Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Vienna Arena, 25 January 2011

The return from a lengthy hiatus of Godspeed You! Black Emperor was both completely unexpected and incalculably welcome. Like many others, I suspect, I had assumed we would never see them in active service again, especially since sister project A Silver Mt Zion has taken on more and more Godspeed-like properties in its most recent records. I should have had more faith, for here they were, all eight of them (wasn’t it nine before?), once again forming themselves into a loose semi-circle and pounding out the most beautiful symphonies for the end of the world.

I saw Godspeed at least twice in London, I think, before they disappeared in 2003 or so. I remember very well a gig at the Embassy Rooms, a short-lived and now defunct basement venue on Tottenham Court Road (later a strip club, I believe). Later, after my fellow accountants had discovered them, I saw them at the Royal Festival Hall as well; I recall the gig starting late due to their delayed arrival on the ferry from Dublin, or was that some other group? Whatever the facts of the matter, it’s clear that not much has changed chez Godspeed since those early days. They’re picking up where they left off, essentially, which is something that the most successful reunions (Van der Graaf Generator, Swans) have taken pains to avoid doing. But when the place you left is as noble and thrilling as Godspeed’s was, you can be forgiven for them wanting to return there.

What we got at the Arena, then, was well over two hours of disciplined, multi-layered and engrossing music. Forming the oceanic core of the group’s sound, the guitars, cello and violin would pick out an achingly sad melody, gather solemnly around it and shepherd it gradually towards the blinding light of crescendo, while the thunderous drumming blasted the whole spectacle into the kind of alternate and better reality you feel Godspeed know has to be out there somewhere, if only they could find it. For Godspeed are above all idealists and romantics, finding in post-industrial trauma and decay not the horrors that Throbbing Gristle found, but imagined correlatives for the good, the pure and the hopeful.

I’m sure Godspeed probably played most of their greatest hits tonight, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you what they were. Although I’ve listened to the albums dozens of times, I still have no idea what individual tracks are called; and although I recognized most of the pieces they played, I couldn’t identify any of them by title or tell you which album they come from.

My inability to retain such trainspotterish details doesn’t come as a big surprise to me, it must be said. More than any other group I know, Godspeed operate at a macro rather than a micro level, an approach restated by their steadfast refusal to acknowledge the audience with anything more than the most cursory of nods. Like Test Department (and I hereby call for a Test Department reunion in 2012), another large and faceless collective who used visual projections in their shows, Godspeed understand the seductive power and strength such anonymity bestows. And in deploying that anonymity in the service of such thrilling and beautiful music, Godspeed evoke a timely reminder that all is not yet lost.

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