It can be startling to see someone’s breath. Let alone the breathing of a crowd. You usually don’t believe that people extend that far.
Music is many things; it is intellectual, emotional, it is math and improvisation and many other abstract concepts. But, at its root, it’s also deeply physical. Without our ear drums, a physical fact which borders on mechanical in ways which can give spiritualists chills, we would have no sound nor melody. Without our bones, stomachs and hearts we have no rhythm, a meta instrument which grabs hold of throat and bile and violently shakes them. Music is the act of being cast adrift in paradox, something which is both nowhere and everywhere, botth surrounds you and is within you.
It’s hard to remember all of this in the day to day. A host of rituals, habits and approaches normalize what is otherwise a mystery in the deepest of senses, a conundrum that exists above (and below) our understanding of it. In order to shrug off these rituals and stand, once again, in the indecipherable light of the mystery, extraordinary events are needed. A good album can be that event but nothing beats a good live show in stripping away all your pretenses and barriers you’ve put between you and music. Standing there, drowning in the vibrations and the flesh around you from which it reverberates, you are made to see music’s power, to be your own echo chamber to its vector.
The flesh around you, however, is more than just another monitor which amplifies the music. Following the age-old rule of like draws to like, the flesh around you is a living model of what’s happening to you. By watching the movements of your fellow concert-goers you can glimpse an uncanny image of what is happening to you. “Uncanny” (Unheimliche is the German word, a concept first investigated by Sigmund Freud) is the exact word here; it means something which is not only strange but, also, somehow strangely familiar. Another paradox and one which captures the pleasure of watching others dance and listen to music you love, the pleasure of watching your own emotions written on their bodies/faces.
All of these ideas are replete across many genres of music but don’t come to fruition nearly as wildly as they do in all things “post”. Post rock and metal rely, in different ways across sub-genres, on these tensions between hearing, feeling, breathing, dancing and moving. Their feedback laden soundscapes and tense crescendos flutter across these seams of understanding, channeling guttural physicality, intellectual challenge and emotional depth to garner their unique appeal and perspective. It’s why their fans love the style for, when it’s executed well, it can appeal to all the boundaries of our perceptions and tantalize us from multiple approaches at once.
The mouth is interesting because it is one of those places where the dry outside moves toward the slippery inside.
No post rock/metal band has ever done this as well as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band whose name is a cliche for all the right reasons. Throughout their career, and mostly on their masterpiece F# A # Infinity, Godspeed have set the bar for so many things: pretense, intelligence, raw physicality, political acumen, authenticity, hubris, composition, failure and success. Their drone-filled maps of cities which don’t exist and yet within which we are all living are frustrating, beguiling and immensely relevant documents on our lives. They take by the throat pains and fears of which we are only sometimes aware, glimpsing them in the corner of our eyes.
Take all of that, the black haze of its undeniable presence, and marry it to modern dance and you’ve got yourself the subject of this article (finally). Breaking into these spaces of liminal understanding, of problems that never quite manifest, instead haunting your body along your hairline, The Holy Body Tattoo present the ultimate companion to Godspeed’s music. The Canadian dance group is world famous for their techniques; they channel repetitive abuse of the body in order to unlock its secrets, a choice of words that echoes our opening paragraphs but comes from the group’s own material.
The show is called Monumental and it works like this: on a stage stand, fall, lie, scream, scratch and dance nine performers. Sometimes, on a barely visible screen behind them, words from writer Jenny Holzer are projected. More often, that barrier is lifted and beyond it, barely glimpsed behind its film, reside Godspeed. Mixing tracks from F # A # Infinity (yes, “Dead Flag Blues” was included, among others), Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress and new music exclusively composed for the show, they are the soundtrack to the physical madness which slowly unfolds. Even when their music is silent, it echoes behind and below the movements of the dancers.
These movements express the never-ending conflicts of modern living and the neuroses which we develop in order to cope with them. Whether skyscrapers or office cubicles, the short pillars on and around which the dancers perform become focal points for sexual attraction, revulsion from one’s own body, hate, anger, fear, conformity and pain. These are expressed by wild, frenetic movements, grasping at throat, scratching at thighs, tearing at hair root. These internal gestures of hate are also frequently transformed into external gestures of hate, exclusion and social violence. The hated self targets a weaker other and works in tandem with other selves, who are also self-hating, to take out the anxious energies on that other. In the form of violence.
How do you resign yourself to something that will never be? You stop wanting just that thing. You go numb. Or you kill the agent of desire.
At the basis of all of this, the physical experience of music is intertwined with the intellectual message. Monumental thus reminds you that, no matter how much “heady” content your music delivers you, true understanding of it comes from the gut. This is especially interesting in light of the often confounding and possibly cryptic passages in Godspeed’s music. A large part of understanding their message lies in letting go, in allowing your body to flow with the music without the interference and need for order that the mind so often enforces on such experiences.
Consider F # A # Infinity. Consider the samples which speak of the end of the world, blood filled wallets and fevers. They don’t make much sense if you think of them only with your mind. But your body, the hairs on your arms, understands well the “uncanny” sensation they wish to communicate to you. Your stomach feels strongly the underlying horror and bereavement which permeate the music, often simply waves upon waves of static and feedback. Your ears respond, almost as if by instinct, to the screeches and background noises of the bleak cityscapes that Godspeed travel.
In Monumental, with the help of modern dance, these sensations are remembered. The concert almost dares you to defy these sensations as you sit there, wonderfully impacted by bodies moving at a distance. The music tantalizes you to try and parse these ideas, to separate dancer from the dance, note from the static, band from the instrument. And after you’ve tried and failed and, hopefully, given up on such attempts at decoding, the band don’t stay for the applause. Not the first nor the second round of them. The instruments are left alone, bare, abandoned. The dancers stand alone and emphatically gesture at where the band were, calling for your continued applause, a neurotic mockery of acceptance.
Like a lightning flash after thunder, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are gone. Leaving you alone.