Thursday, October 6, 2022

Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Tashi Dorji - Live 2022.09.28 Astra Kulturhaus, Berlin, Germany

When Godspeed first scheduled this show for February, I passed on it. I wasn’t feeling safe enough to go. But then they rescheduled it, and with not much else on my concert calendar, I decided to give it a go. Thankfully it wasn’t sold out, but it was quite full.

I was a big fan of their latest album, G_d’s Pee at State’s End! (2021) as well as the one before it, Luciferian Towers (2017). I mean, they really don’t have a bad album (or EP), and somehow they just keep coming. The last time I saw them was in 2015 (in Austin) when they were touring for Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, although they played most of what would become Luciferian Towers as well. They don’t seem to have continued the trend anymore of previewing new work in concert years before it appears on record, but that’s okay. No one’s gonna complain with anything from their back catalog!

First, though, the opener: Tashi Dorji. He appeared alone with just his electric guitar. He played one extended piece (a little over a half-hour) that sounded mostly improvised, although it may have contained elements or motifs from more solidified works. At first, I thought he might move in a metal-leaning, riff-heavy direction, but he got increasingly experimental and unconventional as he progressed. His sound and style were familiar to me from the noise scene that I was once interested in and loosely involved with in St. Louis. I heard and saw bits of Sonic Youth in the prepared instrument manipulations and unusual techniques. A few sections used loops to build a soundbed or occasionally a hint of rhythm over which Tashi continued to improvise. Rarely was there something approaching melodic content, and when there was, it seemed to appear almost as if by accident. It was a rather dissonant performance, which made it more than a bit challenging. It certainly wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t entirely captivating, either. It felt a bit aimless or directionless despite the dynamics, and I have no idea what, if anything, was intended to be conveyed.

Thankfully Godspeed You! Black Emperor didn’t make us wait too long before they emerged, although at first it was just Thierry Amar on double bass and Sophie Trudeau on violin, playing a rather minimal piece. The projectionist (presumably either Karl Lemieux or Philippe Leonard, but I’m not sure which) started the scratchy imagery that occasionally yielded the word “Hope”, cluing us in that this was an iteration of their apparently now standard introductory “Hope Drone”. The rest of the band slowly shuffled out and picked up instruments. They kept it fairly restrained and didn’t quite let it build like most of their larger works.

As the drone wound down, they slid into the opening guitar riff of “Job’s Lament / First of the Last Glaciers” from their latest album. They played it fairly faithfully to the album, as they also did with “Cliffs Gaze”. Both nonetheless sounded huge and especially dramatic in the live rendition. The projections for both showed scenes of winter snow in the city (presumably Montreal?). The scenes were sparse and quiet without much human activity. During “Glaciers”, the imagery gradually shifted to springtime and more shots of nature, but in “Cliffs Gaze”, the imagery concentrated around the juxtaposition of graves and shots of of piles from a crumbling pier. Both seemed to presage environmental catastrophe.

The rest of the songs were scattered from their back catalog, and they played with the textures more and allowed them to deviate from the recorded versions. “Anthem for No State” (from Luciferian Towers) is already a classic, and its political urgency felt stronger than ever. It was accompanied by imagery of stock exchanges and buildings, which I believe had been used to accompany the other major piece from its album, “Bosses Hang”, when I saw them perform it in 2015.

“World Police and Friendly Fire” (from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, 2000) and “The Sad Mafioso” (from their debut, F♯ A♯ ∞, 1997) were both powerful and perhaps even further expanded and more adventurous than their studio versions. The latter’s video accompaniment included updated international protest footage, including Black Lives Matter protestors as well as shots with banners in German. As it drew to a close, the band seemed to seque into “Drugs in Tokyo” (which also followed it on the 1998 CD reissue). After the band slowly left the stage one by one, they left behind them a series of looped drones. (Even the projectionist left a slide loop running.) After a while, bassist Mauro Pezzente and drummer/percussionist/glockspielist Timothy Herzog came back out and manipulated the various amplifiers and pedal boards for a while. They slowly turned off each board and amp as they moved around, eventually reducing the layers down to silence. As per usual, there was no encore in the traditional sense, unless you count the loop manipulation.

This show was great. Unlike the last time I saw them, the mix was superb. I could usually distinctly hear all eight instrumentalists, although it was easy to let their sounds intermingle into an awesome whole. The ups and downs and subtle curves of their songs carried me along and conveyed the heaviness of their concerns. I was surprised to realize how much of the melody was carried by Trudeau’s violin, and also that she occasionally used guitar effects on her instrument, such as light phasing on “Anthem for No State”. Efrim Menuck’s bulldozer guitar may introduce and lead several songs, but it’s the interplay with the other guitarists (Mike Moya and David Bryant) that make it cohere and blossom. Similarly, the dynamics between the two bassists (Amar and Pezzente) and the two drummer/percussionists (Aidan Girt and Herzog) yielded a harmonic and rhythmic complexity that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance, but unfolds with careful listening (and a good sound system). I suppose that’s the appeal of the band: they sound huge and epic, but the subtlety and finesse in their compositions is what keeps me listening again and again.

1. Hope Drone
2. Job’s Lament → First of the Last Glaciers
3. Anthem for No State
4. Cliffs Gaze
5. World Police and Friendly Fire
6. The Sad Mafioso → Drugs in Tokyo

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: A
Tashi Dorji: C

[The best shot I could get with their anti-theatrical lighting and my old phone.]

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