“Excuse me, is there a guest-list queue?”
“Don’t know mate”
“Oh, so is this just for ticket holders?”
“Don’t know mate”
With this I let out a heavy sigh and cast a dejected eye around the snaking queue of people coming out of the Coronet in Elephant and Castle. We’re all here to witness the marvel of post-rock behemoths Godspeed You! Black Emperor. After a swift two-hour walk through the centre of London (I finished work early and it was a really nice day OK, and hey I like walking so back off pal) I find myself outside the venue, frustratingly trying to get in.
After much of the same back and forth from the security I am lead up to the front for a quick yet invasive search before I am let in. I have never been in the Coronet before, in fact I hadn’t even realised it existed, but it is a lovely venue. A huge ceiling and an impressive, classically decorated stage greet me. I realise by now that I am quite early and don’t have the money to start heavily drinking, so with a phone almost running out of battery I decide to find a spot close to the front of the stage and park myself there, a weird sort of endurance test so to speak. I am glad to see that I’m not the only one who appears to be on their own tonight, so I relax a little and let the atmosphere set in.
Before long, a lone guitarist takes a seat in the centre of the stage and starts to fiddle with the pedals by his feet. There are a few whoops and cheers but I’m fairly sure they are from a few hopeful audience members thinking that Godspeed are taking to the stage. This, however, is K/G/D, a side-project of ambient drone band Growing’s bassist Kevin Doria. I have no idea what to expect, not being able to find anything about this project online anywhere, but I’m sure it’s going to be loud, and oh boy I was not disappointed.
It starts slow and quiet, in fact at first I can barely hear it, the chatter of the audience around me becoming much more prominent. This is definitely a slow-burner, but the music (or drone, depending on how you’re looking at it) has started to echo around the venue, bouncing off the walls and back into our ears. There is almost a definite rhythm now, a pulsing beat looped over and over, a slowly rising wall of noise, and I feel a shiver trickle down my spine and the hairs on my arm stand to attention.
The room has quietened now, everyone’s attention solely on Doria as he slowly and strategically plucks away, the echoes and loops powering the noise forward. It’s loud now, almost deafening, but through the solid noise there are beautiful little twitches and flicks, tiny little shards of delicate music against the onslaught of drone. And then, it happens, quite suddenly and all at once.
As I’m watching the stage a man in front of me turns around to face away from the stage. He is old, older than the majority of people here, with a shock of white hair. He has a can of beer clutched to his chest and, as he turns towards the rest of us, a look of pure joy on his face. His cheeks seem to be wet. I can’t be completely sure in the lack of light but the smile across his face is as clear as anything. As I watch him turn, the happiness he feels for this music, I feel something dark inside me uncoil and before I know it, a small sob has escaped me, and then another, and before I know it or can control myself I am in the middle of the Coronet, crying my eyes out.
The music swells and I feel the shudder again and I can’t tell if I’m sad or elated, but the tears keep coming. Thank all the gods and lords out there that it’s dark and the music is now so loud that I can feel it in my bones and that no one, not even the old man before me, has noticed. I’ve got sunglasses with me, but I can’t be that much of a twat that I put sunglasses on inside at a gig, so I let the tears come, purging my body. A few delicate and well timed wipes later, and I feel them stop. The pulse of the drone dies down, the old man in front of me has disappeared (I start to question myself; was he ever really there?) and the venue returns to normalcy, and I feel fantastic. I don’t know what it was, but that was a well-needed cry and I feel rejuvenated, ready to face the world.
The area in front of the stage is packed out now, so I’m fearful of another onslaught of the weepies that could potentially start at any given moment. I make a mental note to avoid eye contact with old, happy men and give my full concentration to the stage, where Godspeed You! Black Emperor have started to set up. I ignore the general chit-chat around me. (Some of it is truly pig-thick; “I thought there was going to be support? Instead they just bring out a guy to tune his guitar for half an hour? That’s a bit shit” is a genuine comment I heard from someone in front of me.)
In usual Godspeed fashion, there is no talking to the audience, no introduction. One minute there is no one on stage and the next they are simply there. The first two members to take up their instruments are violinist Sophie Trudeau and double bassist Thierry Amar. They play a back and forth, their instruments teasing each other, lulling the rest of the band on stage. The opening song (‘Hope Drone’) is almost like a practice for the band, each instrument waiting patiently for its turn. If you hadn’t heard the song before, you could almost believe it was a band jam, with no real structure. It isn’t a bad thing at all, merely an insight into the way that Godspeed work, and to the genius behind their music. It is only towards the end of the song that a structure and rhythm is formed, and a body of music is created.
At this point, I notice a small man in front of me with a large blob of curly hair. He is gyrating along to the music, pumping his hands in the air and, at one point, looks like he is mock conducting the band. He is doing all of this completely out of time, and with no rhythm whatsoever. He continues to do this throughout the entire set, constantly looking around to see who is paying attention to him. I’m not sure if he knows that much Godspeed, or if he is doing it purely for attention, but whatever it is it’s working as I’m venomously staring at him. But hey, who am I to judge, I spent most of the first act weeping gently to myself.
The next song is ‘Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” from 2015’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. Ah, I think to myself, I recognise this one. It is a grand song, a king marching into battle. Hearing it live is a glorious thing as well.
The rest of the set follows in that gloriousness. The screen behind the band (who are themselves bathed in darkness throughout the entire set, so photos are a little tricky to say the least) shows a constantly looping series of films, from merging elements of lights, trickling slowing into a snowy inner-city landscape then flickering into a train ride (presumably) through what looks like an empty Canadian wasteland, before delving through huge sky-scraper buildings, the word ‘hope’ eventually flashing across the screen. The films being shown on screen reflect Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s music perfectly, and there is a sense of complete synchronicity.
The band play a relatively short set in terms of songs, of which they play eight (however, those 8 songs rack up to almost two hours so short might not be the right word), before ending on my favourite Godspeed song of all time, ‘Blaise Bailey Finnegan III’. This is the song that got me into GY!BE, after my dad played it for me in the car many years ago. I’ve never seen it live, so this was an incredible treat. The original audio sample from the song, featuring a raving BBF condoning the current state of the USA and describing an incident involving a parking ticket and shouting at a judge, carries the song, while the band’s instruments twinkle and build in the background. Next to me, three men who look like they’ve just come from a drum & bass rave open up a tiny moshpit within which they throw themselves around, head-banging to full velocity. I’m almost tempted to join them, but I’ve done enough moshing throughout the years to know when it’s an appropriate time, and this was not it.
The footage behind the band flickers between police cars and old footage of riots, perfectly fitting for the rambling that continues throughout the song. The music builds and the final act comes crashing down around us, the instruments almost indistinguishable from one another as a solid brick wall of noise crashes into us. I feel reborn, a phoenix rising from the ashes and beginning life anew. It’s a truly tremendous feeling, and I salute Godspeed You! Black Emperor for being able to draw that from us. After they finish there is no encore, and my ears are ringing as I make my way to the exit, truly blown away from it all. Outside I can barely hear anything, my ears still ringing with the last beautiful notes, and I succumb to the silence around me, taking it with me on the train, and all the way home.