Godspeed You! Black Emperor @ Liverpool, Camp & Furnace, 27.10.2015
Liverpool Music Week
There are nights in our lives difficult to express in words. These are the kind of nights that make you a slightly different person the moment you wake up the next day. But you don’t feel sadness because it is over and will never come back – you are blissfully happy that you had a chance to experience something that will leave a mark on your soul. This is the kind of thing that Godspeed You! Black Emperor do for their audience every night they play live, and this is what I had an opportunity to witness.
Dying in anticipation, Liverpool greeted me with streams of rain pouring down my face and coat. By the time I got to Camp & Furnace, I was quite soaked but had time to dry up – as usual, I reached the venue far before doors opened. However, I did not waste the time by simply standing. Instead I decided to explore the unique location which GY!BE had chosen for their gig. Greenland Street, and the surrounding area, once hosted the facilities for storing trade ship cargos. The architecture of the area is a typical 19th century British one, coming from the age of the Industrial Revolution. It consists of cheap, redbrick housing and old industrial buildings. The surroundings were oddly beautiful, yet depressing, as if the whole district was reminiscing about the better days. I really like to think that GY!BE have chosen such a location for a purpose, as it reflected the heavy and crippling nature of their music.
As I was wandering about the streets, I had quite a surprising yet pleasing fan-boy moment when I saw Efrim Menuck having a smoke backstage. It was nothing of a life-changing encounter – I’d rather call it another nice thing in a day filled with nice things. After my walk I came back in front of Camp & Furnace and managed to take one of the first spots in the queue. I was given a yellow wristband which unsurprisingly had the words “Godspeed You! Black Emperor”.
The interior of the venue was basically a large open field limited only by four walls – no wonder the owners of the place like to call it an “outdoors, indoors”. It was dark inside, but the stage visible – you could see tons of amplifiers forming a crescent around chairs and pedalboards.
By the time the opening act came on stage, the room was only half-filled – I kind of expected more people to be there, but then again, most of the audience were probably only interested in the headliner and there was nothing wrong about that. However, I think that the support, Dead Rat Orchestra, deserves some serious words of praise. The band, consisting of two gloriously bearded and tattooed men, managed to pull a half an hour-long set of re-imagined old folk songs. Their interpretations were really dark at some points, but their surprising yet brilliant use of various analog instruments like an old vinyl player or a vintage radio really caught my ear. Despite being a duo, their music was rich and filled with various unrecognizable sounds which I deeply enjoyed.
After Dead Rat Orchestra’s set was over the stage was once again submerged in darkness – you could only see silhouettes of people setting up the equipment. What didn’t come to me as a huge surprise was that I started recognizing these silhouettes as being actual GY!BE members. ‘That’s soooo in their way of doing things’ I thought. There was no crew, no help from anybody, just them and their art. Godspeed are a really special band in this sense – always hidden behind a veil of mystery, never in the mainstream, despite winning the Polaris Music Prize for their 2013 bone-crushing comeback Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!. They are always critical of official establishments, but their critique is not the in-your-face punky type. It’s sublime, hidden between the lines of their music, hinted in the visuals displayed behind the band and expressed in the way this music collective exists and creates. Their rebellion brings out the deepest hidden anger, while they point out things we don’t even notice about our lives. They always seem to grasp the bigger picture, yet they never say that – you just kind of know what they want to express with their music even though it almost contains no words. They were, and still are, a music revolution to me, with their long tracks, nihilist music and orchestral noise. And I was standing right there, in front of the stage waiting for my heroes to come out of the shade.
The concert started with a single sound stretched over the timespan of about five, maybe ten, minutes. Well, maybe it was even fifteen, I couldn’t really tell. Time ceased to have any application here. The intro was quite similar to the drone-ish ambience which opens The Dead Flag Blues. However, soon the violin and double-bass joined the noise with a dark and chaotic cascade of sounds. I didn’t even notice as the next members of the band were coming on stage, adding their parts to the already existing wall of sound.
