There’s not really any sort of cohesive way to discuss a band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor that doesn’t begin to sound either extremely pretentious or like an academic paper. As I sat on the base of a pillar in Oakland’s massive Fox Theater, I could only boggle at how on earth I was to describe any of what I was seeing. Logically, the best place is probably the beginning.
The show started inauspiciously enough. My back was turned as I ordered from the bar, and I did not see the two men who took the stage. They were grey and beardy, dressed as if they were about to perform a sonata, and almost no fanfare accompanied their settling behind their instruments. The two men, as I would later learn from the t-shirts in the lobby, were none other than Xylouris White, composed of lute master George Xylouris of Crete and Jim White, drum maniac of underground rock. What ensued can only be explained by years of classical training and dedication, as White kept switching stick styles mid-song (sticks and timpani) and Xylouris did things I didn’t even know people could do with lutes (shred them).
It was about halfway through their set that DJ BrandX finally had to accept that his press pass couldn’t over-ride GY!BE’s no camera policy.
(Note from BrandX. People were able to get in with their camera, there were just some miscommunication between the press agent and tour manager. It was resolved later in the night around 10 PM, but by that time I was already in the venue and my phone was on silent so I didn’t get the memo in time.)
The squad I’d arrived with was again whole, us being me, Salamanders, Geckos, Catface Meowmers, and now BrandX. We took the time in between sets to discuss what genre Godspeed is. Post-Rock? Experimental Ambient? Audible Anarchy? Is this what a group of (insert genre) fans look like? And lo, the crowd we found ourselves easily made out to be the most diverse I’ve probably ever seen.
Anarchos and crusties? Check. Black metallers? Check. Neatly dressed jazz dudes? Check. Leftists that are just into the bands’ politics? You betcha (quote of the evening: “…vegans have higher IQs, but vegetarians actually have the lowest IQs…”). I even spotted a metalcore kid! Fancy that.
And then, the show just sort of happened. Members began wandering out onto the darkened stage, coming on only as necessary. A lone violin soon joined by a double bass. And then an electric bass. And then the textured thump of drums. Piece by piece, all eight members of the current line-up poured out, and flash photography began to fill the massive screen. Without a degree in film, I frankly feel underqualified to comment on the visuals.
(Brand X here to confirm the visuals were amazing and bring new meaning to the term “Music for Films”)
Suffice to say that they consisted of intense loops of something, say a trestle or some film strips or a skyscraper, which would then be overlayed and blended with other loops. So I can’t really say how or when the word HOPE scratched directly onto the film became a deer became a cell tower. It just did.
There wasn’t really anything that could be called a definite stop until about forty minutes in. Fans would clap at slowdowns or dynamic downshifts, but really they could have been applauding at random as far as the entire experience was concerned. More than anything throughout the night, I found myself impressed by Godspeed’s endurance. I think a lot of people misconstrue droning, atmospheric music as easy. Just hit a note and run it through a pedal and you’re the next big hipster thing. This is not so. The timbres and textures I saw being created required a constant and concentrated playing style, thick with tremolo strums, beats that sounded more like endless drum fills than anything, and the lightning-fast whining of bow on violin. It created not just a listening but an entire body experience, which paired with the images on the screen left me truly speechless.