Saturday, September 7, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 6: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Showbox SoDo, Seattle, 9/5/13

Part of the fun of writing these reviews is that it pushes me to take the music that's the fabric of my life and explain it to someone who may have never heard it before. That's a particularly strong challenge with Montreal octet Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

First, let's look at the genre in which GY!BE is considered to be at the forefront. "Post-rock" is kind of a nebulous term, but it's meant to encapsulate a certain musical aesthetic in which rock instruments aren't used in typical rock-music contexts. You could say that for progressive rock, too, but post-rock isn't at all like prog. Displays of virtuosity aren't the norm, nor is working from a highbrow classical-music template (not that all prog is "symphonic" prog, but there's no need to wander off in the weeds about that). The music is more about creating and setting an intense mood, drawing the listener in, and then shifting that mood to something new and just as arresting, often through the use of long crescendos -- building, for example, from quiet ambient drones to furious, thundering peaks. Vocals are rare to nonexistent, textures replace melodies, and there's little regard for brevity. Sounds can linger in the air for minutes on end before a new idea begins to slowly present itself. If you're imagining something very dramatic and very avant-garde, you would be correct.

I think there actually are some prog-rock touchstones one could point to as being influential in building the post-rock movement, which is perhaps what interested me in it in the first place. I hear the experimental electronic drones of early Tangerine Dream (especially their masterpiece Zeit), I hear formless ideas being slowly looped on top of each other (think Robert Fripp and Brian Eno's No Pussyfooting), and I hear the pulsating rhythms of some of the early Krautrock outfits (particularly Can). If there is one piece of prog-rock that, in retrospect, might best sum up the post-rock sound to come, I humbly submit King Crimson's "Starless and Bible Black," a nine-minute live instrumental performance from their 1974 album of the same name. An amorphous soup of sound creeps out of the silence, with buzzing guitars, eerie Mellotron chords, random percussive clanks, and the occasional growl from a bass guitar all swirling around each other, slowly coalescing toward a shared direction. A tight 4/4 rhythm kicks in, slightly funky -- but also slightly menacing. The drums and bass lock into a groove, giving us our only hint that this was all composed and not improvised when the two players hit a succession of notes at the same time. The sustained wails from the guitar cut through like a buzzsaw, and the Mellotron pushes on with its eeriness, seemingly oblivious to the growing tension even as it adds to it. There's no melody, not even a discernible tonal center. Then with the crash of a cymbal, everything breaks apart. The rhythm ceases, the instruments clatter around each other, and we get one more jolting blast of noise before everything fades back into the darkness.

Not your cup of tea? Understandable. Hey, I admit there aren't many people who would go and see the smoldering classic rock of Heart, the delectable piano pop of Sara Bareilles, and then this craziness all in the same week. What can I say? I love music in almost all its forms. Sometimes I want to be challenged, and sometimes I just want to sit back and rock out. Post-rock in general, and GY!BE in particular, decidedly fall down on the "challenge" side.

Godspeed! You Black Emperor currently consists of three guitarists, two bassists, two drummers, and a violinist, in addition to a projectionist who is crucial to creating the band's stage mystique. The group put out three full-length albums and an EP in fairly quick succession and then kept a low profile for the past several years. Their latest album, which was released last year, was their first new music in nearly a decade. I hadn't heard it yet before going to the show, but naturally there were plenty of copies for sale at the merchandise table.

But there was much more for sale at the merch table. Anarchist literature. Lots and lots of anarchist literature. There were even some lectures on CD from the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, including a talk on civil disobedience in times of war. I was very tempted to pick that one up -- but alas, I came without cash. Still, this was heavy stuff to be encountering at a rock show.

On the other hand, for anyone who's followed GY!BE, none of this was bound to be a surprise. The band is notoriously reclusive and rarely grants interviews, but as they told the Guardian in a rare interview last year regarding the meaning of their music: "Figure it out for yourself. The clues are all there." Indeed they are. But since the music is instrumental, you won't find them in any lyrics. Where you'll find them is in places like the snippets of world leaders whose words are weaved into the music, or in the many field recordings of ranting street preachers, or ordinary people railing fruitlessly against a system that harasses them with its niggling regulations and fines but offers nothing of value in return for the tributes it demands.

Or there are the graphics on the album packaging. The back of Yanqui U.X.O. has a hand-scrawled diagram illustrating the links between record companies and defense contractors like Raytheon. The gatefold of Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven features a woodcut-style illustration of a zombie-like George Washington, wearing a necktie emblazoned with a dollar sign, as he cuts the hands off a young man shedding a single tear. Behind them on a table is a signed document -- evidently a contract the young man signed agreeing to this predicament.

Or there are the song and album titles -- in particular,Yanqui U.X.O. "Yanqui" is the Latin American version of "yankee," typically used in a pejorative sense, and "U.X.O." stands for "unexploded ordnance." Put them together, and you have a compact commentary on an imperialist nation that has meddled in the affairs of Latin American nations for ages and has left behind the equivalent of landmines -- unexploded bombs that litter the landscape and no one dare approach.