The black and white visuals started to be displayed. They partly covered the band, however most of the images could be seen on the wall behind. They seemed really random and confusing at first, but if you looked at them for some time you started to make something out of it. A single word “Hope” was appearing from time to time. Is it what they tried to say to the audience? Stay hopeful despite how ugly and meaningless the world around you is? The visuals and the small personal lamps directed at pedalboards were the only lights in the vast room. A room that by now was crowded.
After finishing the first track, without a word the band started Storm, the opening track to their sophomore album Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Cheered by an audience, it started as a soft whisper and ended up being an earthquake and a hurricane at the same time. I simply could not grasp the integrity of the band and how they managed to sound so coherent while being an orchestra of noise. I could not locate the source of separate sounds. It felt as if the band was a single body that occupied the entire venue and flooded it with beautiful loudness. One is not able to get this sort of experience while listening to the albums, no matter how fantastic they are.
While playing live, Godspeed have the capacity to uncover your deepest emotions while not revealing anything, not a single word, not even a single look. The whole thing cannot be described as a concert – it was a surreal experience. It seemed as if the music was just pouring away from the amplifiers, inhumane and humane at the same time. I’ve never felt this way and I don’t suppose I’ll ever feel in the same way again (unless of course, I go and back and see GY!BE). They were able to see through our souls, having previously opened our chests in the softest and most pleasant way possible, yet they didn’t care to look. Even up to this day, after some time has passed from the concert, I am still not fully able to express the kind of emotions GY!BE made me feel.
Quite expectedly, the band played their 2015 album Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress in full. Before releasing, the entirety of the record was known as Behemoth – a single massive track which the Canadians played live. It began with a heart-stopping beat of Peasantry or Light! Inside of Light, and continued for another hour or so as a crushing wall of sound. It is incredible how such noise can change people and influence them. Usually after the concert, when I walk out of the venue I feel like I need more, like I could watch a band again and again, yet I know I can’t (so called post-gig depression). After quitting Camp & Furnace I felt blissfully empty inside and flabbergasted at the same time. I didn’t want more, because I got more than I could ever expect. The amount of noise and emotions, and everything else that was a part of this experience was too much for me to handle just like that – it took some time to digest.
After finishing Asunder, the band started Mladic from their 2013 Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend. It was a proper kick of furious energy, the kind of track that makes you want to go out into the streets and start giving into your inner destructive instincts. Then they moved into a completely new track (hinting a new album? Who knows) that was slow and loud, yet with a surprisingly lovely melody to it. However the visuals made it look as dark and daunting as the rest of what GY!BE did during that concert. It was around that time when the visuals started to display the things that became engraved in my memory – at the beginning these were long shots of construction sites showing the skeletons of what was meant to become skyscrapers. Then, approximately at the time when the last-but-one track BBF3 started, the screen was showing the images of massive excavators armed with clamshells digging through a landfill site with an overpass as a background. I don’t know why, but I remember these moments as the best and the darkest parts of the concert.
The proper ending (at least I think so) to the concert was the track J.L.H. Outro, the four-minute segment which ends Godspeed’s debut album. It was also the loudest moment of this gig and the most cathartic one. Members of the band started putting out their instruments one by one, leaving the stage. They saw off the audience with reserved waving. At the end, only a distorted voice remained. It was saying, “Where are you going?” as the crowd left the venue.
Seeing Godspeed You! Black Emperor live was an experience I will never forget. Nor will I manage anytime soon to get over the wave of raw emotions which struck me during and after the concert. It is the kind of event which becomes one of your most cherished memories, like a first kiss, but with a more bittersweet taste.
This concert was not only an incredible sonic feast, but also an extreme journey deep down the darkest corners of human brain. After all, GY!BE are extremist. For me, they are the sound of the future bottom-up revolution, which so many scholars have already predicted, the soundtrack to radical changes that are about to come from within of ourselves. They have everything that is needed to change people and they use it in a way no one else does. They also have an ability to tell stories about the horrible world we live in without using words. Instead of narratives, they like to use sounds to create small earthquakes on the venue floor and massive ones in our hearts.