“Gonna be a long night this,” says the bloke in front of me at the bar, but it’s said with relish rather than resignation. With the band’s epic instrumentals about as short and punchy as the Encyclopedia Britannica, fans of Canadian experimental band Godspeed You! Black Emperor look forward to their gigs in the same way that an avid astronomer appreciates staying up until 4am to see a once-in-a-lifetime comet, or a keen train spotter makes the most of standing in the rain at Crewe station for hours waiting for some old crate to clatter past them. Perhaps rather than a pint of 13 Guns and a band T-shirt, fans should be equipped with a flask of cocoa and a sleeping bag.
They could be in a worse place to do so; Liverpool’s Camp and Furnace boasts a selection of vintage indoor caravans, though they seem to be hidden away today in anticipation of the floor space needed for a near full house. It’s a hub of the city’s Baltic Triangle area, which was once the backbone of the city’s shipping and other industries, but is now seeing its abandoned warehouses being revamped into venues of cutting-edge creativity.
With the venue filling up nicely, self-described “avant folk ensemble” Dead Rat Orchestra take to the stage and give a performance that seems to increasingly pique the audience’s interest as it goes on. In a little over half an hour, I think they only play three ‘songs’ (let’s call them ‘pieces’), integrating everything from the folky yellings you might expect of Cornish tin miners, to ambient and experimental noise, and even a spot of Inuit-style throat singing. It’s all very eclectic, and is warmly received by a crowd not exactly afraid of something a bit out of the box.
As for GY!BE, there isn’t really much point in analysing their performance on a track-by-track basis, and to be honest, I can’t. Even their most diehard fans seem to struggle to actually put a name to the piece of music they’re hearing, not helped by the band’s abstract song titles.
Instead, it should really be appreciated as one long cinematic soundscape of varying tempos, volumes and moods. What really sets GY!BE apart from some of the experimentalists that don’t quite hit the mark is the violin, giving a brooding and classical undercurrent to the walls of guitars, and the cacophonous and even apocalyptic sound of two drummers pounding away at once. In fact, I’ve never heard music that sounds so much like the last two hours before planet Earth is blasted into smithereens.
GY!BE do seem to be using all of their noisiest material tonight, and throughout the performance, blurry loops of film are visible behind the group. These start off with the natural beauty of Canadian outdoor scenes, frosted pines, flocks of starlings and, as they belt out the bizarrely named ‘Piss Crowns Are Trebled’, the adventures of a lone moose.
The images become more bleak and sinister as the show goes on. We gradually start to see pallid skyscrapers and rusty pylons, and then neon advertising and flashes of stock market figures. GY!BE are certainly not preachy, remaining wordless throughout, but their material undoubtedly gives cause for thought. Refreshingly, it’s left entirely down to the audience to come up with their own interpretation of what they’re hearing and seeing.
Another good thing about the night is the distinct lack of ‘knobhead factor’ that plagues a lot of rock gigs. At worst, some GY!BE fans are a tad pretentious and elitist, but there’s nobody trying to slam into you when the music stops, nobody lobbing pints of beer/piss about, nobody yelling “play ‘Broken Windows, Locks of Love Pt. III.’ – just people who really appreciate the band’s music, although you should be prepared to attract their grumbles if you start to applaud and whoop when a piece has just gone a bit quiet rather than finished.
GY!BE are not an act that everyone would get, but those who watch them know what to expect, and you can only admire the care and craftsmanship that goes into their work. I doubt there is any other post-rock band on the planet who can keep a crowd entertained for over two hours without uttering a word, neither sung nor spoken.