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Godspeed You! Black Emperor/Gate (live at Musicfest NW)

Roseland Theater
Portland, Oregon
6 September 2013

The double-billing of noise guitar legends Gate, the solo project of Michael Morley of The Dead C, and the newly rejuvenated Godspeed You! Black Emperor on a Friday night at one of the United States’ largest music festivals was an act of bold and challenging programming that should further Musicfest NW‘s reputation not only as a world class music festival, but also as a cultural force to be reckoned with.

Lady H. and I arrived early, after a Foods Stamp dinner at Whole Foods, and engaged in the time-honored tradition of standing around watching the punters, sprawled out on the wide-open floor of Portland’s Roseland Theater. I hadn’t been to the Roseland since my first few days living in the City Of Roses this time ’round, when I reviewed the mighty Neurosis at Musicfest NW two years ago. My head was swimming with memories of ritualistic metal, the early Autumn in Oregon, and thousands and thousands of hours during countless pilgrimages, swooning to the sounds of Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

I have always had a tender place for the longform guitar drones of Gate, as it was some of the first guitarnoise I heard, introducing me to the world of anonymous, eponymous CDRs in insanely limited editions, sucking me further into the blackened pits of the noise underground. His cavernous reverbs, his thoughtful electronica, delirious delays, burning distortion and whispered incantation… Gate is the intersection where Loren Mazzacane Connors meets Merzbow. It is astounding the sound the man can wrestle from a Fender Jaguar.

Morley took to the stage, humble and white-haired, with little ceremony. He managed to work tuning his guitar into his noise symphony, launching straight into the performance with some John Fahey electric minimalism, starting off as a slacker boogie before transmogrifying into wild tone sculptures. The crowd was confused, didn’t know what had hit them, although many were rapt. They apparently missed the memo that The Dead C and his contemporaries in the New Zealand underground were formative influences on the early Sonic Youth, and that this man was essential for infecting mass consciousness with post-Velvet Underground guitar feedback freeform bacchanalia. There would be no grunge, no sludge, no shoegaze, without The Dead C.

Those in the know could better appreciate the skill and nuance brought about from three decades of sculpting airwaves with electricity and steel strings, and I found Gate’s performance to be one of the most adept noise guitar performances I’ve seen, right up there with Acid Mothers Temple, J Mascis and My Bloody Valentine. At first, I was uncomfortable with Morley’s nondescript, introverted demeanour, afraid on his behalf that he would lose the crowd, who were unaccustomed to such noise epiphany. After a few minutes, I ceased giving a toss and surrendered to the rumble and scree washing the cares from my frontal lobe in wild reckless abandon. This was TRVE noise! How I have missed it! That delightful moment when anything can happen, existing outside of trite genre codifications and hashtag soporifics.

There were moments of pure bestial sludge metal, which was even more potent and spellbinding because you didn’t see it coming. One slight man, with an axe and a chair, cracking the Halls of Valhalla. His set was the perfect length, at about half an hour, with a couple build-ups and breakdowns, allowing Morley to run through most of his magician’s tricks. It was an informative lesson in How To Make Noise, and I hope people were taking notes. H. said it was the finest noise performance she’d seen since Ben Frost at Decibel Festival a few years ago. I felt like his position of opening for the mighty Godspeed was like someone having Jandek play Coachella, and I applaud MFNW for taking a risk, and to the crowd that opted to see challenging and interesting Art instead of seeing Animal Collective in the park. Gate’s Damned Revoltions is out on Ultramarine Records.

Seeing you Godspeed You! Black Emperor was an emotional experience for me. I’d been waiting 12 years to see the Montreal nonet, and when I first heard them, the twin towers in New York City had not yet fallen, and we were living in a different world. Godspeed were the soundtrack to the apocalypse of my 20s, and it seemed the whole world, and my life along with it, was going up in flames. The band had been defunct for 10 years, and much had changed in that elapsed time. In 2003, the genre lamely tagged post-rock had the world by the throat, as serious young men wrote industrial symphonies for loud guitars, obsessively miming the works of Godspeed , Mogwai and Explosions In The Sky. I’ve started referring to this movement as ‘crescendo rock’, and post-rock could not seem to escape it’s formula. GY!BE had contributed largely to creating the template, but one wondered if they could escape the imitators, and ever become relevant again.

It makes sense that Godspeed would retreat to the shadows, occupying themselves with side projects like A Silver Mt. Zion and Set Fire To Flames, and we wondered if we would ever hear their mighty roar again on the stage. They finally emerged with newfound vigor and determination, on last year’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! which found the band taking inspiration from Greek protest music, and GY!BE revealed themselves to be an epicly loud street orchestra.

In old interviews, Lou Reed has talked about how The Velvet Underground started off as a dance band, and this finally made sense watching Godspeed morph from the opening strings of “Hope Drone” to transform into the mightiest kosmische metal act you’ve ever seen, courtesy of their two drummers. It was not until seeing Godspeed live that all the pieces came together, and I was able to notice nuances I had never picked up on before, like the proliferation of middle eastern melodies plucked out on Sophie Trudeau‘s violin. A number of the songs sounded like amplified Klezmer, melded with a Chilean street parade. Where some might be tempted to use Godspeed’s music to score a political documentary, this is music from BEHIND the barricades, from INSIDE the trenches. This is the survivor’s lament, real music made by real humans. It is because of this, and their undying commitment to fine art, that Godspeed are true warriors.

The performance began with the word HOPE flashing like electricity, arising from white noise. When the band last toured in 2003, they used the same word as a backdrop, but etched on a hammer. This time, hope is flaming forth, bursting free. Godspeed You! Black Emperor are like a symphonic score of William Blake‘s Rintrah (the just wrath of the prophet). Perhaps it might be safe to harbor hope in our breasts again.

They played mostly material from Allelujah! and I was almost relieved, although I would love to hear some of those older songs live sometime. This band is vital and vivid, with a renewed sense of purpose. They used their fiery crescendos sparingly, efficiently weaving in and out of bombast to return to folk melodies and street rhythms, avoiding cliché. The tone was terrific, every instrument perfectly in tune, perfectly levelled, nothing to break the spell, which was further amplified by their trademark scratchy visual backdrop of FBI profile pictures, wires and cables in a stark monochromatic gray and white.

Godspeed You! offer hope for the flagging post-rock genre, which was full of potential but got mired down in pretension and imitation. They ended their set with a roaring rendition of “Sad Mafioso” off of F# A# Infinity, with footage of burning wind playing behind them, and sent us off into the night.

-J Simpson-

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