harder! faster! louder! sadder! at first, it's hard to tell precisely where the extraordinary torrent of noise is coming from. the stage is dark apart from flickering abstract projections that occasionally cast white light on the faces of two drummers and two bassists, one solemnly and repeatedly bowing his strings.
come closer, though, and the source of these saturated power symphonies becomes apparent. sat across the front of the stage, hidden to all but the first few rows, are a cellist, a violinist and no fewer than three guitarists. one affects a parched western twang, describing figures lost in an ennio morricone desert. another teases indescribably delicate glissando ripples from his instrument. the third is doing, well, god knows what, to be honest. piling on these huge looming crescendos that crash in time and time again, higher and higher, louder and louder, forever, perhaps.
this, then, is the shadowy but deafening godspeed you black emperor!, nine determinedly anonymous men and women from montreal whose astonishing sound demands a level of hyperbole accorded few other new bands in 1998. clearly, they're a band revulsed by the idea of being explained, dissected, even identified beyond their music. the title alone of their debut album, 'f#a#oo', marks them out as purveyors of extreme obfuscation, while their translation of it as 'regret, desire, fear and hope' betrays the big emotional undertow of their manoeuvres.
if 'f#a#oo' drifts unnervingly from riffs to dark ambience via tape loops and the odd bagpipe solo, however, godspeed live is a marginally more familiar proposition. essentially, we're in mogwai's territory - the dynamic quiet/loud systems of post-rock allied to a furious way of combining melody and noise - taken to its extreme and beautiful conclusion.
so there are six songs, intricately detailed and apocalyptically amplified patterns of repetition interspersed with bleak violin and cello interludes, stretching out over 90 minutes. none of the band say a word in that time, though a crypto-religious tape between pieces reminds us, aptly, "it takes motion, it takes dedication," to perform one of the most amazing gigs in recent memory. if there's a climax amongst climaxes, it's during 'the sad mafioso', when aidan girt stands to beat out an accelerating martial rhythm on a single huge drum, eyes bulging and veins ready to burst as he drags his eight fellow travellers to ever more intensely euphoric peaks. then it all stops, abruptly, and a graceful funeral march begins to build again. and again. and again. and again. The new paths beyond helicon are opening up, and godspeed you black emperor! are leading the expedition.
nme, april 1998
mogwai are here, just as they seem to have been everywhere this weekend and that's fitting because godspeed you black emperor! are their kin in the family of noise.
are there eight or nine? it's hard to tell. a string section sits at the front facing away from the audience, the stage is dark apart from the film projections - monochrome landscape footage that could be from a documentary about a plutonium disaster in the ussr - while the drone builds in intensity, drowning the audience in cosmic noise. it's beautiful and terrifying and their truncated set - an hour where they would normally play two and a half - seems to be over too soon.
you're either with godspeed or you're not and it would be hard to convert anyone to their cause if they weren't already steeped in a world of cerebral drone-rock, suffice to say that cast should rest easy in their beds. but in their own strange way, they rock.