GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR
Brighton Dome, Wed 28th October
If I haven't seen Godspeed live for something like a decade and a half, I'm not being quite as tardy as normal. They were, after all, on hiatus for eight of those years.
On that last sighting my analogy for their sound had been the workings of an American football team. (Though I'm not even sure if they play American football in Canada.) The enlarged ensemble divided into two teams; the acoustic and classical instruments would lull you in, before passing the ball to the electric section who'd take up and run away with it. (Think for example of the early track 'East Hastings'.)
Whereas at this gig they had a string section of one, violinist Sophie Trudeau. (Though a double bass appeared from time to time.) And instead there's... count 'em... two drummers, two bassists and no less than three guitarists. These days tracks more commonly start somewhere between a drone and a wall of sound, the piece then gradually emerging like a sculptor hammering away at a block. Tracks were less neatly divided into sections, more likely to morph and blend, to surge rather than develop. On more recent recordings the patented sampled vocals were less predominant and tended to be more incorporated into the music than floating above it. (Considerably less dominant in the gig, which featured precisely one vocal sample all evening.)
(In a side-note for music trainspotters, though the setlist contained only two pre-hiatus tracks it doesn't seem to have been the long gap which caused the musical change. The pre-gap album 'Yanqui UXO' (2002) was already transitional. While the comeback album 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!' (2012) comprised material which they'd already been playing live pre-hiatus, suggesting they merely picked up where they'd left off. The actual shift was marked, but by the promotion of the exclamation mark from the end to the middle of their name, a bit! like this Though what that's got to do with anything I couldn't tell you.)
In short, they've dropped the nouveau-classicism to become more sonically adventurous. Though some still insist Godspeed are a prog band in disguise as something more contemporary, there's really very little soloing and a great deal of ensemble playing. I am not normally at all curious over the mechanics of music, but was so often unable to conceive how they were conjuring up their sound I took to closely watching people's fingers. (It didn't help much.)
With their long-duration tracks containing dynamic contrasts, describing their sound as 'apocalyptic' is a little like describing Motorhead as 'loud'. On the other hand, it would be difficult to write about Motorhead without mentioning that they're loud... Back in the Eighties, some on the religious right attempted to negate the threat of nuclear annihilation by conflating it with the Biblical notion of the Rapture. (As if the Godly would somehow get saved from the fallout.) We'd cite this as proof of their rabidness, their nuclear apocalypse sounded to us like the very definition of a bad idea.
Godspeed picked up on this theme, the afore-mentioned 'East Hastings' even starting with a recording of a blood-and-thunder street preacher. But they were part of a shift towards embracing the notion, towards what some called 'the ambiguous apocalypse'. This went back to the original paradox of the word, with its connotations of both annihilation and revelation. You're never sure whether Godspeed's tumultuous sound is of something collapsing or being built up, or even if there's that much difference between the two.
Guitarist and quite possibly band founder Effrim Menuck had this to say about their sound: “We hated… privileging of individual angst, we wanted to make… a joyous, difficult noise that acknowledged the current predicament but dismissed it at the same time. A music about all of us together or not at all... For us every tune started with the blues but pointed to heaven near the end, because how could you find heaven without acknowledging the current blues, right?”
As a chiefly instrumental band known to have strong political views (for example including a diagram on an album cover of the connection between the mainstream music business and the arms industry), Godspeed's output has led to the strange pursuit of pinning specific tracks to specific topics. This one's about the Intifada, that one's about the black bloc, and so on. Yet even were it to turn out a specific track had been composed about cuts to tax credits or the closure of a local library, that would really seem to miss the point.
As ever, Godspeed played beneath a film show. (With projectionist Karl Lemieux even considered an official band member.) And while this does include images of protests and the like, it more often shows fragmentary and semi-abstract images of urban spaces, or simply projections of the filmstrip itself. And that's almost a clue for how to hear their music – as something less specific than universal. As Mark Richardson said in Pitchfork: “Godspeed's music works so brilliantly because it can be abstracted and scaled, blown up into an edifice that towers over a continent or shrunk down to something that feels at home in a bedroom.”
Below the film show, the band played in similarly low lighting to Asian Dub Foundation the previous night. Prior to the performance, they milled about on stage setting up equipment, looking like a bunch of laid-back hippies uninterested in showbiz entrances. Yet during the show they never spoke or even seemed mindful of the audience, frequently playing facing one another and with their backs to us. Particularly with the closing howlaround of feedback, it was sometimes quite hard to work out when you should be applauding! It led to quite a unique atmosphere, neither like the formalised interactiveness of a 'gig' or the hushed attentiveness of a 'recital'. 'Ritual' sounds too pious, too Churchy a term, but is the closest I can come up with for now.
'THX 1138' WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK BY ASIAN DUB FOUNDATION
Brighton Dome, Tues 27th October
(Officially, this one features PLOT SPOILERS. Though anyone who's ever seen an SF dystopia need not be too concerned...)
