GodSpeed You! Black Emperor Live @ American Music Hall, SF 04/17/12

If you’ve ever read anything about the phenomena known as Synesthesia you might think it is an interesting condition to posses. It is – I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. Of course it was not until a little over ten years ago that I put a name to what I just knew as a really intense relationship with music. Then I began reading about the phenomenon and more and more I found that Synesthesia explained the almost unbelievably visual relationship I tend to have with music. Even more recently I’ve come to theorize that – to my nervous system at least – music is a drug. A drug that I am hopelessly addicted to and that affects my brain in often debilitating ways. A  drug that has served as a gateway to other drugs in seeking to enhance its already amazing effects, and a drug that sometimes prevents me from getting anything constructive accomplished as I space and pine over the sounds spilling out of my speakers or through my headphones.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m telling you this because tonight I saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor at San Francisco’s sold out (four nights!) Great American Music Hall and I feel that it is important that I relate to you how I ‘see’ music so that when I explain that during the show this evening, when I figured out what it is exactly that I see when in the throes of ecstasy GY!BE’s music creates in me you better understand the context of that statement. This nine piece, enigmatic Canadian chamber ensemble is not like any other band or music that has a Synesthetic effect on me. They are not like music such as (to begin with the most simple visual relationships and build to the more complex as points of reference) Alice in Chains Dirt where I see color, or Type O Negative’s Bloody Kisses (digipak version) where I see what can only be described as moving paintings rich with visuals of forests, castles, snowy tundras ravaged by razor-sharp icy winds. GY!BE is also not like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing – an album where I witness intricate social and mechanical processes – but never really the same ones twice, as if every time I am learning more of a infinitely complicated process with each ‘viewing’ of the album. A process that my brain will never hope to have the RAM to piece together and understand**. No, with Godspeed I see something that has taken until tonight and the act of finally seeing the band live to pinpoint.

With Godspeed You! Black Emperor what I see in/from/in response to their music is my own death.

Wow, eh?

Now, obviously that sounds extremely dramatic, but I am not backing down. That’s what I see. And it affects me in ways that I will probably search the rest of my life to try but fall hopelessly short of verbalizing. Nonetheless, although that sounds horrible I can assure you it was in fact wonderful in a very strange way. But then again that’s what music at its best is supposed to do – introduce us to (or perhaps inoculate us against) that which we do not understand or fear. I do not want to die, but I will, just as surely as even though Godspeed’s music often makes me magically morose I will never stop listening to it, never stop being affected – for the better – by it.

The opening of the show was something that is being labeled by setlist aficionados as ‘Hope Drone’ and it was emotionally devasting to say the least. The way the group so perfectly, so instinctively understands how to create and escalate a proper drone, dancing the line between long-form melody and absolute white noise. These are Krzysztof Penderecki’s children and like Penderecki they are not afraid to use their instruments in completely unconventional ways; the rhythmic tapping or beating even of the wood of a violin or the magnetized pick-ups of a guitar fall in line with the drums and percussion and soon the group walks you into the wailing storm they have created. And when the drone slowly ebbs away and you come out the other side you are no longer in the same, safe little place you were at the start of it. But, as the visuals remind us the entire way, though a decidedly darker place they are taking us to, there is still HOPE.

Hope – it always amazes me when I think about how much hope seems associated with this group when to me they are so very much the soundtrack to the big, clunking and rattling death of everything we know as overfed members of Western society. Although I suppose – realistically – that fits in with my own interpretation of ‘hope’ – i.e. even though it will probably end my life or at least cause me massive pain and trauma by ending lives of those I care about, the only way to “hope” or expect things get better on this island Earth at this point in our history is to welcome nature and its inevitable and unavoidable culling of our species. Try as we might our problems just cannot be solved because THERE ARE FAR TOO MANY OF US. My money has always been on a virus or some kind of bacteria wiping us out**, but I guess any disaster will do in a pinch, right?

But why the hell am I wasting time in a write-up about a concert talking about all this stuff? I should be telling you about the amazing renditions of World Police and Friendly Fire, Moya, the tear-jerking sound of Murray telling us “… they don’t sleep anymore on the beach”. What about the soul-rending version of The Sad Mafioso that closed the show (I think – time grew slippery on the other side of that wonderful wall of sound). Well, I’m “not” telling you about those things because as you may have noticed if you read my M83 concert review last November I’m not really interested in doing traditional ‘reviews’. What the hell are they worth nowadays anyway? I mean, you miss a show you can usually just find key points of it on youtube anyway, right? No, I’m not interested in merely transcribing the events of last night for you. What I am far more interested in trying to do is to make sense of the music we love in the context of the world as we know it. Far be it from me to assume, but I’m pretty sure my figuring out and chronicling some of this stuff will have reciprocal benefits for others out there, just based on the fact that four nights of this band have sold out in San Francisco this week, so there are obviously a lot of other people out there who identify with a band that hasn’t been around in something like ten years. What is it we all find in their wonderfully meloncholic, instrumental music? Well, I don’t know exactly, and I’m fairly certain by the people I’ve talked to with a shared love that they don’t have their finger on it precisely either, so maybe if I come along and try to parse the experience down we’ll all learn a little something (or maybe you’ll leave a comment and take me to fucking school, eh?).

Suffice it to say that seeing GY!BE last night*** was one of the high points of my musical life and an experience that affected me deeply. Music lovers: they are touring – if I see a better show this year I’ll be quite pleasantly surprised to say the least, so think about that if they come through your state and maybe pony up the money and support a band that deserves to be heard just about as much as you deserve to hear them.


* And maybe that’s a good thing. You know what ol’ Howard Phillips Lovecraft had to say about that right? If not just read the opening paragraph to The Call of Cthulhu.

** Two words, a name really: Howard Bloom.

*** Yes, during the course of writing this time elapsed and I didn’t feel justified changing that for the sake of the appearance of smooth continuity; I was fairly drunk last night by the time the show got out and we returned to our hotel and I’m fairly exhausted now as I edit this – REALITY IS A CONTINUUM, NOT A TELEVISION GENRE!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

One Response to GodSpeed You! Black Emperor Live @ American Music Hall, SF 04/17/12
  1. [...] it was released. Granted, I had just traveled to San Francisco to see them in April (read about it here)... joup.co/shawns-top-albums-of-2012