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Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Bardo Pond (live at Motion)

30 October 2017

Motion in Bristol was home to two giants of the alternative music scene on the day before Halloween this year. The weather was clement, the venue opened on time and the mighty Godspeed You! Black Emperor had brought along friends and fellow sonic travellers Bardo Pond, so we knew we were in for a full on evening’s treat. Motion has really improved as a venue since it opened a few years ago and is probably, along with the Trinity, the best venue for this size of band. When you are squeezing eight people onto a stage, you need a fair amount of room.

Bardo Pond came on about 7:45pm and immediately launched into that classic sinuous sound that they do so well. Bathed in pale blue light, the twin guitars of the Gibbons brothers turned each other in circles, feedback soaring at opportune moments as Clint Takeda thrummed bass chords and Jason Kourkounis kept the whole psychedelic ship steady with rock-solid rhythm. Now, I have seen Bardo a few times before, but I have no real memory of Isobel Sollenberger owning the stage to the extent that she did tonight. I have only heard the new album a few times, but I am assuming that most of the tracks from tonight came from there. They were almost succinct, and although you could tell it was them with guitar lines oozing out of the speakers like the sweetest of syrup, there was an energy to the set that I wasn’t expecting.

Isobel jumped and span, reached out to the audience and seemed to be channelling her inner Janis Joplin, such was the energy that she threw into the performance, and the rest of the band backed her up in that stoic way that gentlemen intent on their instruments only can. Squeals and shrieks were coaxed from guitars, one track had Clint bowing his bass with some sort of implement that brought a deep resonance to the whole. Isobels’s voice was rich and vibrant, and all in all, she seemed to take the band outside their long-form dirges and embrace a new dynamic optimism which was really quite enthralling. The only downside was that of the more recent tracks, only one had flute and for me, the use of Isobel’s flute was always one of the band’s secret weapons.

They returned to old form however for the closing track. You knew they were in for the long haul as Jason’s head went down towards the kit and he locked into the groove and stayed there, moving things at a slower, sludgier pace than up to that point, cymbals washing and clashing. Instead of soaring, the guitars flowed slowly, still entwining with one another but more lugubriously, a touch more volume and that sense of time disappearing as the music worked its mystical magic on the rapt audience. The track was instrumental so therefore Isobel’s flute was unleashed and allowed to float effortlessly above the choppy electric seas of the rest of the band, like a lightboat bobbing effortlessly while all around is turmoil. This went on for about ten minutes; ten minutes where you realise just how much Bardo have to offer us. You have to be a brave band to support Godspeed, but they are different enough for it to work.

After a short break as piles of stuff were ushered onto the stage and various characters came and went prodding and poking, a low, crackly drone washed across us from the stage and the lights dimmed to a haze as mysterious images were projected onto the screen at the back of the stage. Grainy black’n’white moving images of 1940s building construction and images taken from the windows of elevated trains welcomed the gradual entry of the band to the stage. Sophie Trudeau and Thierry Amar first, taking positions on the right, Thierry grabbing his upright bass first; then both drummers arrived, Aidan Girt and Tim Herzog taking positions at the very different kits set up at the back and to the left. David Bryant was stage right with guitar and Efrim Menuck, Mauro Pezzente and Mike Moya were stage left, the three guitarists seated, screwdrivers to hand. Once everyone was settled, a free burst of turmoil was started and grabbed by all, no particular pattern in mind, just checking the acoustics, seeing what the audience could tolerate, Thierry’s hands on the bass like crazed spiders scuttling up and down. The band’s intent written onto all their faces: the volume was high, but the sound was great and it was possible to pick out each little element of the sound.

Possibly one of the best things about Godspeed is that idea of a true democracy. When you watch them onstage, there is not a great deal of inter-band communication. I guess they don’t really need to; everyone is comfortable with their position in the group and what is needed to make the sound whole. There was the odd glance between Sophie and Thierry when he was bowing the double bass, between Tim and Aidan as they decided who would take which kit for which track, the odd smile between Efrim and Mauro as the sheer rapture became too much for them. The tracks they played are kind of irrelevant because the joy of seeing them live is that transcendence that they perform and which the audience becomes part of.

There were tracks from Luciferian Towers which I recognised, particularly “Bosses Hang”; and as per the LP, there was that slightly desolate feeling of the prison band in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but where there is an element of studio polish to the album version, here the band were merciless in their appropriation of your senses. The guitars shrieked and growled, the two drummers built and built that martial rhythm in the way that only they can, appearing to reach a crescendo and then allowing things to calm before urging their band on again to greater heights. The sheer effort and euphoria on Aidan’s face was a thing to behold. It was akin to being lost on a rollercoaster where you have no idea where the end is and the peaks and troughs just keep coming, that giddy sense of vertigo and breathlessness as you watch each essential part of the band working so hard. At times, if you watched Efrim, Mike or Dave with a screwdriver in their hand, they might be making the tiniest of movements, but it might be for five or ten minutes and there is no looking up, and no let up. That is their particular ingredient and that is what they are there for.

Old favourite “BBF3” from the Slow Riot EP was wheeled out to much approval and over the full recorded dialogue, more crazy images were projected; a loop of a damaged bird trying to take off was particularly poignant, and as the track progressed and the mania increased, so the images started to degrade before our very eyes, as if the projector were stuck and burning up as the atmosphere in the venue became more intense, the frustration and fury in Blaze Bailey Finnegan III‘s illogical rant stepping in time to the onslaught from the stage. I was with somebody who had never seen them before and at points his eyes were wide, taking in the focussed drama unfolding on stage. Like I say, the tracks are not irrelevant, but are secondary to the might of the band when they are in full swing. It is an experience second to none and after a personal fifteen year hiatus, to see them on stage, albeit with reduced strings, was still magical.

The spirit of democracy and the us against them rage against the world in which they draw in their expectant audience is still a magical and inclusive experience. Even though they communicated little with the audience apart from smiles and waves, we knew that they are with us and we with them. As they slowly left the stage amidst a hail of feedback as instruments were leant against amplifier stacks, it was hard to believe two hours had passed. I was hoping to take some snaps, but they didn’t return. The howl of electrical amplification and the raising of the lights was our cue to shuffle out and once again, our lives had been changed.

I don’t know what the future holds for Godspeed after twenty years, but my enthusiasm has been massively re-kindled by this performance. Here’s to a noisy, vibrant, frustrated future.

-Mr Olivetti-

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