Concert Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor (October 16, 2013)

Courtesy of Flickr user Kmeron
Courtesy of Flickr user Kmeron

By Jonathan Plotkin

Let’s just get this out of the way now: I don’t listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. My friends have told me all about them and I’ve seen that scene in 28 Days Later that uses one of their songs to show the utter hopelessness of waking up in a post-apocalyptic world. But save for the one time I heard Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven while driving my friend back from New York, I’ve heard more about them then I’ve actually heard them. So when  I saw them on on Wednesday I really had no idea what to expect.

Post rock, much like prog rock, is a genre I’ve always wanted to get into but never got around to doing so, mainly because the songs are so long and dense. That doesn’t stop me from reading about post rock while I should be doing homework though so I have a good idea about what the genre means. I always hear it described as “music for the Apocalypse” or “the soundtrack to the end of the world.” This has colored my opinion of the genre, but it’s more like looking through a foggy window instead of just walking outside and climbing some trees.

Going into the show, all I was expecting was a wall of sound and a crazy projector show. What I wasn’t expecting was a few minutes before 10 PM, the lights dimmed and a low drone started. Over the next several minutes the drone slowly grew in intensity, shifting ever so slightly. The crowd grew silent, all heads turning towards  the stage, as if expecting a divine apparition to materialize. Unbelievably, I didn’t see a single phone lighting someone’s face from below, despite 10 minutes of nothing happening whatsoever. Clearly, I had entered a different sort of concert than the standard “tweet while you wait” show.

Suddenly, a break in the monotony! A man with a violin walks on stage, accompanied by a man with an enormous upright bass. They slowly take their place on the right of the stage and begin adding some other sound to the drone, finally bringing us out of the realm of noise and onto our journey towards music. Slowly and surely, the rest of the band joins the stage, each adding their individual elements to the sound until an enormous wall of sound has been built up in the venue, hitting a peak in a glorious wash of sound that breaks over the audience in a wave of emotion.

But does Godpseed stop for applause like any other band? No, as the opener fades out, at least one instrument keeps playing the same sound over and over, leading the band out of the last song and into the next. This rise and fall of music, consisting of huge amounts of sound building up and with a constant rising of emotion until it finally breaks, continues for half an hour. The band quiets down and the audience claps for the first time since they first took to the stage.

It’s during this break I see the full extent of the band. In addition to the violinist and bassist that appeared in the beginning of the show, there is another bassist, three guitarists, and two drummers. I’m beginning to understand why the last half hour has felt so overwhelming.

Throughout all this, there has been a stream of projected images behind the band. Seeing many of the same images repeated I figure it’s just a premade thing but now that there isn’t any music playing I hear the whir of old timey projectors. Turning around, I see a man operating four projection reels by hand, manually plugging in different film and layering all those images of post-apocalyptic wastelands behind the band (you know, for the ambiance).

But wait, there’s more! Godspeed starts playing again and the room once more falls silent. I actually hear a girl scold her boyfriend for trying to talk to her, that’s how dedicated people are to absorbing this show. The only time I’ve ever seen anything like this is when I attend classical music concerts, and I always figured that’s just because there’s centuries of tradition keeping you quiet through those performances. But as I said before, there’s a magical quality of this show that seems to make everyone forget about their 21st century distractions and just listen to the music.

After the first break, Godpseed plays for 20 minutes, takes another break, plays for 10 minutes, and now we’ve reached the hour mark into the show. The band isn’t showing any signs of stopping though and launch right back into what eventually becomes 40 minutes of continuous music. At this point, I’m exhausted, simply from the effort of having this much sonic information pumped into my brain. Seeming to sense my wish to go to sleep and try and process what just happened, the band members slowly leave in the reverse order in which they first came on the stage. The closing sound of the act is the same that started it: a low drone that eventually fades away as the house lights returned.

I check my watch. The time is now 11:43 PM. “That’s odd,” I think. Every time I looked at my watch during the few breaks in the show the numbers ended in three. I mention this to my friend, who tells me that Godspeed shows are deliberately timed, apparently to the minute. I’m blown over by this, that a band consisting of eight different people and a body of work going back to the 90’s, can still have this cohesive a sound and performance. When you take into consideration the total captivation they had over the audience, this truly does seem to be like the modern equivalent of classical music, provided the composers of old had their psyches ripped apart by some supernatural force (like a ghost, that would be cool).

If you were to ask me what Godspeed played that night, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Even if you played me their exact set list, I woud only vaguely recognize it. Just like seeing a piece of classical music I’m not immensely familiar with performed live, the memory of the music is largely fleeting. More memorable than the sound is the actual experience of the act, and I think Godspeed You! Black Emperor more than delivered on that, with a show I’ll remember for years to come.