When reviewing a band you feel like everyone else knows and loves–and has done for a very long time–it’s hard to find anything new to say about them. Sure, you can describe their music with a thesaurus to hand, or relay your live experience via the edgy medium of Haiku*, but you’re not really going to be saying anything faintly novel.
Luckily for me, Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a band that defies explanation. On the face of it, eight shifty Canadians have lurched onto a wide stage somewhere in North London with nary a fanfare, resembling a last-minute school concert gone wrong. Without any introduction, suddenly the air is alive with the dirtiest, deepest bass dirge you’ve ever clapped ears upon. Our treat is certainly in store.
And that’s the end of any sensible discourse on the matter. What follows is a six-song, two-hour set that incites a feeling not unlike being buried in sonic custard. The crowd’s faces are fixed raptly on the shifting outlines of Canada’s finest; faces blurring with the apocalyptic images cast over them. At one point, Godspeed’s master projectionist, who has spent most of the gig swinging between four sturdy film-cameras, allows the celluloid to rest steady on the heated lamps: stark, pencil drawn images flicker, warp and grossly distort as the film that holds them goes up in smoke.
What with the maelstrom of music and moving images in front of us, it’s hard to pay any attention to the eight humans on stage. The lights on them are low, picking out the finest contours of their faces and instruments. The musicians don’t speak between songs and the only vocal contribution to their set comes courtesy of Blaise Bailey Finengan III’s raving monologue at the opening of “BBF3.” It’s as if Godspeed is unwilling to even take credit for the mindboggling sounds they’re making.
It’s true that the band is notoriously publicity-shy: in their early days, a collective decision to avoid the pitfalls of the music business saw the Canadian doom-merchants eschew traditional media interaction. In a recent interview with the Guardian, the band outlined its early efforts in getting through to its fanbase:
“…we wanted to bypass what we saw as unnecessary hurdles, and find those people on our own. We were proud and shy motherfuckers, and we engaged with the world thusly.”
This same interview, the first in British print for some years, was delivered entirely via email. In response to seven scant questions, the band delivered its musical thesis and, by virtue of their earlier omissions, granted readers the most coherent, comprehensive view into their creative vision yet.
In a musical landscape where image and the cult of “public relations” appear paramount, Godspeed’s approach to Costa’s questions is disturbingly candid. In the band’s thousand-word email reply, they describe how their music sits in such a problematic industry:
“Things are not OK. Music should be about things are not OK, or else shouldn’t exist at all. The best songs ever are the songs that ride that line. We just try to get close to that perfection. We drive all night just to get closer to that perfect joyous noise, just to kiss the hem of that garment. We love music, we love people, we love the noise we make.”
What is painlessly clear from Godspeed’s interactions with its audience is an overwhelming sense of fidelity. Both on-stage and off, they are fundamentally concerned with a will to channel their ballooning, emotional fracas straight into the hearts and minds of those that will listen, without having to deal with the sheens and filters of, for example, the insidious presence of The Music Industry™ or equally poisonous *cough* journalists.
That is the reason that, for many minutes after Godspeed has left its final bassy death-throe to hang in the air, my fellow gig watchers and I can’t quite function any more. It’s hard to put the experience into words without a hyperbolic abuse of language, but we have undoubtedly been exposed–if only for the briefest of moments–to the band’s perfected musical vision.
Back with the Guardian, Costa’s parting question to the band is simple: “Do people like me just take you too seriously?” she asks, ostensibly out of a sense of self-deprecating candor.
The quiffed heads of well-versed music-dom shake in consternation, their eyes wide at the incredulity, the cheek of such a question.
Godspeed, with voices chiming across the electronic airwaves, sounding as one colossal bell that heralds the apocalypse, answers:
*There are two: “Canuck post-rock, or /Godspeed You! Black Emperor / To their closest friends” or “Beached whale flops on stage, / Emits death-howl. We all cry: / Beer is expensive.”