LIVE: Godspeed You! Black Emperor @ Basilica Hudson, 9/8/15


Review by Steven Stock

Outside Basilica Hudson before the Godspeed You! Black Emperor show, one fan casually asked another “Did you take acid?” “No,” his friend replied apologetically, “I’ve gotta drive home afterwards.”

Now that I’ve seen GY!BE, it’s clear that their music is designed for listeners who are far more intelligent, sophisticated and hip than I. Either that, or tripping. Nonetheless, I was able to discern the rough outlines of their agenda: subvert the conventions of rock, avoid cliche at all costs and never pander to audience expectations. So there were no silly love songs last Tuesday night, no verse/chorus/verse/bridge arrangements and certainly no tunes you’d find yourself humming on the drive home. GY!BE have grander pretensions than that.

The performance began quietly, with little fanfare, as bassist Thierry Amar and violinist Sophie Trudeau segued from tuning into “Hope Drone.” Three minutes in a few scattered drumbeats, then some appergiated guitar, a second drummer, more guitars. Yet the piece didn’t build to a predictable crescendo, but rather ebbed and flowed like water lapping at a shoreline. The song was faintly reminiscent of early Velvet Underground pieces like “Melody Laughter,” yet unlike those largely improvised exercises it was precisely structured. “These guys make Sonic Youth sound like the Ramones,” I thought. I was drinking the Kool Aid; I was becoming a believer; I was ready to have LOVE and HATE tattooed on my knuckles.

Alas, my enthusiasm rapidly waned as GY!BE performed their newest album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress – judging by their album titles, it’s likely wise that they eschew lyrics. Once I realized that the music would never go where I expected it to, it suddenly became less interesting. If you subvert my expectations every single time, eventually I will learn to expect subversion. Too much of GY!BE’s music is all tension and no release, like watching adult movies with all the money shots excised. In fairness, this is part of what makes them so unique: a sense of dynamics that has more in common with plate tectonics than rock ‘n’ roll.

Given that the band moved less than some statue gardens, projecting film loops behind them was a brilliant idea. Like the music, the images were resolutely non-linear: the juxtaposition of a dilapidated building with ’30s-era pylons could refer to Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration – or it might not. Are those pylons or derricks? A semiotician might point out that the recurring image of sprocket holes challenges the primacy of image with an assertion of medium – or he might not. GY!BE’s aesthetic invites nay demands some sort of analysis (hopefully more profound than mine), perhaps one reason so many critics adore them.

What’s certain is that the massed array of film loops hanging behind the projection desk looked ravishing. Many in the audience paused to take pictures of the film loops – another self-referential wormhole for those who were tripping, or reading too much Derrida. In fact, the action at the projection desk above and behind the soundboard was sometimes more interesting than watching the band (not) move.

Those who withstood the stifling heat inside Basilica and made it through Asunder were rewarded with a couple of new tunes, titles of course unannounced. To me the band seemed more engaged with these two songs, as if they were still creating them rather than trying to replicate something they had already finished. It helped as well that these pieces were rather pretty by GY!BE standards, enlivened by some almost lyrical violin from Trudeau. The set concluded with a 20-minute rendition of “The Sad Mafioso,” which effectively juxtaposed some quieter interludes with the thunder GY!BE usually conjures.

Openers Xylouris White wore white after Labor Day but were otherwise flawless. Giorgos Xylouris from the Greek island of Crete plays lute and sings, accompanied by Jim White, an Australian drummer best known for his work with the Dirty Three. White is fun to watch, a man who obviously enjoys his job, grinning when Xylouris played a particularly dazzling run, then coolly surveying the crowd, raising his left arm above his head before emphasizing a downbeat. Check out their recent album Goats – definitely some of the best Cretan music you’re likely to hear this year!

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