A new 'Star Wars' film may be in the offing. At least, I think I read about that somewhere. So what better time for to revisit its opposite pole, George Lucas' first film – 'THX 1138' from 1971? (Which, with maximum irony given his later career turn, even starts with a parodic excerpt from 'Buck Rogers'.) The studio were aghast to see they'd invested in something so bleak and what's worse so arty, and did their best to bury it. Though even among the critics many reacted with hostility, and the film really only gained its reputation in retrospect. This was the highpoint of Lucas as an auteur.
The Seventies were of course not short of dystopian SF dramas. And plot-wise, it's an unashamed mash-up of dystopias already mapped, the numbers-not-names of 'We', the surveillance state and productivism of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', the pill-popping of 'Brave New World', the don't-try-this-at-home porn-fixated public of 'Year of the Sex Olympics'... and probably more. But despite such blatant borrowing it remains highly resonant.
For one thing, its not a film that really draws its meaning from plot or dialogue so it doesn't matter much where it got them from. Present its scenario next to the later 'Logan's Run' (1976) and they'd seem very similar, though it resembles that film in no meaningful sense whatsoever. Instead its substance is there on the surface. As Roger Ebert, one of the few contemporary critics to actually get the film, said “the movie's strength is not in its story but in its unsettling and weirdly effective visual and sound style.”
Firstly, and most unmissably, there’s the sheer unadulterated whiteness of everything. This may even be the film which launched the fad for white as a signifier of the futuristic. (Though there were the hotel room scenes in ’2001’.) Whiteness stands for purity and goodness; in 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946) Heaven was depicted in radiant white, in 'The Man in the White Suit' (1951) it manages to stand for both the futuristic and the innocent.
Yet its also a sign of artificiality. The whiteness gives a hospital antiseptic sheen and a valium calm which permeate the film. Perhaps best summed up by the android cops whose modulated voices reiterate “we only want to protect you”, even to those they're beating.
But what kind of artificiality? Though set in the entirely artificial environment of an underground city, it was shot on location (in airports and civic centres) rather than in built sets. The initial motive for this was most likely financial. (The film was made for a pittance, with the repeated dialogue references to budgetary constraints surely an in-joke.) The viewer soon finds they can tell stage sets from location footage on sight. Yet here we can't pin what we see to either real or constructed, instead it occupies some uncanny valley between the two.
Further, while something like the city in 'Metropolis' (1927) is grand and distant, here it's all too credible – even recognisable. If, like most of us, you're an urban dweller, you pass every day through places which look something like that. In fact our world now looks more like the film than when the film was made. No terrible take-over or grand disaster would have to come along to push us into that place. Its more that something would need to happen to stop us slipping into it. (The tag-line of the original poster was “the future is here”.)
And this recognisability is juxtaposed with a highly elliptical editing style, which makes events anti-involving. (To the extent that I initially worried the band had re-edited the film to fit their soundtrack. In fact they had the good taste to show the original, not Lucas' adulterated “Director's cut”.) With the low-key performances and the almost perpetual background chatter, it's shot almost like a documentary. (It might work very effectively with no soundtrack at all.)
Further still, the ceaseless borrowing from other dystopias becomes virulent rather than just derivative – like we're in the worst of all possible worlds. This was made in the Cold War era, albeit with the first glimmerings of detente, when it was almost obligatory for dystopias to make explicit which side of the iron curtain they were targeting. Here the unisex uniforms, the fetish for productivism and quasi-militaristic work shifts, the locking-up of dissidents are all familiar tropes of 'anti-communism'.
Yet the continual pill-popping (with “drug evasion” a crime) and consumer therapy (“Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy more and be happy.”) are recognisable features of dissident 'anti-capitalism'. (Of course the sides in the Cold War were only ever the two sides of the same coin. But the movies didn't normally see them that way.) Similarly THX's work shift, on a production line yet technically skilled, matches neither the image of blue or white collar work. (In an ironic reversal to the standard automated utopia, we see people working like machines to produce robots.)
And this unity of alienating systems is perhaps best summed up in OHM, a combination of Catholic confessional, watchful Big Brother and feel-good therapy. Should the pills not be soporific enough, you can pop into one of OHM's 'unichapel' booths, where the platitudinous advice mixes the Stakhanovist with Californian feelgood. “Let us be thankful we have an occupation to fill. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.” (I particularly like “fill”.)
When one character comes across the original OHM icon, the one replicated in all the booths, a monk is both mystified and appalled to see him praying to it – and demands he goes and finds a booth. For the power of OHM lies in his prevalence, the copies more significant than the original.
