Godspeed You! Black Emperor brought their huge and wholly unique sound to the First Avenue Mainroom on Thursday, running through a short number of long songs for an incredible instrumental performance. Combining elements of drone, noise, ambient, and punk with classical, folk, and country influences, the group that all but defined the sound of post-rock played a stellar set of new material and early work. It all made for a profound concert experience.
Openers Xylouris White — a duo composed of Cretan lute player George Xylouris and drummer Jim White (who were joined by Godspeed's cello/standup bass player Thierry Amar) — were well-chosen. They share some common ground with the headliners, though they're on the quieter end of the spectrum.
Bringing a traditional, folky sound by incorporating post-punk elements and a jazz-influenced looseness, the Xylouris White players seemed to communicate subconsciously with their remarkably transformative and conversational playing style. Jumping between the pulsating strums of downtempo material to more upbeat and poppier songs, the rich sound met the subtly intricate playing for a stunner of a stripped-down performance.
As feedback hummed beneath soft red light, the stage sat with stacks of amps and no players to introduce the main set. The members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor slowly took the stage and gradually began to introduce their layers of instrumentation, beginning most prominently with Sophie Trudeau's delayed violin, which slowly molded a rhythm to the formless tones.
Drone music can have the tendency to remind people of their own discomfort with silence. During GY!BE's attempt to gradually build intensity and create a cinematic opening, many screamed song quotes — "I open up my wallet and it's full of blood!" someone decided to shout at one point — and generally enjoyed the sound of their own voices. But the quiet-to-loud-and-back dynamics of the collective's sprawling music eventually built to a full-force wall of sound that drowned voices and commanded undivided focus.
When Aidan Girt and Timothy Herzog shifted into the soloed drum pattern from the outset of the group's latest album, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, it was a rare moment of skeletal rhythmic playing. It quickly gave way to the gigantic riffing that begins the album-length suite many fans refer to singularly as "Behemoth."
The eight stage players hit incredible heights of noise when the songs crescendoed, drawing out sections with an almost hypnotic synchronicity. The band's ninth member, Karl Lemieux, added an inestimable impact to the overall feel of the set from behind the soundboard. He ran 16mm projections of various film loops over the instrumentalists as they performed, awash in foreboding lighting and powerful visuals.
Flashing signs of "Hope" gave way to nature footage, blurred oil refineries, movement along train tracks, and the image of melting film. As the movement slowly drifted into "Lambs' Breath" (the intimate, ambient counterpart to the massive rock chords of "Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!"), the reverberating distortion almost emulated helicopter propellors. The driving forcefulness of the music remained even as the sonic space became emptier; it was easy to lose oneself in the whole of it.
Pausing briefly before drifting into the haunting violin opening of "Moya," the continual rise and fall of the music's intensity was mesmerizing. It was the rare show where the audience mostly sat motionless, rapt in the moment. The climactic ending moved a number of heads, but it seemed people were mainly enthralled by the sheer breadth of the collective sound.
The caustic interview sample that permeated the quietude of the 18-minute "BBF3" cued some applause for its brazen shit-talking of America, and the song was a perfect closer. The combination of found sound and film footage playing alongside the orchestral harmonizing and explosive, distorted catharsis, Godspeed gravitated from beautiful calm to captivating chaos and back again.
The band set down their instruments and left the stage to the sustained looping drone that closed "BBF3," which slowly faded in the eerie "where are you going?" vocal sample found in the middle of their suite "Providence." Bright white lights shone on the audience, in stark contrast to the low-lit atmosphere that pervaded the rest of the show. Eventually the house lights came on to return everyone to reality.
Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!
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