Upon announcing their impending return nearly a year ago, Godspeed You! Black Emperor laid out a plan that essentially involved touring around the world from December through the end of March and nothing more beyond that. They would not be considering any offers for interviews nor would they be booking any more tour dates beyond the pre-determined countries and cities until they had some serious time to think about it. Well, the band has done exactly as they said they would, save for the couple of Canadian tour dates that were added for the end of April. Those Canadian dates are all that’s left, save for the final U.S. date in Detroit this evening. But for the past three nights, GYBE has established a sold out residency in Chicago, playing at the historic Metro twice and The Vic Theatre last night. If you know anybody that attended all three of those Chicago shows, or multiple dates in a row in another city, you might want to check on them to make sure they’re okay. Seeing this band live puts a tremendous physical and mental strain on a person, and to do so over and over again can destroy the unprepared.
The stage setup is rather simple and unassuming upon looking at it with the lights up, but that’s kind of the point, as the focus is not to be directed towards the band members. Instead, when the lights do dim and the band members begin to emerge one by one on stage, they’re moving in the shadows and remain so for the duration of the show. Only minimal overhead lighting allows for them to see their instruments and one another as needed. The main visual part of the performance, nearly as important as the audio portion, is plastered onto a large screen behind the band via multiple film projectors. During the quieter moments, if you were standing in the right place, you could hear the clicking of the film and the whirring of the projectors as they presented stimulating and thought-provoking images as a companion to the songs. Speaking of quieter moments though, at a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show it is essential to show the utmost respect for the performance and hold your tongue for the duration and only applaud during the transitions between songs. Apparently some people at The Vic did not get that message, because between the two guys standing in front of me that insisted on talking much of the time and the drunk girl that kept yelling things at the band whenever the room fell silent, there were a few times when it was easy to get pulled out of the musical trance and back to the reality of being trapped in a large room with some idiots. As is their way, the band never actually uttered a word the entire time they were on stage, allowing their instrumental compositions and their visual counterparts do all the speaking for them.
One of the most fascinating things about Godspeed You! Black Emperor in general is just how they take the elements of traditional post-rock and turn them in many respects on their head. The way the violin and cello create this often sad symphonic side works in tandem with the ever-building guitar melodies until it all crescendos into a massive wave of punishing heavy metal is unparalleled today and a big reason why GYBE is such a revered collective. On its own, the band’s catalogue is best digested by yourself with headphones on and a dimly lit room free of distractions. Establishing the right atmosphere is key to opening your mind to the possibilities each track explores. Severe emotional states are also common when listening to the band, as one song may push your eyes to well up with tears and another might have you fearing for your own life. That’s a big part of the mental toll the music can take on you, and matched with the visual aspect of their live performance it gains even more power. The black and white footage of desolate country roads and empty buildings make you feel lonely even in a room filled with people. Billowing smoke and raging house fires help showcase the scary power that nature can play in our lives, though it may also have you wondering how you might be able to get out of the venue were a similar emergency suddenly emerge. Pages of the book “The Anatomy of Melancholy” slide past on one side of the screen, while on the other grainy strips of film are burnt, laying to waste captured images somebody undoubtedly hoped would remain permanent. No, the GYBE live show is not an exercise in fun or optimism, but then again neither is your average symphony or opera. The sweeping drama of it all and the way we relate to the elements at play determine what we get out of the experience.
The physical toll a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show has on you is also a comination of things. The most robust moments in any individual song can give your eardrums a heavy shaking both via headphones and at a concert venue, but when seen live that shaking hits your whole body. You get pummeled by a wall of sheer noise that only gets worse the closer in proximity you are to the stage. Adding to that is the general difficulty of standing in the same place for 2+ hours while experiencing this. In an ideal situation, GYBE would be playing in seated theatres or churches with pews. The Vic does have a couple of small seated sections, but everything else is standing room only, which is how most experienced the show on Monday night. I stood the entire time and by about mid-way through the set needed to lean on a railing next to me out of concern that I might collapse, the physical and mental exhaustion finally overtaking me. It may sound like an overreaction, but a number of people around me walked away at various points to seek out potential seats in a balcony area. The good news is that everybody seemed to weather the storm okay, though that’s not to say many weren’t shaken. And in the midst of the simply mesmerizing set, there was still a lot of excitement over both the general experience as well as hearing GYBE “classics” like “Gathering Storm”, “Sleep” and “World Police and Friendly Fire”. It was a night most if not everyone will not soon forget, a testament to the raw power of this band and the indelible mark their records have left on people that have heard them. If you’ve already seen them live, you understand what I’m talking about. If not, there’s but a few dates left for you to experience this before the band’s future once again falls into jeopardy. For the rest, live recordings and YouTube videos will have to suffice, of which many do a solid job showing off exactly what you missed. Godspeed You! Black Emperor start all of their shows with the song “Hope Drone”, during which the titular word “Hope” is projected onto the screen behind the band members as they each emerge onto the stage. As the show wraps up and things descend into white noise and visual static, and we walk away barely on our own two feet, that hope somehow still remains. Let’s try as hard as we can to keep it alive for as long as possible, that Godspeed will continue beyond their current expiration date of April 2011.