October 3, 2012: Baltimore, MD
A friend of mine recently hiked the Appalachian Trail for two weeks and finished up with a short visit to DC. He showed me a map that he picked up along the way that did a really nice job of showing elevation from point to point along the trail. This map, and 1000 other things, came to mind during God Speed You Black Emperor's show.
The show began with members of the band coming on stage one by one and slowly adding their contribution to the opening song. A cellist, a violinist, two drummers, a bassist, and several guitarists. I was particularly focused on the cellist and violinist, partly because they were in clearest sight and maybe because the violinist was the sole female performer. I admittedly struggled with what I saw. I couldn't make any connection between what I was watching and what I was hearing. Relatively rapid work on either instrument led to little immediate impact on the music. Sure, they clearly use a bevy of effects pedals including a lot of delay. But still, the observation seemed to set the stage for the rest of the show.
The important part of the trail map that I mentioned above was that it allowed you to see what you were in store for as you made progress on your journey. You easily could see that your day would involve some descents, several steep ascents, and hopefully some panoramic views as a reward. With songs clocking in at 15-20 mins each, I sure would have appreciated a trail map to GYBE's Wednesday night set. At least then, I would have been prepared for what seemed like a grueling uphill hike with no end at a few points.
A truer GYBE fan might unload on me now. They did what their albums do. They slowly (very slowly) build power and speed. They do this 4-5 times per album--that is, the average album is four or five tracks in total, with a total running time of 1-2 hours. Frankly, what worked for me as a recording, just doesn't work live. I discovered Godspeed while writing papers in grad school when I needed to focus for long stretches. And I still turn to them for some late night programming adventures. Hearing the same two or three notes come from one or two instruments, perhaps only adjusted slightly for pitch, over the course of 10 or 15 minutes is fine when you're actually focused on something else (like writing a paper or hammering out some code). In a live setting though, when you have little else to focus on, it tests one's patience.
The most damning, yet somewhat indirect criticism may come through if I describe what I did during that aforementioned 10-15 minute minimalist interlude. When I said I thought of 1000 other things during the show, 900 of those thoughts were during this stretch and only a fraction were about the performance. Ironically, one thing I remember thinking about was "which album should I listen to on my drive home from Baltimore to DC?" And I didn't mean which GYBE album.
That fact that I've enjoyed their music while focusing on something else might explain why GYBE is known for having dramatic visual projections to accompany their sets. I anticipated a montage of clips ranging from historical war footage to other creepy black and white scenes that looked of doomsday. I imagined being engaged in a visual presentation, while being wowed by a beautiful, albeit dark, soundtrack. In complete contrast, one of their longer pieces on Wednesday looked like a movie that has just finished and the film reel has nothing left but blank, unfocused frames.
I wish I had something more positive to report about my experience this week. Unfortunately, it's minimal. We did make it to the top of the mountain a few times. The views were quite stellar in one or two cases; in others though, they seemed inadequate and disproportionate to the climb. With tired, trail-beaten legs, we left as they finished what we think was probably the last song in their main set.
Personally, I don't believe it would greatly compromise GYBE's art to adjust what they do for a live setting. For example, they could abbreviate some of the build up and definitely truncate some of their extended interludes. Perhaps compensating with some more engaging visuals would have extended my patience too, but for my money, I would have liked a thoughtful revision to their main product. I only hope this experience didn't forever ruin the enjoyment I get from their recorded work, when the setting, atmosphere, and my focus is proper tuned for their art.
p.s. I chose Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest for my listening pleasure on the drive home that night. It was (and almost always is) thoroughly satisfying.