Montreal, Quebec’s post-rock pathfinders Godspeed You! Black Emperor always seemed like a group for the end of the world. The saturnine suites prior to their 2003 hiatus – such as those on 1997’s F# A# ∞ and 2000’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven – conjured a dying planet; wasted away by melting ice caps, abject spiritual and material poverty, and most importantly, the overseeing eyes of systematic government. GYBE reawakened a punk sensibility sorely missed in modern music, yet their strategy wasn’t to speed up like the Ramones; it was to slow down. Way down. Their fixation on drones, minimalist phrasing, and frayed audio samples not only opened up the possibilities of what rock music could do; their work crackled with a punk aura that matched their fiercely independent ethos. This was the sound of systems degrading, not shattering altogether.
Here we are, five years from their 2012 return, at the O2 ABC in Glasgow, and things seem a little… off. The audience is shepherded into what is ostensibly a full house, and as the low hum of Hope Drone begins, the bars are crowded with chattering fans. The dual-screen projectors start rolling footage of a sepia-tone landscape. The myriad members of GYBE flood the stage, and gradually they turn up the volume. The word “Hope” appears scored on-screen, combating the avaricious Carlsberg signs above the bar and the numbingly ubiquitous O2 fonts. It’s by turns indeed hopeful, and yet moreover it feels like an empty gesture, like a protest pantomime.
The jubilant new suite Bosses Hang plays to footage of ominous towers – pillars of big business – and the omnivorous orgies of the stock exchange. Cryptic hand gestures. Men on phones. Buy porkbelly, sell soyabeans. The language of capitalism is oddly surreal – and so is GYBE’s presence in a corporate venue.
Time goes on, and GYBE’s anti-establishment imagery somehow becomes more wrought. Undoing a Luciferian Towers soundtracks footage of protestors being yanked from a crowd by riot police, pictures of grinning teenagers missing or presumed dead, and the choice shot of a single CCTV camera. After the tumultuous year in European and American politics, these images should stir something more in the listener. Instead, they seem so jumbled up that all we decode is “government(s) = bad”. As if we didn’t know already.
These issues express a wider problem with our culture of live music. Musicians and artists want to oppose regimes, bring down borders, and make radical demands (you needn’t look much further than GYBE’s press release-credo for their latest album “Luciferian Towers” for a good example), but the culture of forced brand cooperation muddies the waters. It wouldn’t be such a problem in GYBE’s case if their latest material didn’t appear to vacantly demand a “better state of affairs, man”.
In any case, closing numbers Moya and BBF3 – incidentally the only pre-hiatus pieces on tonight’s setlist – are some of the most moving sounds the group have produced. The former is a mournful walk through a crestfallen civilization, on the border crossing between Samuel Barber and Ennio Morricone. But it’s BBF3 that rightly warrants the most applause. The song glacially unfurls around an audio extract of a conversation with a man named Blaise Bailey Finnegan III regarding his recent run in with the law over a speeding ticket. It screams both manic street preacher and conspiracy nut, and yet GYBE’s building score imbues his small-time railing against the American government with pathos. “Things are gonna get worse and keep on getting worse” he says, but he seems none the wiser about exactly how, or what can be done. It seems that GYBE are right there with him.