Paul Auster, the celebrated American novelist, hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “We are ruled by the forces of chance and coincidence.” Tonight his observation seems especially true considering Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band sometimes described as being ‘industrial’, are performing in a building that once played a key part in the Industrial Revolution. It once resounded to the clang and clatter of metal, and that cacophonous assault previously pounded into the brickwork finds a modern echo in the Canadian collective’s slow, chugging start that builds pace, volume and intensity with incremental movements.
With Sophie Trudeau’s eerie, sustained violin notes shimmering like a skein of rising smoke against the smouldering distortion of the guitars and bass, drummers Timothy Herzog and Aidan Girt lock into a sombre, almost funereal march. The instant they do, the thump to the solar plexus is palpable, causing the near-capacity crowd to momentarily sway backwards. The visceral punch results in many of them raising their arms in exultation, or possibly supplication to the band’s remorseless grind.
Standing in near darkness, save for small guide lights next to their mountains of foot pedals, the eight musicians are pale silhouettes against the strips of film being projected onto the stage by long-time collaborator, filmmaker Karl Lemieux. The set is drawn mostly from new album Luciferian Towers, and as it unfurls, movie loops of industrial parks, ticker-tape displays, nose-diving aeroplanes, protestors and deserted high-rise houses form a kind of improvised, dystopic Adam Curtis film with a JG Ballard script. The random collisions between film and music produce powerful narratives.
Then, more than halfway through the thrumming two-hour performance, the forces of chance and coincidence lend another hand as the fire alarms go off. There’s no fire, but the criss‑crossing dissonance of the malfunctioning siren briefly bleeds into the music, and when a fire engine rolls up outside, its flashing blue lights strobe perfectly with the band’s howling crescendo.
Not so much a gig, then, as an utterly magnificent, totally immersive audiovisual arts installation.