'Monumental' comes to Barbican Centre in July 2018. This review is from the 2016 Edinburgh fringe.
I am going to level with you: I absolutely fucking love Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The apocalyptic post-rock collective’s mixture of string-drenched neo-classical beauty and cacophonous metallic noise have inspired acres of purple prose from over-excited journalists since they emerged from mid-‘90s Montreal. I am one of them, and it's fair to say I'm not super-objective on the subject.
‘Monumental’ (styled ‘monumental’) is a revival of an avant-garde dance piece by Vancouver’s Holy Body Tattoo. It premiered in 2005, during Godspeed’s lengthy hiatus, and was originally simply set to their music. But this awesome remounting has the nine-piece band playing live and heavily amplified. They at no point acknowledge the audience, and are occasionally hidden by a screen upon which darkly comic pieces of life advice are projected.
There is a question as to whether ‘Monumental’ is a dance show with a live band or a gig with spectacular visuals; it probably depends on who you’re actually here to see. I’ll admit to essentially seeing it as the latter: Godspeed always play shrouded in darkness, with a series of desolate Super-8 films as visual accompaniment. A dance troupe is definitely a step up, or is with Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingrass’s inspired, disturbing choreography.
Nine dancers in black and white city workers’ garb stand on boxes. They twitch and shake and rub and claw at themselves, though usually only one or two are moving, the rest frozen still. For much of the show they seem trapped on boxes that could represent tower blocks, or office cubicles. Pain, worry or desperate rictus grins contort their faces. There is no fluidity or freedom, because they cannot move from the spot. When they do finally come down, it’s somehow even more claustrophobic, as they row with each other, or form suffocatingly tight huddles. It’s a piece about urban isolation, and it is queasily heavy with white collar, inner city psychosis.
But for me it still felt like an amazing sideshow or enhancement, because around them is the sound of Godspeed, maaan. The band make no concessions to the niceties of the dance world, with a set that’s grounded in the harder, more abrasive end of their oeuvre (their prettier stuff clearly not such a good fit for the choreography). They play much of their debut album ‘F♯ A♯ ∞’, the harder bits of their masterpiece ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven’, and even one track that wasn’t written in 2005, the gloriously-titled ‘Piss Crowns are Trebled’ off last year’s ‘Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress’. It is wild, bleak, magisterial and incredibly loud. When the dancers finally take their bows, the screen lifts to reveal the band have disappeared without a word, leaving only a red-lit void.