Live review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Music Box
A few weeks ago, some wily YouTube denizen took a track by the cryptic Canadian noise-rock ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor and spliced it with a breathless male voice ranting about an impending Islamic caliphate overtaking the Middle East and Europe. It made perfect sense in context -- on the group's four proper records from the late ’90s to early ’00s, Godspeed used found-sound warnings from street preachers to steep its droning feedback, creaking chamber strings and bleary guitars in sadness and dread.
But this video’s screed came from a cable news host who today boasts an audience of millions on Fox News -- Glenn Beck. Cheekily titled “Glennspeed You! Beck Emperor,” the clip was a rare moment of humor in Godspeed’s universe.
But in the lead-up to its 2½-hour sold-out returning set Wednesday night at the Music Box -- the band broke up in 2008 after, as its members put it, an emotional crisis over the ongoing Iraq war -- it underscored how the world has changed since its 1997 release, “F#A# Infinity,” and its last L.A. show in 2001. Back then, the band's end-of-days predictions came from anonymous, damaged souls. Now they might come from talk-show hosts who hold rallies on the National Mall.
In a singles-obsessed, everybody-dance moment in music, it’s astonishing that this bleak instrumental collective with songs stretching well into double-digits and no obvious frontperson still commands such devotion.
But for fans, many of whom discovered the band during the years of night-vision bombing footage from the Iraq war, Godspeed offered a kind of solace in a difficult political moment. And from the set’s opening movements, off the band's standout 2000 album, “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven,” it was clear why Godspeed resonated. There’s simply no other band whose members play desolation and joy off each other like they do.
Takes on the band’s early work, such as “East Hastings,” simmered with sawing strings and martial drumming, and showcased the creeping tension that made its 20-minute songs feel as if they were just ramping up. Later songs, such as “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls,” from its 2002 full-length, “Yanqui U.X.O.,” drew from helpless fury and almost Sabbath-worthy rock crunch.
The band makes a kind of anti-performance out of its reserve, turning the visual spectacle over to projections of medieval woodcuts and haunting scenes of industrial repetition. Two-and-a-half hours is an awful long time for anyone not named Springsteen to ask from an audience, and many in the crowd seemed physically exhausted at points.
But that’s a different sensation than boredom. Godspeed demands a lot from its listeners, in body and attention. The sense of being wholly overcome felt true to the band’s ambitions -- and still does today.
-- August Brown