Godspeed You! Black Emperor

by Kevin MacKey

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Photo(s) by Weng Pierre - © 2008-2014

‘It’s not hard…all you need is four chords and a really long runway.’
-Efrim Menuck – Godspeed You! Black Emperor

It was a rainy Saturday night in Taipei, but that did little to dampen spirits as indie music lovers gathered at the NTU Sports Hall to see Montreal, Canada’s post-rock instrumental icons, ‘Godspeed You! Black Emperor.’ Making their first appearance in Taiwan and touring behind their critically-lauded 2012 album, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’, this concert came with high expectations as Godspeed is known in certain musical circles as, let’s face it…kind of a big deal and a must-see live event. Given Taipei’s love affair with post-rock music, the anticipation was high for Godspeed’s show…and they didn’t disappoint, crafting a solid and satisfying 2-hour set.

Immediately, it was apparent that this would not be a typical rock show the moment one walked through the doors. Darkness. No crowd chatter. Was there even anybody there? A loud, persistent droning noise was humming through the P.A. and the crowd was already hushed and attentive, awaiting their first glimpse of the mysterious 9-piece collective. Dozens of IKEA-ish lanterns randomly scattered dotted the venue’s floor throughout the crowd. An open invitation for some communal lantern volleyball? Maybe at a ‘Maroon 5’ show but not tonight. This evening was obviously all about serious music for serious times. Together with the droning and the darkened, quiet atmosphere, an eerie vibe was set that built up the anticipation perfectly.

Shortly after the announced 8 o’clock showtime, without fanfare, the 9 band members ambled unhurriedly one-by-one onto the darkened stage to their instruments and seamlessly started playing along to the drone, gradually adding layers upon layers of textured and looped guitars, strings, bass and percussion, building the song into a massive cacophony of sound. Over the next two hours, Godspeed would alternately soothe with quiet and elegant simplicity and then build the songs up and devastate with a mighty wall of noise that sounded like the end of the world was at hand.

Listening to Godspeed’s music definitely demands a certain patience as over the course of the 2-hour show, the band only played 6 songs in total, 4 of which aren’t even on any of their albums. Setlists probably don’t take long for these guys to do but the music sure does. The songs can easily clock in at over 20-minutes apiece, lumbering patiently, methodically and purposefully. Godspeed’s songs are less songs in the traditional sense than they are cinematic soundscapes, backdrops to a bigger picture. The feeling of listening to a movie soundtrack was enhanced by a projectionist, who deftly used real film reels to project and manipulate images on a screen behind the band. Godspeed’s members were arranged in a semi-circle onstage in a kind of ‘rock orchestra’ which put a couple of the seated guitarists’ backs partially oriented towards the crowd. That setup let a few of the band members watch the images along with the audience, perhaps drawing some musical inspiration from the films.

4 chords and a really long runway indeed…the music wasn’t complicated but together, Godspeed’s members ended up creating something more powerful than just the sum of its individual simpler parts. The beauty was in how well the band built and crafted its sounds into a cohesive and unified whole. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was the sound of 9 people just aimlessly jamming away for 20 minutes on end…and that’s probably how the songs originated…but you’d be wrong. The songs were glacial and methodical, taking a long time to build up, but once Godspeed’s music lifted off, so did the show. A new song , the aptly-named ‘Behemoth’ (which, in its original version, runs 44 minutes long) was pummeling and transcendent and my personal highlight of the night. ‘Mladic’ roared majestically and was the only song represented from the recently-released ‘Allelujah’.

Godspeed’s deadly serious music can be a bit drone-y at times and it’s best when it focuses on its more intricate melodic elements. I’m sure the lengthy songs and lack of crowd interaction probably lost the casual observer. However, in the age of instant gratification, 144-character tweets and short attention spans, it felt refreshing to be challenged to let the ebb and flow of Godspeed’s music gradually unfold. The patient listener was not disappointed. It’s music that can sound bleak and to contemplate the end of the world and mournful for the terrible way things can be, yet also hopeful. In fact, the word ‘HOPE’ was repeatedly flashed on-screen during ‘Hope Drone’. As bleak and dark as the aesthetic can sometimes be, the overall theme of the band’s music seems to desire to shine a light through that darkness. After a week in which innocent lives were bombed in Boston, Godspeed’s music on this particular night felt timely, appropriate and cathartic…a meditation on the human condition of suffering and evil and the collective will to overcome in the face of it.

There were no breaks, no talking from the band and no encore…the only acknowledgement of the crowd by band members was a simple wave from each as they left the stage one-by-one, as loops sent the dying notes of the final song, ‘The Sad Mafioso’ echoing into the soggy night.

Although the venue only seemed half-full this evening, the Taipei crowd showed the support, attentiveness and appreciation they are always known for. Whether or not there are enough rabid fans to continue bringing in these kinds of great shows remains to be seen, but we can certainly anticipate that Taiwan hasn’t seen the last of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. There is always hope.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Photo(s) by Weng Pierre - © 2008-2014

Kevin MacKey is a self-professed music junkie transplant from the Great White Canadian North. An avid cyclist, guitar slinger and amateur writer (but semi-professional loafer), he's always up for a good show whenever rock n' roll duty calls!

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