So yeah, this is what I walked into. And you might be surprised to know that there was a healthy turnout for this show. Showbox SoDo is kind of a divey little place -- pretty much a warehouse, with a bar at one end and the stage at the other, with a restaurant off to one side -- but it has plenty of open space to pack the people in. And there were several hundred people packed down on the floor with me. I was about five rows of people from the stage, as close to center as I could get.

And no one moved.

Through the entire show.

Oh, there was the occasional shifting of weight from one foot to another, and sometimes a slight bobbing of a head here and there. But mostly there were very earnest-looking young men staring mesmerized at the stage for two hours. A few even closed their eyes as they stood there, presumably immersing themselves in the experience. It was by far the stillest and quietest audience I've ever been a part of.

You can't really blame them, though, because the overall experience was less like being at a concert and more like watching a movie, with the music serving as its soundtrack. The stage was lit only by a few dim orange-ish lights, with most of the illumination coming from the films projected onto the back of the stage throughout the concert. There was no visual narrative to speak of, but the choppy, gritty images all lent an air of anxiety and bleakness to the proceedings -- hundreds of typed and handwritten words flying past, too quick to read; jumpy black-and-white scenes of desolate desert-type landscapes and beaten-down industrial sites; flashing red lights against a night sky, too blurred and dark to put into context.

That was the visual focal point for the entirety of the show, because GY!BE doesn't indulge in hair-flipping guitarists doing exaggerated rock poses in the spotlight. No strobes, no smoke machines, no pyrotechnics. Theirs was an intense, studied performance, with the three guitarists playing seated on the stage and hunched over their instruments. One guitarist, sitting at the very edge of the stage, actually performed most of the evening with his back turned to the audience. With the two drum kits at the rear of the stage, everyone else was lined up in a half-circle -- they're anarchists, you see, and there's quite pointedly no leader in a circle, like at King Arthur's Round Table -- and they played the show with a minimum of movement and outward emotion. There was no interaction with the crowd whatsoever, and very little between the musicians themselves. If the individual musicians didn't have a part to play, they would often either leave the stage or sit down on the stage floor and wait for the next part to come around -- essentially removing themselves from the equation if they weren't needed at the time. It was as if they were forcing us to place our attention on the music and the visuals, rather than on who was manipulating the instruments to play the notes we heard.

And boy, did it work. We were all motionless, it ultimately seemed, because we were so utterly consumed in the performance -- I dare say we became part of the performance, with no more outward movement than the band members but no less emotional absorption in what was happening all around us.

Six compositions were performed over the course of two hours, but with the way the individual pieces ebbed and flowed, with no intuitive construction to serve as signposts from beginning to end, it felt more like one long, continuous piece. There were chords, but few obvious progressions. Occasional riffs and sketchy outlines of melodies might briefly emerge, but before you could connect with them, they'd be swallowed up by the ominous soundscapes that had been swelling around them. The end result was something like being on a restless sea. Just when you think you can relax into the pulsating waves and float along, the winds suddenly pick up, the sky darkens, you hear the distant roar of a giant wave hurtling toward you, and you prepare yourself the best you can for the coming onslaught.

Right from the opening E-flat drone that opened the show and remained there for a good five minutes while the band slowly built a musical edifice around it, there was a nearly constant sense of anticipation hanging in the air. It was all tension and no release as layer built upon layer. Where was the music going next? That was the perpetual question. It always sounded as if the band was gearing up to veer in another direction. Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn't. The drummers might establish a new, thundering rhythm, or they might just start accenting a different beat within the measures, and perhaps a new riff might emerge, built on just a few sparse notes, and played over and over while a wave of noise gradually built up around it to ultimately sweep it all away. Another riff may start to form, or the notes may hang in the air for an interminable time and build a tense, anxious aura. Eventually the pieces would decay into silence, but not before mentally exhausting the listener.

Now I know what apocalyptic despair sounds like.

That's possibly a strange reaction to have, because GY!BE claims their music is an expression of joy. If so, perhaps it's the desperate want of joy, in a world that beats us down and gives us no hope.

It's not as if I was unfamiliar with their material before the concert, but experiencing it in person really drove home the utter bleakness it conveys -- at least for me. At turns, their music sounds like the end of the world, and the crushing sorrow in the aftermath.

Like I said, heavy stuff.

As the performance drew to a close, the band members all made their way off the stage, with the feedback and looped layers of sound they had built up still washing through the amplifiers. After several minutes, the sound died down to a single drone, then a whisper, and then the house lights came up. No encore. No band members coming out arm in arm to take a bow. That was it.

They pummeled us and then left us standing there, stunned and helpless.

I shuffled my way out of the venue and stepped into a midnight downpour. I was drenched by the time I got to the car, but at least the rain helped bring me back to my senses.

That was a performance I will not soon forget.


Hope Drone
Chart #3
World Police and Friendly Fire
The Sad Mafioso

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