Edinburgh’s The Liquid Room is a small venue, in more ways than one. The distinctly oversold venue feels cramped rather than intimate when rammed full to the point where the crowd is packed tight right back to the bar, and the crowd on the balcony is four rows deep. This claustrophobic atmosphere is amplified by the unrelentingly loud bass playing even before Godspeed You! Black Emperor take the floor. But then again, perhaps for a band as intense as this, an almost uncomfortable physical surrounding only enhances the experience.
This disconcertingly loud drone –you can hear it from the street outside– is just a taster. When the band take the stage they do so gradually, each of the eight members introducing their instruments one by one, complementing and then replacing the soundtrack. When finally all members are on and playing, the band builds a punishing soundscape, all deafening feedback and hammered snare drum. Within this aural flood, it is up to the listener to search for and discover the melodies and rhythm hiding inside, but once they are found, Godspeed You become genuinely hypnotic. Trying to follow the thread of one instrument in a tempest of feedback is an entrancing game, and it is easy to lose yourself in the noise, which gradually builds and builds until finally it peaks and recedes while the band prepare the next piece, but there is almost always at least one guitar screeching, blurring the line between tracks and cancelling any respite for the ears in the lull between songs.
It takes a full twenty minutes for the band to reach even their second track; Godspeed are veterans at their craft and are not afraid to leave the audience hanging for as long as possible, building their soundscapes higher and higher before the final release of tension. There are no quick fixes here; no instant gratification from a chorus, no explosion of noise that has not had at least a five minute build up.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor have always lacked the grace of contemporaries like Explosions in the Sky, and have never managed to pack the same emotional punch as Mogwai, but what they do bring to the table is a unrefined rawness which makes them an absorbing and powerful live experience. While it remorselessly punishes the listener, it rewards those who manage to stick with it tenfold. This is not a band to watch casually, it quickly becomes boring (and headache inducing) unless you really invest yourself in it. With Godspeed, you get out what you put in.
*Editor’s note: for a little taster of Godspeed You!, here’s one of their most popular tracks: