When a band can draw in fans from a day’s drive away, one would sincerely hope that the performance merits that dedication. From talking with fans in the crowd at Venue this Monday night, more than one person had made the drive in from Alberta or the island just to see this, Godflesh’s first Vancouver performance in years, and it impressed upon me early on that the anticipation for the night was backed by years (maybe decades for some) of serious listening and devotion – fandom, I suppose, is the word.
Godflesh’s touring mate is Prurient, a solo act by New York experimental electronic musician Dominick Fernow. Standing at his table full of samplers and synths, Fernow’s body language was solemn and detached. It made clear how focused he was, but emotionally. it prompted a guarded skepticism, even alienation. Maybe that was partly his intent, but it’s hardly conducive to meaningful artist-audience connections.
In conventional terms, Prurient’s genre is power electronics. I identified four core elements of the sound: at the bottom, a heavy sub-bass drone or beat; in the middle, a pattern of noise or distorted samples forming the theme; near the top, Fernow’s harsh screams and spoken-word segments; and whirring overhead was either a high-pitched noise synth or strident feedback from his vocal mic. This combination of layers packed an undeniable sonic punch, but it diminished quickly once Fernow established a theme, due to the relentless character of the compositions. But for me, the failure was his painfully melodramatic stage presence: aimlessly sauntering and thrashing around the stage, he delivered his “tragic artist” character with pompousness and unconvincing overstatement.
Following this, the audience was ready for something different, something more human. Opening with several pieces from 2014’s A World Lit Only by Fire, Godflesh delivered on its implicit promise: this was what people had come to hear. It’s easy to peg a so-called industrial band as cold and nasty, but that’s not even a half-truth with this band. The use of sampled drums and repetitive de-tuned guitar riffs somehow amounts to a warmly human and personal experience. And despite the nihilistic themes in the lyrics, the feeling I get most strongly is anger, mixed with some kind of hope.
The musical means to this emotional paradox is the almighty riff. Singer/guitarist/programmer Justin Broadrick cites post-punk pioneers Joy Division and Killing Joke (who arguably evolved into an industrial metal band as well) as influences. His style clearly draws from their purposeful repetition. This music moves the listener in the gut and the heart through rhythm: the basic, almost minimalistic character of the guitar, bass, drum machine, and vocal parts keeps the focus not on any one element but on the menacing, mechanical groove. It seemed to make time flow differently – as if the drum machine had become the central clock in our little universe.
The visual complement was humble yet surprisingly effective: a lowish-resolution video file projected onto a screen above the stage, mostly displaying slow-moving clips from films related to Godflesh’s album art. Never a distraction from the music, the clips seemed to add a nuance of the uncanny to the experience, often drawing from religious imagery, both Christic and infernal. It was a subtle and (mostly) bloodless horror show, communicating more angst than gore, as is appropriate for Godflesh’s uniquely terrifying yet inviting ethos.
While there was nothing pandering about Broadrick’s performance (he’s hardly even an “entertainer”), his presence conveyed a lively humility, and it made him exactly the person to fulfill the audience’s feeling of devotion. He never spoke or made faces or gestures at them like some arena rocker. He simply bowed for their applause as he wiped the copious sweat from his face and accepted them as the audience that had brought him to that place at that time. I marvel at the significance of travel for this event. We were all there because something special had called us: a connection, a summit of souls from various parts, all synced to one rhythm and one riff.