When you speak to other fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the conversation tends to take on a hushed and reverent tone. When you talk about the live shows, that tone becomes even more acute and obvious. Godspeed fans take their shows very seriously, treating them more like epiphanic experiences than mere gigs. The first time I saw the band in Manchester back in 2000, it was the quietest audience I have ever been a part of. A guy sat next to me rocking back and forth on the ground, hugging his legs as if possessed by some kind of spirit. Like I said, it’s all very serious.
The band takes itself and the work it does very seriously as well. All this seriousness would be a little unbearable if not for the fact that the band’s music is some of the most genuinely awe-inspiring and epic in all of post-rock. Indeed, that now-hackneyed-sounding genre to which they tenuously belong has long been left behind. Godspeed’s contemporaries have, for the most part, fallen by the wayside, whereas these Canadians, back from an extended hiatus, still have the draw to sell out the Fonda Theatre on a Thursday night.
The eight-piece took to the stage individually, and rather than obviously beginning a song, they partook in an extended warm-up that lasted the best part of ten minutes before morphing into the majestic “Mladic” from their most recent album. When I say “songs,” I really mean pieces. After all, these are neo-classical pieces formed from elements of drone, rock, and a smattering of strings that last anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour in duration.
Godspeed shows are not short (although this one, at an hour and forty-five minutes, was brief by their standards), but it is a tribute to their absolute grasp of dynamics that the performance never becomes dull. Instead, the band, complete with two drummers, kept the audience’s attention with this spectacular ebb-and-flow of material, played as usual to a backdrop of hypnotic films that fit the whole “field recording” aesthetic upon which the band builds a whole aspect of their sound.
There was no frontman or emcee, no interaction with the crowd, and no introduction between songs. In fairness, such trivialities would have broken the spell cast in that darkened room. The only reminder that we were still at a gig (as opposed to taking part in some art installation) was the applause from the audience during the odd lull of quiet in the show.
Apart from that skyscraper climax to “Mladic,” two older pieces really took my breath away. The mournful string intro and voiceover that signaled the arrival of “Terrible Canyons of Static” from Godspeed’s magnum opus Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven remains a truly moving experience. Going right back to the beginning of their career, we also got a run-through of “East Hastings” from the group’s 1997 debut. The slow builds and crescendos sound as spectacular now as they have for the past decade.
The biggest takeaway from Thursday’s show was the band’s continuing relevance. They have returned to a world that is even more confusing and alienating than it was when they initially went on hiatus almost ten years ago, and this music full of mourning, anger, and hope is an even more fitting soundtrack these days. In an age in which instant gratification, both musically and more generally, has become a way of life, Godspeed remains a band that rewards those with a longer attention span. They are even greater than the sum of their parts, and there is still no one else like them.
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