Sunday, October 28, 2012

SOUND! PICTURE! REVOLUTION: Godspeed You! Black Emperor live and the film manipulations of Karl Lemieux

I’ve long been fascinated with cinematic music. Not only actual soundtrack scores, but music made to its own end, shaped to take on the shifts in mood and building tensions that you would attribute to a well crafted motion picture.

There may be no better example of bands making such kind of music as Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Their unwieldly name references the title of a ‘70s documentary directed by Mitsuo Yanagimachi about a Japanese bosozoku motorcycle gang (Yanagimachi later directed 2005’s ‘Who’s Camus Anyway?’) Born in Montreal, Canada during the early ‘90s era that spawned music dubbed as ‘post rock,’ (but leaving that limiting label in the dust) the often shrouded in mystery unit released a few inscrutable albums before announcing a hiatus in 2003. Tracks, ranging from 10 minutes to half an hour, bore one name but smaller pieces within each had their own titles. Album sleeves included dense texts espousing various political, religious and philosophical agendas, never making a single point of view clear, though with a little digging it is apparent they are challenging the status quo. Amidst samples of speech covering a similar range of outsider perspectives and sound collages, these compositions employed guitars and a variety of bowed and percussive instruments to tell stories of destruction, plight, mourning, and uprising. Without singing a single word. And always throughout the dark depths they mine, there is a glimpse, however distant, of hope.

That word is a constant I have noticed in the two live performances I have been fortunate enough to witness since their return in 2010. It is always flashed onto a screen projection that overshadows the individual performers in sharply etched letters, amidst a palette of black and dark greys. Perhaps more than ever, it is a crucial reminder that hope for a better reality is still within reach, but there is no masking the fact that it must emerge from a very bleak place.

The unique method of film projection incorporated in their live performances should be of particular interest to cinema fans. Collaborator Karl Lemieux employs not one but a bank of four to five 16 mm projectors with reels of film spilling from the elevated tower it is mounted on. The material ranges from stock footage of protests, scenic landscapes, and frames of printed text. These reels are overlapped and undergo other manners of distortion by way of Lemieux’s unique analog manipulations: pushing down on, blurring, at times even burning through the celluloid images.

This most recent performances I attended was a special one. Set in Basilica, Hudson, an art and performance space converted from a 19th century factory, it’s considerable distance from New York City and cavernous atmosphere gave a heightened sense of post-apocalyptic dread. Their performance included a track from their then forthcoming album ‘Alleluja! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (it was officially released worldwide October 16) and an as of yet unrecorded piece, 'Behemoth.' 

As for the latest album, it features some of the group’s most immediate sounding material to date.  With less shifts and more of a slow, steady build up to a cacophonous outpouring,it manages to call forth abstract motifs and a punk aesthetic. ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ creates an ambience reminiscent of Jim Thirwell’s Manorexia project, yet as it draws to its conclusion you might hear the strains of Fucked Up’s step into orchestral sounds with their recent concept album, “David Come’s to Life.”

Below are some of my attempts at capturing glimpses of those unique film displays as the band’s  soundtrack-esque din roared in the background.


Godspeed You! Black Emperor Constellation Records page

Basilica Hudson

Karl Lemieux filmography on INCITE!

Me on twitter = @mondocurry

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