The long-awaited return of the mysterious and reclusive Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor was received with a looming air of anticipation. In an unusual and cryptic pre-tour announcement, the recently reunited post-rockers warned that “it’s been a while, and left in the rain, the brakes have rusted and seized – we’ll have to go at it with hammers probably, with elbow grease and fury.” Based on my experience at their show, I can confirm that they did just that.
As I walked into the theatre, I was greeted to the deeply ambient drone of opening act Total Life. The one-man show consisted of atmospheric soundscapes mixed, produced and tweaked live using a table-full of synths, effects pedals and other nifty devices. The artist’s music built up and climaxed with a drum machine beat dropping into the ambience, almost turning one piece into a club-worthy dance track. As captivating as some of the moments of the set were, however, Total Life’s music developed at an evolutionary pace. And frankly, you can only sit and watch an almost motionless man bent over a table for so long.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s presence filled the hall gradually, starting with a subliminal build up of bass feedback that I realized had taken the place of background music for the twenty or so minutes we waited for the band to show up onstage. As the mysterious bass sound swelled up, the eight members of the band took their places one by one and started adding to the ambiance, eventually easing into their first piece of the night. Golden-yellow saturated images of idyllic plains looped from the fluttering 16mm projectors in the back as the band launched into “Storm,” an expression of hopeful melancholy driven by a soaring crescendo of guitars and strings.
As the band played a good deal of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, the projected images revealed an apocalyptic peek at the world through the band’s very own looking glass: glimpses of city scenes, flaming oil refineries, snapshots of renaissance books and writings depicting harrowing urban wastelands. Spoken word interludes with prophetic-sounding voices occasionally contributed to the orchestration of an otherwise wordless play. The music remained the focus of the show, however, as the the string section (three guitars, two basses and a violinist) worked together with the two percussionists to paint incredibly detailed pictures of intense beauty and emotion that often outshone the vivid backdrops.
Despite their eight-year hiatus, Godspeed’s tight and intricately woven set showed no signs of the group having spent any time apart. Moreover, considering most of the content played was written over a decade ago, it’s fascinating how moving and relevant it the material proved to be. The riveting closing track, “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III”, which had the projectionist screening flashes of police lights, reeling stock tickers and protesting crowds on the backdrop, proved that the news headlines and issues of the world at the dawn of the last decade still ring true today.
Slightly disappointing for some was the group’s setlist, which excluded some distinct favourites, such as “East Hastings,” a piece that would only seem fitting played in the city whose infamous street name it’s named for. However, as the band left the stage as gradually and carefully as they had entered two hours earlier, there was not a doubt amidst the awestruck audience that Godspeed had made their mark with a tactfully powerful comeback.