The emperor strikes black
The last time The Spin attempted to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor — our angsty, pretentious teenage self's most beloved instrumental rock band — we were about as sick as we've ever been. Riddled with some kind of horrible flu virus that we unsuccessfully attempted to drown with enough chicken soup for us to be brought up on charges of poultry war crimes, we half-shuffled, half-shambled into Cannery Ballroom last year to see Efrim Menuck and a band of like-minded Canadian anarchists for the first time ever. And then we proceeded to flee almost immediately, completely ruined by a potent mixture of nausea and low-register doom drone.
You can probably surmise just how excited we were to see post-rock's greatest champions making their return to Cannery on Friday — one year, six months and 19 days after our teenage indie-rock dreams were dashed by illness (Spoiler alert: pretty damn excited).
Lambchop frontman and bona fide local legend Kurt Wagner was already onstage by the time we arrived at Cannery. We have to admit: Wagner isn't the first name that comes to mind when we think "Godspeed You! Black Emperor local support." Compared to the crushing weight of the average Godspeed tune, Wagner's quiet folk songs seem as thin as paper. But we know as well as anyone that Wagner's got a weird streak in him a mile wide — that's one of Lambchop's defining attributes, and we're always totally thrilled to see Wagner onstage. If only the rest of the crowd shared that feeling.
Wagner's low and slow baritone was met with a loud din of conversation that overwhelmed his quiet drone-icana tunes. As we made our way into the thick of the crowd, we overheard someone complain that Wagner's set "feels like its been going on so much longer than 15 minutes." Every time Wagner went louder, the crowd matched him. We're sure that his acoustic rendition of "Mr. Met" off Mr. M was as fantastic as it is on the record, but damn if we could hear it. As Wagner's set came to a close, he sounded almost defeated when he intro'd his closing improvisational guitar tune with an, "I'm going to make something up and get the fuck out of here." Ah well. You can't win them all, K-Dub. Also, we're sorry for calling you K-Dub.
Two beers later, the house lights rose and dimmed again, signaling the beginning of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's menacing "Hope Drone" opener. For the uninitiated, the first 25 minutes of every Godspeed concert sounds more or less like found sound in a haunted sawmill operated exclusively by members of a Canadian doomsday cult. At first, we weren't even sure if "Hope Drone" was part of the show or just random ominous feedback. But then we remembered where we were. Members of the sprawling band slowly assumed their positions onstage, and the crowd fell into dead silence.
Gradually, the band transitioned out of the drone and into "Mladic," Godspeed's first new song in almost a decade and the first of what was to be a total of four (yes, four) "real" songs in the set. As much as we appreciate the visceral thrill of feeling like we've accidentally walked into a subwoofer, GY!BE is at their best when they're playing songs that, well, sound like songs. "Mladic" and its companion, the yet-to-be-recorded "Behemoth," are closer to drone than anything, but they have enough strong, resonant melodic moments that they're utterly captivating.
This'll come as a shock to exactly no one, but Godspeed You! Black Emperor — a band where one of the members sits at the front of the stage with his back to the audience — isn't the most exciting thing to watch live. Thankfully, there were two things to keep us occupied: First, the idea of a live projectionist touring with the band is a little absurd but, as it turns out, completely necessary. We can't say whether or not the images of typewriters, architectures, scribbled-out diaries and seemingly random text enforced the themes and ideas of Godspeed's songs, but they were cool to look at. So, at least there's that? The second was watching some of the most stoned people we've ever seen (outside of Bonnaroo, anyway) ping-ponging through the crowd like some kind of drunk zoo animals. One dude in particular moshed around, spilling beer and getting on the last nerve of everyone up front. We think he's the one who started shouting "Wake up! Wake the fuck up!" toward the end of the band's two-hour set, as if he'd forgotten that we were at the rock music equivalent of the symphony — not a dumb punk show (and we say that as lovers of dumb punk).
In fairness, though, we can't fault those overexcited nerds too much. Our teenage brain just about melted when the violin melody to "Moya" off the EP Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada started up. And the full 25-minute version of "Storm" from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven was a mind-melting, intense experience that we feel lucky to have had. When we say we prefer Godspeed when they sound more like they're playing songs and less like they've recorded a haunted boxcar derailing, this is what we mean.
