Should political art be judged by political effectiveness or artistic value? Does the failure to achieve one cancel out the other?
If we treat Godspeed You! Black Emperor as a political entity then the Montreal agit-rockers are failures. Since their debut album in 1997, Canada hasn’t become the anti-capitalist utopia that the good brethren of Godspeed would dearly like to see established. Quite the opposite. The country has swung to the right, a vast playground for neoliberalism and climate change denial.
What’s a bunch of underground noiseniks to do when people mystifyingly fail to heed their 20-minute post-rock screeds about the way the world is going? In 2003, Godspeed fell silent after touring the US in the run-up to the Iraq war, when founding member Efrim Menuck had an “existential freak-out” about failing to get their message across. But now they’re back with the album Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend, winner of this year’s Polaris prize, Canada’s equivalent of the Mercury.
Their Brixton Academy show opened with the eight-strong band drifting into their positions as a loud droning tone resonated. Plucked notes from three guitarists, among them Menuck, glinted in the murk. The word “Hope” fluttered tentatively on a large screen at the back. Then the two drummers set to work and the guitarists cranked up the volume. Violinist Sophie Trudeau conjured dervish-like eastern melodies from the maelstrom.
The instrumental, from their new album, was “Mladic”, named after the Bosnian Serb warlord Ratko Mladić, aka the “Butcher of Bosnia”, alleged mastermind of the Srebrenica massacre. A rapid montage of black-and-white images flashed on the screen: bureaucratic ID files, a man lying prone on the ground, typewritten text. The historicised setting was telling – like a 1960s countercultural band covering the second world war not Vietnam – but the experience was breathtaking, a powerful evocation of hellishness and resistance.
Three other long instrumentals followed: two old tracks, “Moya” and “The Sad Mafioso…” and an unreleased one, “Behemoth”. The musicians, arranged in a circle, were austere and uncompetitive; the closest to a guitar solo was a scratchy passage of riffing in “Behemoth”. Quiet moments of build-up struggled to surmount the sound of chatter in the 5,000-capacity venue – but these more tenuous periods also served to underscore the awesomeness of the band in full flight.
They ended with “The Sad Mafioso . . . ”, a Savonarola-like bonfire in which guitars, violin and drums raged with righteous fury, the screen showing film of stock market prices and an anti-capitalist demo in New York. Does the trumpet blast still work if the walls of Jericho don’t collapse? In Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s case, yes.
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