Godspeed You! Black Emperor @ Playhouse, 10 Aug

Live Review by Will Fitzpatrick | 12 Aug 2016
  • Godspeed you, Black Emperor

The drone has been playing quietly in the background long before anyone realises it’s part of the show. Indeed, two of Godspeed’s eight-strong collective have wandered on stage and started to tease sounds from their instruments before the house lights even go down – to call it an understated opening doesn’t quite do it justice.

The build-up from such performative quietude to a throbbing, claustrophobic avalanche of sound is much less subtle, however; the crescendo is steep, reaching towering heights at the top of the maelstrom and staying there for heroic bursts of sonic chaos. You’ll need to catch your breath once the noise levels descend from such a lofty perch – there will inevitably be mere seconds, passed wordlessly, before we’re thrust back into the melee.

Such adventurous spirit isn’t for everyone. A shocked-looking couple sat near The Skinny, perhaps drawn to the show by art-curiosity or a sense of loyalty to the Edinburgh International Festival, last half an hour of tonight’s set before gathering their belongings and leaving as soon as Peasantry Or ‘Light! Inside Of Light’'s molten mass of sludge guitar hits home.

It marks an interesting point in the set: during the opening segment we’ve watched dual drummers Aidan Girt and Timothy Herzog hammer several shades of shit from their percussive arsenal, and yet the noise they make is completely buried under the gathering cacophony of drones, tones and feedback loops. When the song’s sparse yet mighty floor-tom/snare intro begins (signalling a full run through last year’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress LP), it’s so punishingly loud that we’re suddenly shocked at the volume Godspeed’s climaxes must reach in order to drown the drums out so completely. A sobering thought.

Still, that’s enough about loudness. Godspeed’s music is often described as ‘bleak’, and that’s certainly true of their more monstrous moments – difficult to think of them as anything other than elemental when they conjure thoughts of tempestuous seas, howling winds and juddering floors so effortlessly. Drums thud, guitars crunch and jangle, and Sophie Trudeau’s violin rustles majestically over the top of it all, lending drama to chaos; pathos to doom.

As ever, they’re as capable of sounding like the world’s most morose rock band as the echoes of an imploding cosmos, and yet! For all that, there are moments when cheery tranquillity reigns supreme. Some riffs – the peak of Piss Crowns Are Trebled, for instance – could be the scores to swashbuckling, seafaring yarns; others sound positively triumphant. There’s a far broader emotional palette at play than mere bleakness. 

They also try to unsettle and discombobulate with the films projected above their heads. Diptychs of images posit contrasting notions: one camera follows a skyscraper from ground to top level, while its juxtaposed partner scrolls across a bird’s eye view of tower blocks, throwing balance and perspective off-kilter.

Elsewhere there are flashing, grainy images of telegraph poles and civil rights protestors; a man attempting a card trick only for the cards to slip from his grasp; a bird lying motionless on the floor in flight position, then furiously attempting to take off, only to find itself still grounded. Meanwhile, during the band’s cataclysmic opener, the word ‘HOPE’ flashes on screen, distorted and frantic, like a message from the dead desperately trying to find an audience. We’ll dwell on this again after a closing run through 1997’s East Hastings that leaves us all dizzied and deafened.

As the band exit the stage, feedback howling before amps are gradually switched off one at a time, melting back into the aforementioned soft drone and thunderous applause from the audience, we settle into the calm after the storm. As another band once pointed out, hope is important. It’s the flashes of hope amidst Godspeed’s earth-shattering violence that make them such a wonderful, essential band.