Godspeed You! Black Emperor
March 13, 2023
Photos by Tyler King
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the first of five dates that Godspeed You! Black Emperor were playing at The Chapel in San Francisco. To say that I was even a casual fan would be a stretch; I had heard their acclaimed 2000 album Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven when I first was dipping my toes in post-rock a dozen or so years ago and had heard a few songs here and there, but I was almost entirely unfamiliar with the rest of their catalogue. The show was near sold out, and the audience was pressed as close to the stage as possible.
The lights went down and bassist Thierry Amar and violinist Sophie Trudeau walked onstage before grabbing their instruments. They began creating what can only be best described as the title of the piece, “Hope Drone,” the duel projectionists Karl Lemieux and Philippe Leonard projecting the word “HOPE” onscreen behind the two members, as the rest of the band slowly took the stage and began to join in. There was Efrim Menuck, Mike Moya, and David Bryant on guitar, Mauro Pezzente on bass, and both Aidan Girt and Timothy Herzog and drums and percussion. To call the song a “drone” would be doing it a disservice though: there were no parts that could comfortably blend into a given auditory background or be ignored. It was all well-executed, carefully rehearsed, and masterfully performed.
And that was something that remained a constant throughout the night. With some songs reaching over twenty minutes in length, there was never a part of it where the band fell apart or any members stumbled as the rest persevered onward. To see a band perform for nearly two hours where all of the songs are instrumental, it’s an achievement that they were able to not only keep the audience’s attention, but also create music that was so moving and precise without the need for any sort of vocalization.
A number of years ago I saw the band Swans, and while they also played six songs over the span of nearly two hours, there was a fundamental difference between the two. The music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor feels purposeful. When I saw Swans, they had a tendency to lock into a given groove and not let go for sometimes a dozen minutes, which would push the given momentum of a song over a cliff into pure boredom. But the members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor never stayed on a movement of a song for longer than what felt absolutely necessary. Whether it was a lingering quiet calm passage like on the opening minutes of “BBF3” or reaching furious crescendo upon furious crescendo on “Cliffs Gaze,” nothing overstayed its welcome.
I decided to step to the back of the venue during the aforementioned “BBF3,” which was the final song of the evening, and from there was where I was able to take in the importance of having two projectionists listed as members of the band. Unfortunately the musicians of Godspeed You! Black Emperor are not the most lively onstage, with only the two bassists and violinist being the only members standing onstage. Of course I noticed that there were film projections when I was up front, but standing at the back I was able to take the entire sight in: each projectionist is free to show whatever they want on a given side of the stage, the quiet opening having Mark Rothko-esque swatches of solid colors displayed over the band. As the song began picking up momentum, this was changed into videos of airplanes falling out of the sky, and finally, as the song exploded into a brilliant cacophony, video of riots and protests in the streets.
The band finished the show by putting their instruments down and letting the guitars and basses create a loud, distorted drone. This was the true drone of the evening. Eventually after about 10 minutes of the lights still being down and the drone never ceasing, two of the members emerged onstage. I thought they would be turning off their amps. Instead they went to their amps and began adjusting the settings of them, changing the cadence and oscillations of the drones for another few minutes. Finally, they turned the amps off. They walked onstage. The lights came on. The crowd was quiet for a moment, in awe of what they had just witnessed. A thunderous applause then ripped through the silence. Godspeed You! Black Emperor had spoken.
Opener Jessica Moss is an accomplished violinist and musician who is also a member of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. Her 30-minute set was comprised of two pieces: the first, “Contemplation I,” was about ten minutes long and included processed vocals towards the last third of it. The second, “Entire Populations,” took up the last twenty minutes of her set, and was introduced by Jessica as “a way of saying thank you.” Her violin was haunting, drenched in delay and cavernous reverb. Thirty minutes wasn’t long enough for such a masterful musician.