We'd be lying if we didn't concede that Godspeed started to lose us around minute 90 of the show, when they again dredged into a Mariana Trench of moody, bone-shaking feedback and bass tones, but that was only because watching bands like Godspeed is actually exhausting. The music played onstage alternates between punching you in the temple and lulling you to sleep. It's a roller coaster. But as often as this band is labeled "pretentious," we couldn't help but feel like only the impossibly sincere could make music this nuanced and emotional. Godspeed You! Black Emperor knows how to push all of our buttons — which is just what they did for two hours. And we couldn't be any happier about it.
Testing your metal
It had been another one of those weeks in which the people who hand out paychecks expected The Spin to do some actual work — that keeps happening, for whatever reason. It sucks! And all of that actual work involved listening to aspirant singer-songwriters and active-rock hacks. We had basically hit our limit for bullshit music, bullshit people, safe-and-stale tunes and unsuccessful yet smarmy shitheads — thank God Skeletonwitch was bringing a four-band bill stacked with brutality to The End on Sunday night.
We arrived just in time to catch the end of Early Graves and a heavy ration of "You dudes missed some badass shit" from the assembled gang in front of The End. Apologies, we needed to stop at the grocery store to buy coffee — this shit don't write itself. Coffee writes it. Copious amounts of coffee and vitriol, and at that moment all of The Spin's inner vitriol was aimed directly at ourselves for being dumb enough to miss Early Graves — whose music is good and whose story is compelling. Honestly, we thought Havok was playing first, and we decided we could miss them because they misspell their name with a K — we have to draw arbitrary lines in arbitrary sand. Of course, whenever The Spin makes up ridiculous rules to explain our behavior, those rules are broken almost immediately: We caught Havok — K and all — and we gotta say, they were really good. So that makes us double-extra dumbasses.
Not to be confused with Mobb Deep's MC Havoc — not that you would, for obvious reasons — this Colorado quartet brought a classic thrash sound and at least five fanboys who bought T-shirts before the show and wore them all night. We know it's a metal show and there's a much higher "that guy" allowance than most, but really dudes, are you all going to be that guy? Haven't we all seen PCU? Anyway, despite the storm of "those guys" up front, we were mighty impressed by Havok's updated take on classic '80s thrash — especially the fact that their guitarist seemed to have mastered every move Dimebag Darrel ever used. And the smiles! Havok, like pretty much all of the bands, was all smiles all night. Which is nice, because The Spin hates being the only folks in a room who get the warm-and-fuzzies while people sing songs about death and dismemberment.
Also, did we mention that the crowd at The End was bigger than just The Spin and five of "those guys"? There was, like, a big crowd and shit — at least a hundred people when we showed up and a steady steam of arrivals for the rest of the night. It was a healthy showing that bodes well for all the shows we've got on the metal schedule over the next couple of months, and if the next couple of months go well, that means 2013 is going to be asses-to-elbows with good metal shows. You know what else makes The Spin happy? Seeing Savannah, Ga., three-piece Black Tusk — this is our fourth, maybe fifth BT show, and each time we're more impressed than the last. There's something about their distinctly Southern style of sludge mixed with touches of classic hardcore punk — think bludgeoning, Touch and Go-style hardcore, rather than the pretty-hair-and-tight-pants variety that the kids love these days — that brings joy to our hearts. Also, it seemed to send the thrash kids running for the patio. Which is fine, because as a friend of ours noted, the thrash kids smelled like sweat and floor cleaner. Just kidding! Sorta.
Athens, Ohio's Skeletonwitch finished out the night with an epic set of blackened thrash — and now that we think about it, why is every new variant of metal now "blackened"? Blackened doom, blackened thrash, blackened prog — everything is blackened. We guess that if you begin whipping the dance of the dead, blackened is the logical, inevitable end. Hey oh! But seriously, if you're going to spend your Lord's Day out doing the Devil's work, make sure you've got Skeletonwitch onstage pummeling your puny, sin-ridden brain into an evil goo — those boys know how to put on an epic show. The set was heavy on tracks from their classic 2007 album Beyond the Permafrost — including a rare performance of their Adult Swim-endorsed "Bringers of Death" — and 2011's Forever Abomination, all of which induced some serious thrashing in the pit. Lead singer Chance Garnette was clearly stoked on the size and enthusiasm of the audience, asking, "Who says Sunday night shows have to suck?" before instigating another outbreak of furious headbanging. By the time all was said and done, we had a sore neck, ringing ears and a supremely serene feeling — the perfect reward for doing the Devil's work on the Lord's Day.
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