was quickly replaced with a quiet reverence, as if we were awaiting the delivery of a papal sermon. The makeshift quartet plucked, bowed and hit their instrumentals intermittently, but no sound emerged; instead, for five more minutes the drone swelled in volume. Then, three more emerged: one manning what appeared to be some electronics and sampling material at the front of the stage, another, a bass, and another, the second drum kit. The strings broke through the drone barrier into a sweltering cacophony neither dissonant nor melodic. Finally, the eighth member Efrim Menuch – the only one a lot of the audience knows by name, and the unwilling but de facto leader of the Canadian octet – took his seat on a stool and picked up his guitar, his arrival met with an enthusiastic but isolated response from a few diehards in the front row.
Cloaked in static red lighting and silhouetted by a huge screen, the collective’s musical meandering crescendo into the unsettling guitar lines of ‘Mladic,’ the opening track from last year’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! while images of war, revolution, surveillance and the word HOPE, scrawled like the desperate hand-writing of a castaway, flashed on the screen behind. Godspeed are an inherently cinematic band, and their sound has always seemed somehow extra-aural; visual accompaniment like this enhances some of the group’s flatter offerings like ‘Mladic.’ Plus, despite their complicated setup and vast array of instruments, they’re not exactly the most exciting musicians to watch; they barely engage with the audience, and that’s part of the mystique, but I can imagine the gimmick wearing thin without an enormous screen of disparate and fragmented imagery to amplify feeling.
As the song fades out the crowd applauds, but it’s a weird kind of applause – this is, after all, the group’s first Australian show in their 20 year history, but responding in the typical rock-show way seems off kilter. Nonetheless, after a short interval they launch into the opening strings of ‘Moya’, a nine-minute post-apocalyptic soundscape that’s as depressing as it is beautiful. Something starts to feel wrong here though: everyone’s hitting all the right notes, everything has the right texture, the visuals are amazing – now they depict a brewing storm – but something about the show starts to feel amiss.
‘Moya’ abruptly shifts into the middle portion of ‘Static,’ skipping its opening field recordings, and I realize that’s part of the problem: what makes Godspeed’s music so resonant and otherworldly and goddamn terrifying is their reliance on samples. From street preachers warning of American tyranny to cult figures pontificating on astral travel to naval transmissions, their music – their movements; because let’s face it, these aren’t really songs but a developed sense of wretched humanity, of hope and hopelessness. It’s why their last record felt so lacking. It was full of drawn out hellscapes and hypnotic instrumentation, but there was no sense of a hidden world on the other side of the headphones.
‘Static’ closes beautifully though, and in the closing 30 minutes of the set we’re treated to a more upbeat, drawling piece not found on any of the group’s records. Yet it becomes clear that for all their mystique and majesty, Godspeed are an incredibly awkward band to see live. Most of the pieces sound just as good live as they do on record (bar the field recordings), but that’s not necessarily a good thing, and seeing the eight of them on stage, playing but barely moving under static lighting, renders them somehow normal. That’s an awful takeaway to have from a show like this and is a strange criticism to level against any artist, but when a self-styled anarchist collective who are the purveyors of some of the most innovative and emotive music in the last two decades reunite and visit your corner of the world for the first time ever, the bar’s set pretty high. I expected something on par with a religious awakening, and maybe that’s my fault, but I can’t help but feel disappointed that all I got was an unusual rock show.