As the crowd fills in from the lobby bar the mood is very relaxed. Lights are down and the band are still setting up casually on stage while the Dome slowly swells with pre-gig chatter.
When the performance begins most of the audience seem unaware or uninterested as the low, pre-recorded background drone gently grows in volume. The stage is empty and there is no introduction. It’s an unusual start, but standard for the Canadian eight-piece who proceed to nonchalantly trickle out onto the stage, chiming in one by one to build the dull noise into something bigger. They are warmly received and the music matures into a grand rush of sound, but for a band so celebrated for innovation and challenging the accepted, it feels a little stale.
Since their return from hiatus in 2010, the opening ‘Hope Drone’ (as titled by the accompanying visual projections) has remained the way the band opens. The intention seems to be that their jazz-like riffing and improvisation make this default start a source of connection between each show — the thread that runs throughout their performances. But while it’s just fluid enough to bring out something slightly different each time, it doesn’t quite hit like it used to.
Interestingly, there’s no sign of the usual sea of mobile phones. Considering how recorder-friendly GY!BE are (new songs often surface before official recordings are released, and live footage is passed around the loyal community like treasured bootlegs), perhaps it’s a sign of respect or awe or simply hypnotism. The atmosphere builds and moves on to a brooding, dark meditation. The audience connects intensely and becomes a swaying sea of nodding heads and climaxed expressions. Here the band comes into its own; they are loud, orchestral and fierce, and everything pulls together with a gritty harmony that chases away any further fears of stagnation.
When the music evolves and pulls away with more folk inspired and tribal rhythms, the crowd can’t help but follow like the children of the Pied Piper story. Suggestions of themes and even narrative begin to emanate from four analogue projectors manned from the back of the stalls by a dedicated VJ – surely the ninth member of the touring band. Anyone catching a glimpse of this guy’s efforts are both impressed and appreciative. It doesn’t feel like performance art but maybe it is related.
The band leave as awkwardly as they arrived. Some know the score and move for the exit after the first big cheer (at this point the stage is almost empty), instruments are left behind — abandoned on stage to drone indefinitely. Others wait with hope of an encore until eventually a technician arrives to turn each of the amps off one at a time.
In the heat of the night, Godspeed You! Black Emperor manufacture a unique and exceptional experience that captures and cultivates emotion. It’s haunting and beautiful, dramatic and dark, but like an awkward encounter at a party, it’s hard to not get caught up in those first and lasting impressions. The night is something to be endured as much as it is enjoyed.
Brighton Dome, Wednesday 28th October 2015
Words by John Pullen
Photos by Mike Tudor