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Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Forum

Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Forum. Drawing by Geoff Winston
Copyright 2012 / All Rights Reserved

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
(The Forum, 4 November 2012 . First of two nights. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

The Canadian lynchpins of alternative rock, God Speed! You Black Emperor filled the Forum for two nights to mix uncompromising slabs of new material, including ‘Mladic’ from their fourth studio album, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’ and the as yet unreleased ‘Behemoth’, with the classic ‘Gathering Storm’ from their double set ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven’.

A stage in virtual darkness, articulated only by pinpoints of red, green and blue lights emanating from the electronic equipment gave the band a cloak of mystery and anonymity, a tendency reinforced by Karl Lemieux’s primarily monochromatic, montaged, gestural film loops. Film and image have been integral to the band’s identity – their name, adopted in 1995, is taken from a 1970s Japanese biker documentary.

Prefaced by ten minutes of mellow, building drone, violinist Sophie Trudeau and Thierry Amar on acoustic bass set the tone which hinged on the ebb and flow of grinding, hypnotic layers of claustrophobic intensity. They were joined by two drummers, multiple guitars, keyboard and electronics to infuse the gravelly reverberations with a dimension of wide open, outdoor space. This seeming contradiction fed a tendency towards the epic and anthemic.

The filmic backdrop switched from barren landscapes of neglect shot from a train and through a rain-spattered car windscreen to engineering drawings, and footage of stock exchange commodities boards and political rallies. It created an abstract, eerie, ominous mood, presenting a window on society rooted in the alternative politics with which GY!BE align themselves.

Folk themes, haunting phrases, rumbling statements, brief swooping solos of searing expressive force bounced off an industrial, percussive foundation, the pummelling drone taking on a sense of grunge rockabilly laced with flamenco rhythm. In the background melting, bubbling film was captured on film in trompe l’oeil fashion, much like the 60s light shows of Mark Boyle at Middle Earth, where the film actually melted.

The leaden monoliths of sound and tunnels of feedback drove into Glenn Branca territory, symphonic in weight, military in intent, narrowly avoiding the formulaic, occasionally spiced with gentler interplay and a sense of discovering fresh paths to explore, the benefit of years of collective sound shaping that has underpinned the culture of GY!BE.

Despite the overriding sense of bleakness and indeterminacy mirroring the complexity and the conflicts of the industrial-electronic era, this was music of power, draining its energy from that very source. Eschewing vocals for all but a micro-moment of husky vocalisation from Trudeau during ‘The Sad Mafioso’ (from ‘F♯ A♯ ∞’) towards the end of their two-hour set, just as the band members had ambled on to the stage, they left one by one, to leave programmed samples ringing over the empty stage to waves of audience applause. An ending with the wisdom of uncertainty.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
David Bryant – guitar, tapes
Efrim Menuck – guitar, tape loops, keyboards
Mike Moya – guitar
Sophie Trudeau – violin
Thierry Amar – double bass, electric bass
Mauro Pezzente – bass
Aidan Girt – drums, percussion
Tim Herzog – drums, percussion
Karl Lemieux – film projections

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