...which takes us to one way in which the film is genuinely original. Dystopias come stamped with a face, like Stalin's mug being stuck up all over the Soviet Empire. Or if not a human face then a malevolently sentient super-computer. Like OHM there may be no actual Big Brother in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. He may be a mere totem of power, a scarecrow of dissent concocted by the regime. Yet the traitorous O'Brien becomes Winston Smith's antagonist. Here, it looks at first that THX's antagonist will be surveillance chief SEN. He maliciously usurps his position to disrupt THX's forbidden love affair with LUH. But rather than agent of power he turns out to be something of a wild card, even a wacko, and they're soon locked up - and even escape - together.
Because the real antagonist, the real puppeteer... well, though reviews of the film often tend to terms like 'oppressive' or 'totalitarian' there's no real sign there is one. Perhaps, with everyone playing their part in production, there doesn't need to be. In perhaps the most dystopian notion of all its a society not held in place but locked in stasis, the daily cycle repeating on rotation, alienated workers producing their own alienation - not an autocracy but a feedback loop. (It seems they don't keep to this in the novelisation. But then novelising this film was probably a category error to start with.)
And this is captured in one of the film's most striking points, the 'white limbo' sequence. This essentially ups the ante to unleash whiteness beyond whiteness. Dissidents and non-conformists aren't placed behind bars but stuck in this white void. There’s no walls or bars holding you in, just the sense there’s nowhere else to go, that over there is just more of being here. In the end, THX simply calls bluff on this – he stands up and starts walking.
This sequence supports a common reading of the film – that its an allegory for Plato's Cave. Much like Lucas, Plato never bothered explaining just how people came to be chained up in that cave, only that they'd been there since childhood. And of course there can't be a reference to their captors, since their captive state equates to our reality.
Plato's Cave could also explain one of the more bizarre moments of the film. Its established that people here watch hologram TV. On walking out of white limbo, THX runs into one of these hologram stars who helpfully points the way out – straight out the screen. They turn and see where they have just walked now shows a screen-shaped black rectangle. It's not just a metafictional moment, like Jodorowsky's 'Holy Mountain' (1973) its a wake-up call to its audience. Alongside Plato we might want to quote Blake: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”
The film has proved a gift for samplers. Wikipedia lists eleven examples, with a particular favourite being the medicine cabinet which asks “what's wrong?” when opened. But for a soundtrack... the logical choice would seem cold electronica, the sound of white. Yet significantly Lalo Shifrin's original soundtrack didn't go for that. While with 'Clockwork Orange', released the same year, Giorgio Moroder did put its ultraviolence to cold electronica. For the film already looks cool electronica enough, and the creatively counter-intuitive choice of a world-flavoured muscly rock soundtrack becomes effective.
In fact it works almost too well, for it fits too neatly with flaws already present in the film. For, despite its undoubted strengths, flaws run right through it. Much like Julia in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', its LUH who instigates the forbidden love affair with THX. But, perhaps typically for a Seventies film, she's a mere plot enabler. The effects of her actions fall primarily on him and she's soon fridged. (Well in this case embroyed.) All of which underlines the way that heterosexual desire is equated to 'normal living', like the couple unit is our natural state. This is then laced with the whiff of homophobia, when SEN tries to creepily insert himself as THX's new room-mate. (“It will be good for both of us... we'll be happy.”)
And compounded with this... apologies for the jargon... heteronormativeness is a hippyish form of techno-fear. (Though of course, much like the sides in the Cold War, there way never really much to distinguish hippyness from heteronormativity in the first place.) On one level the film is simply about the way technology is de-individualising, and so we must escape it's artificial clutches and get back into the garden. Plato's Cave becomes the hippy notion “it's all in your head, man”, the all-enveloping city nothing more than an illusion you can choose to un-see.
It sounds a strange paradox, a film in which we're inescapably becoming components of our own machines, and one in which we can leave Babylon behind to live out our lives under the sun. But that is the paradox of the film, and perhaps the paradox of its era too. As said over 'Quatermass IV': “It’s difficult to capture in retrospect just how contrapedal Seventies culture was. And how science fiction, which had always held to a view of the future which was bifurcated verging on bipolar, was the ideal arena to capture that.”
All of which becomes most apparent in the ending. After there'd been no previous indication private transport even existed, THX gets into a car. And what follows is a classic movie getaway scene. And what could be more all-American than a man behind the wheel of a car, going where he wants to go? And the... there's no other word for it... driving beat played to this sequence emphasises the he-man heroicness, kept up even after the end credits like he'd punched his way out of the film.
It's true that even here there's some masterful moments. Not least the point where his pursuers give up on him after their operation goes over-budget, not one of the standard scenes in action films. And Lucas has the sense to freeze-frame the final shot, leaving things on an open note. But really, you wonder if everything shouldn't have ended when the hologram showed him the black rectangle and they stepped through it.
The critical reader... or for that matter anybody who managed to read this to the end, might comment it doesn't focus enough on the live soundtrack. They're right, of course. But in my defence I have written about Asian Dub Foundation before. And besides, here's a taster of the soundtrack in action...