Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Warsaw, Brooklyn, NY 10/1/15 (SHOW REVIEW)

The last time I saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor live, they were still called Godspeed You Black Emperor!.  It was 2002 and they were touring ahead of the still-unreleased Yanqui U.X.O.  Shortly after that they announced a “hiatus,” which ended up lasting nearly a decade.  13 years later, as they take the stage in Brooklyn’s Warsaw (not, as one might think, a Joy Division-ish attempt at evoking Old World grandeur but a genuine remnant of what until very recently was a largely working class, largely Polish neighborhood), nothing has changed, and everything has changed.

They start with a low, steady drone, just double bass and violin, as gradually the other six members of the now-8-piece ensemble take the stage and join in.  The first proper number is “storm,” the gorgeous, thrilling opener from 2000’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. They play mostly in the dark, as they always have, under an elaborate montage of images generated by four old-school analog projectors, as they always have.  During the opening, minutes, the same word flashes again and again on the screen, one that has always appeared regularly in the band’s deliberately obscure iconography:  “hope.”

Live, Godspeed have always been a phenomenal force of nature; their elaborate-but-instantly-accessible compositions remain the benchmark for what indie post-rock can be and do.  They play sweeping, epic numbers at a phenomenal volume and their shows are more a relentless sonic catharsis than they are entertainment.  On their albums these thrilling, forceful climaxes are frequently punctuated with extended segments of eerie silence, low static, and long field recordings, but their live shows tend to focus on the loud bits, making this 2.5-hour show a genuinely demanding physical experience.  The first time I thought to check the time, it was an hour into the show and they had played two numbers.  There was a distinctly shell-shocked vibe to the emotionally drained audience that stumbled out of the venue at its end.

As early as 2002’s Yanqui, Godspeed were accused by critics of being stuck in a formulaic rut, but complaining that there isn’t a lot of variation in their style and approach is like complaining that lobster always tastes like lobster or that a marathon is the same length every time you run it.  That is to say, it’s not for everyone, certainly, but the people who are there aren’t there to be surprised:  they’re there because they want that particular thrill, and they want a lot of it.  In that regard, the band doesn’t disappoint.  I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a show this much but still prayed for there not to be an encore.  I love Godspeed almost as much as I love lobster, but there are limits to the body’s endurance.

The setlist is largely composed of very recent material, with a couple of oldies thrown in.  They play every track from 2015’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, back to back and in order.  They close with “Mladic” from 2012’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!.  In addition to “storm,” their older material is represented by the achingly beautiful, tremulous “Moya.”  And towards the end, they play a ferocious new song that they’ve been rehearsing on the current tour.  If the two older pieces receive noticeably more audience recognition, it’s not just because of nostalgia.  Where their older compositions felt like an array of melodic inventions held together by a single cascading emotional pulse, the newer ones feel more like a single harmonic block churning along to a range of counter-rhythms.  They’re still making 30-minute instrumental onslaughts, but the new material has a different edge, more mathematical and more aggressive at the same time.  It feels less symphonic and more Swans-like, a wall of sound rather than a cinematic landscape.

If Godspeed’s music is a little harder and more furious, perhaps it’s because the political message they have always insisted on has become considerably more urgent than it seemed when their first album was released.  The band themselves don’t seem to have changed much – they even sit in the same places on stage they always have.  But the world around them has significantly transformed.  When the album art for 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. included a diagram of financial links between the music industry and the military-industrial complex, the implications of that move still seemed just a little paranoid, even post-9/11.  A decade later the music industry has largely disintegrated but wars have increased and escalated while Google, Apple, and Facebook are slowly buying up the entire world.  To their great credit, GY!BE’s politics have never overshadowed or even intruded on their music:  the t-shirts and liner notes convey that message more explicitly than their majestic instrumentals.

The opening band, Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys, carry the political torch more bluntly, serving both as a lyrical proxy and as a discreet reminder that, nearly two decades after 1998’s F#A#oo, the quasi-anarchist message that carried a tinge of self-righteousness in the narcissistic 90s has become a self-evident necessity to a new generation of musicians raised in a fraught and claustrophobic new reality.

But what makes Godspeed so phenomenal is that their politics is ultimately not a politics of rhetoric but a politics of affect.  What matters is less the band’s precise place on the political spectrum than the fact that whatever their views, they genuinely believe in them.  The feelings here are as real as the sheer number of people sitting on stage; when the word “hope” flashes repeatedly on the screen in scratchy, handwritten letters, it’s not a catchphrase but a statement of purpose that lives up to its intent in the sheer emotional intensity of the band’s music.  There’s no cynicism here, and no irony, just a group of musicians working together to give it everything they’ve got.  There’s no such thing as pure politics; politics are always compromised.  But if there’s such a thing as pure emotion, it probably sounds like Godspeed You! Black Emperor.



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