Show Review — Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Great American Music Hall | San Francisco, CA | 2.20.11
By now almost everyone knows the Godspeed story: reclusive, wordless, (a)political Canadians who became the one post-rock band everyone agreed was worth listening to, at least for a few minutes, to get a sense of what the post in post-rock was actually referring to. Not to say that the twenty-minute orchestral songs weren’t a new form of rock music but that, in Godspeed’s artwork and mid-song spoken word segments, everything centered around a new post-world, something recognizable yet unfamiliar: Coney Island on “Sleep” as a deserted center, the former playground of the world, now a wasteland; the 16mm projection images behind the band of barren, humanless landscapes, machinery schematics and building plans, microphone chords wrapping around themselves like infinity signs.
At the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Sunday night, the band took the stage slowly as members came on-stage and calmly tuned their instruments or fiddled with amp settings, paying little attention to the crowd. Meanwhile, a noisy drone continued to build and on the large projection sheet that spanned the wall behind the band, hanging from the edge of each balcony, appeared the scratched out word “HOPE,” jittery like the hand of someone in great distress, the image coming in waves, skittering left and right and layering on top of itself until the letters became thick and disappeared; the cycle repeating every thirty seconds or so. Disregarding hope as a word for now, the cycling image’s purpose should be obvious — a scratched out sketch, repeated ad infinitum, layering until the letter strokes are a suitable density, then disappearing. It’s the schematic for nearly all of Godspeed’s music.
Hope is a bit more enigmatic. It is probably the most associated word, besides post-rock, with the band due to its inclusion in their artwork. But there’s almost nothing about the band’s music that conveys a feeling of hope — Godspeed writes songs of calm desperation, gentle guitar and violin melodies that repeat until the tension breaks and the band releases the melody into a whirl of bass, drums, and brash, trebly instrumentals. If there is a soothing message to pull from these epics it is that ultimately the crescendo will fall and leave us to our relaxation, which, considering the band’s possessiveness of world police, rockets falling, and slow riots may be the paradoxical comfort that comes with death or the de-centering of the world around us.
In 2011, however, hope has undergone a significant change after being embraced in 2008 as one of the buzzwords for Obama’s presidential campaign, most obviously in the iconic poster by artist Shepard Fairey. So far, this hope has been misplaced. Obama has only half-satiated the progressive cause that elected him. Moreover, the financial collapse of 2008 has left the country in a state of economic shock, paralyzed by sensational political rhetoric and the inevitable recognition that our center did not hold, that the financial sector and its power to make money from money was not fail-safe. An unconscious desperation has replaced hope — the rise of the Tea Party, the assassination attempt of Rep. Gifford, the union-busting efforts in Wisconsin — Americans are stuck, for now, in slow panic: the post-hegemonic state scratching its harsh reality into newspaper headlines and tv ticker-tape, a gentle melody of terror, repeated ad infinitum until (for now we must sit and wait) the noise reaches its crescendo.
And yet post-rock, this feeling’s de facto musical counterpart, has taken a vacation. The genre, besides a passable new album this year from Mogwai, is essentially non-existent. Replaced, most likely, by the chill-wave lo-fi makings of my generation, a music that derives, many have argued, from a sense of worthlessness in these difficult economic times. The core of Chillwave’s message is a return to the ignorance and irresponsibility of childhood.
Godspeed has no interest in steering listeners away from this feeling. In fact, the projector slide lingered on a book title, The History of Melancholy, for a few seconds at different times throughout the show. During the set closer, “East Hastings,” the band projected images of the 2001 Iraq War protests in New York City, black-and-white home videos of protestors marching through the streets with menacing blood-red color overlays. It was only the third time (in two hours) that human beings were included in the video. But these protests were futile; the war continues today. And perhaps this guides us to what Godspeed meant when they opened their show below the scrawled image of hope. Hope is a feeling born from the expectation that something might happen, rather than its assuredness. It is the feeling that comes just before expectations are not met and we spiral into desperation.
And so, tracing the course of the show, Godspeed’s music and art matches the rise-and-fall of empires and the lonely citizen together, beginning as it does with hope, until the noise of failure and futility overwhelms us, and we end somewhere without, a new quiet calm, a new center, the new post.