Pitchfork Music Festival 2012, live review | Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Let’s take a ride on the Wayback Machine, shall we? To 1997, where the socio-political climate feels a much like this, to a trio of Montreal-based guitarists: “The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel/And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides/And a dark wind blows/And we’re on so many drugs/With the radio on and the curtains drawn/We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine/And the machine is bleeding to death.”
This is of course a quote from the opening monologue of “The Dead Flag Blues,” the introduction to the excellent release, F♯ A♯ ∞ (a.k.a. F-Sharp, A-Sharp, Infinity) and an intense portrait of a city in ruins, its inhabitants drugged beyond cognition. Cheerful, right? My mother always said that every generation of bleeding-heart concerned youth feels that it’s living in the worst of days. “There was this thing called the Vietnam War,” she’d say in jest. But at age 17—as a punkish tomboy stuck in a small Southern Indiana city filled with strip-mall jungles and exploding trunk-of-Buick meth labs, where the nearest record stores were in mail-order catalogues (or three hours away in Louisville, Kentucky)—I could empathize.
Now let’s return to Chicago in 2012. The nihilistically minded would argue that not much has changed. Luckily, I’m no longer fueled by that level of angst. Except, you know, when I’m bombarded by the Acura car company via JumboTron, as I wait for the avant-garde, anarchist band Godspeed You! Black Emperor to play. And though most of the crowd has probably mellowed in its older age (face it, everyone younger than 30 booked it to Grimes at the blue stage), there’s no arguing that this collective, an eight-piece this evening, still packs a killer punch to the gut.
First, there’s the intro: A staccato swarm of locusts swathes the Pitchfork fest grounds, swelling and swelling until each player—four guitarists, a violinist, and a three-piece rhythm section—takes his or her place on stage. In the background, among other things, we see images of an industrial wasteland, a stretched-out highway and a train track to nowhere; the projections draw outlines of each musician expanding and contracting within the enclosed circle the group formed onstage.
During the 90-minute set, the ensemble leads a mesmerized crowd through symphonic scenes of clashes on the high seas and medieval warriors riding horseback into battle, then to industrialized enclaves of utter disparity. Each ten-plus-minute song slowly turns on itself until all hell lets loose, in the form of an exploding crescendo, leaving just enough sonic fragments to be picked up and put back together for the next scene. It's a heavy trip, indeed. And though that monologue from “The Dead Flag Blues” doesn't make an appearance tonight, it doesn't have to. We all know what we're signing up for.