Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Xylouris White - Live 2015.09.14 Mohawk, Austin, Texas

Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Venue: Mohawk (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 14 September 2015
Opening Act: Xylouris White

Setlist [Edit 2017.10.23: Updated upon release of Luciferian Towers]:
1. Hope Drone
2. Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'
3. Lambs' Breath
4. Asunder, Sweet
5. Piss Crowns Are Trebled
6. Bosses Hang [originally known by fans as "Buildings"]
7. Moya
8. Anthem for No State [originally known by fans as "Railroads"]
9. The Sad Mafioso

I have a bad history with getting really excited about a band just after they've broken up. Take, for example, my fascination with The Smashing Pumpkins, who I became a fan of in 2001, less than a year after they'd split. Or consider Siouxsie & the Banshees, who I found out about just after their final reunion tour in 2002. Well, it turns out that I bought my first Godspeed You! Black Emperor album (actually, it was their EP) in 2004, about a year after they'd split up.

Sometimes, though, you get a second chance. Obviously, it's debatable whether The Smashing Pumpkins are quite as good the second time around, but at least when it comes to GY!BE, one could almost believe they didn't disappear for seven years. It's not that their two post-reunion albums don't show growth from Yanqui U.X.O. (2002), but it's more like they just needed a break and then decided to take the next logical step forward. Long gone are the days of vox populi spoken word segments and tracks with multiple individually named movements. The band still prefers lengthy works with large-scale dynamic buildups, but now there is even less focus on specific words and ideas and more of a sense of depth, imagery, and heaviness.

While the band has always expressed themselves well without words, seeing them live only proves the point further. The eight instrumental members sit or stand on stage in something of a circle with no vocal mics anywhere to be seen. They start and stop playing like they could do it even if they weren't deliberately facing each other and avoiding eye contact with the audience. There's one extra element that brings it all together: the ninth member, not be found on stage, but rather about five feet to the right of where I was standing on the first balcony. Karl Lemieux patiently manipulated three slide projectors and racks of bits of tape throughout the entire show, and it's his work (along with whomever else produced the images) that contextualizes the music and makes the implicit messages a little more, shall we say, explicit.

Initially, the slides were mostly just vague, scratchy scrawls with the occasional appearance of the word "hope", lending a name to the band's post-reunion regular opening drone. This may have gone on a little long, but it certainly set the mood for the subsequent performance of the entirety of the new album, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. Even though this rendition was not substantially different than the studio recording, it is still a powerful experience and certainly enhanced by the visual material, which shifted towards themes of urban decay and abandoned houses. (Certainly this wouldn't be a critique of unbridled American capitalism, would it!?)

This performance was also special for a historical reason. The band has been performing the material on this album since 2012, when it was known by fans as "Behemoth" due to appearing to be a single, continuous 45-minute work. It was at this same venue in that year that the band played one of the first versions of this work, and a high-quality (authorized!) fan recording widely circulated the following day. (See here; it's still freely available for streaming and download.)

The second half of the evening was a mix of very old favorites ("Moya" from the aforementioned Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada EP and "The Sad Mafioso" from their debut album F♯ A♯ ∞) and two new songs, continuing their longstanding trend of debuting new material on the road years before releasing studio versions. The old songs were no surprise but great to witness live. "The Sad Mafioso" was extended substantially, building from the opening sparse, wayward guitar notes and droning soundscape to a massive, heavy, rocking beast.

The two new works were the highlight of the night: they were entirely unpredictable even while still working in the band's familiar modes. The first opened with pretty bass chords followed by chiming, interlocked guitars before expanding outward. Slides depicted unfinished or abandoned buildings and stock market tickers, seeming to indict senselessly destructive real estate speculation. The second started with folky violin and picked guitar patterns. It built up very slowly with a slow tempo, but eventually changed direction entirely with heavier guitars and a faster pace. It ultimately felt like a very long piece; recent concert recordings indicate it is about 22 minutes long. (See here or here, for example.) The slides for this piece mostly followed train tracks through a wooded countryside. The emotional message was less clear to me, but the music was good enough that I didn't mind. [Edit 2017.10.23: These songs appear as "Bosses Hang" and "Anthem for No State" on the 2017 album Luciferian Towers.]

There is only one other thing I can really criticize about the show: the mix. For the most part, it was as great as most shows I see at this venue or almost anywhere in Austin. However, the low end was overdone and a bit muddy. Mixing a band with two bassists, three guitarists, two drummers, and a violinist is probably a bit of a de facto challenge, although in practice the only part left to be desired was the distinction and clarity of the two bassists. I could usually hear one or the other, but rarely both. The resulting morass of low-end excess actually felt physically weighty and almost sickening. I had to give up my spot and sit down at one point because I couldn't take it. Now, I usually enjoy the physical element of live music (when I have appropriate ear protection at hand, of course!), but on this occasion I think there was a flaw in the sound design.

A word about the openers: I was interested in seeing this collaboration between Cretan lutenist George Xylouris and former Dirty Three drummer Jim White, but as the set times weren't posted until 6pm and the opener went on at 7:15pm, there was little I could do to see the full set. Of the 15 minutes I did see, it seemed like they held promise, but it's hard to say more than that. Xylouris' lute sounded way cooler than I would have expected, but his voice didn't do much for me. Meanwhile, White's drumming was maybe just a bit too unhinged. Perhaps I looked too closely, but I thought the timing wasn't always as sharp as I would've expected. Still, I wish I could've seen the whole thing.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: B+
Xylouris White: B-

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