Concert Reviews

Godspeed You! Black Emperor at The Danforth Music Hall

Photographs by Dakota Arsenault.

“They don’t let us sleep anymore on the beach”

I decided to take my girlfriend to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor as a date. They have been a priority act of mine for years, ever since they reunited and were able to be captured live again. I have seen Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (or whatever incarnation of that band name you identify the most with), which was the closest I had been to seeing the Montreal post-rock orchestra before. I had expected some political talk, emphasis and a live setting like Thee Silver Mt. Zion. I had that in mind when I bought my girlfriend’s ticket, and I brought her along to enjoy some music that has touched me for a good chunk of my life. Godspeed You! Black Emperor have gotten me through some tough times, but as we learned from the ranting on their extended play Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada, things will only go worse from here. Still, I wanted to share a bit of what helped bring me up in my most recent years of my life. I had informed my girlfriend that this was a group with lengthy songs that are instrumental and noisy in nature. She was fine to tag along with anyways.

We entered the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto with our ear plugs ready and the location booming. This was the first of two nights the band is due to play, as they sold out their Saturday show quickly. We were a venue of lucky fans who had just made the cut of the offered second chance. We were indeed lucky. When I caught Swans last year at NXNE, I went on about the emotions their set evoked from me and how it was unlike any show I had ever seen. Godspeed’s set did a similar notion but with different emotions. With Swans, I wanted to crush the sky and yank the world along with it. With Godspeed, I knew the world was in a rough place, but we were okay with it as we were in this together: Me, my girlfriend, the band and the rest of the building. The rest of the world, too, is united wether they realize it or not, but for that two hours, we were glued together as a functioning mind that recognized the scares of the modern day while we mentally hugged one another in solace.

It was loud. It was very, very loud. The music hit right through you like shards of glass pouring out of a broken door or window. Despite this, every tone and sound was still crystal clear, and the production was handled with class. The guitars soared and screamed like burning angels, dizzyingly, above the other instruments, but you could still make out each and every sound. The strings skyrocketed above the rest of the group in an attempt to save a sinking ship alone. The percussion rolled and pummeled like a firefight that trailed stray shells behind it. The bass, the most cohesive sound to make sense of it all, mushed sludge into the gears to hold things together in a state of panic. Yes, Godspeed were exactly the same live as they are on album, but you can sense more of what they are aiming for live.

It’s special, because I cannot pin point why. The band barely move, as they are not there to put on a performance show. Aside from some movements being shortened, everything was spot on when it came to replicating the album material. There were visuals being projected behind the band, too, but only the kinds of stuff you’d expect from their album artwork. I have no idea why, but the music, of which has already made a significant impact on me through cds and vinyl records, hit me in a different way live. At home or on the go, their music fills me with the dread of the world more than I feel the comfort of it all (except for songs like Antennas to Heaven and Motherfucker=Redeemer [the second one]). Live, everything felt okay. We were in a whirlwind, and we were all fine.

Maybe it’s because I can finally recognize that this is the music of actual people when I can see human beings performing these breathtaking works of art. You rarely see interviews or promotional work done by these musicians. They ditched their Polaris awards ceremony and replied by text only. Their faces are nowhere to be found on their albums, and their voices are rare to hear on album. We are finally identifying with this band in the flesh and hearing these majestic compositions live (with such volume, too). Whatever it was, it was a touching experience.

They played all of Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress to begin the show (they shortened the two middle ambient tracks). They carried on with songs like Sleep (the movement Monheim, anyways), Mladic and a new song that has made me impatient to hear a new Godspeed album already (hint: It’s like Yanqui UXO but even better). This show around, there wasn’t any banter. No discussions and speeches from Efrim Menuck. The music’s soul spoke to us, alone. There were projected images behind the band, though, and those did accompany the pleading spirits of the songs enough. We saw penitentiary photos, birds soaring, construction being done by heavy machinery, stocks being displayed on scrolling LCD screens, letters and more. These images were shown in double like a pair of stereoscopic glasses that brought pictures to life. While the band stayed in place (with some musicians, Menuck included, simply sitting the whole time), we didn’t need jumps or dances to get the ball rolling. If anything, the displays helped just to fill up space more than they added a large amount of meaning (although they did add some). This is one of the few concerts I’ve been to where the music spoke simply for it’s own self, and that may be why it plowed me over.

My girlfriend closed her eyes and took in all of what she was hearing. It was a new experience to her, but a rejuvenated one for me. I’ve been to many shows and am quite familiar with Godspeed’s music, but this was as if it was all new to me again. She told me how she could hear all of the layers interacting with one another, and she told me this even when the sound was savagely loud. We weren’t the only couple there. There were many people experiencing this meltdown of the world with one another. Many people went with friends or by themselves. In the end, we were all experiencing this together, as the majority of us stood in place and only moved our heads during the climactic parts. This was a different show where you could take time to talk to those you were with to see how they were feeling and it wouldn’t feel rude.  

For a song, we both sat on the ground to give our legs a break. This was our beach that Godspeed You! Black Emperor had provided for us. This notion of a beach, of which was stripped away from the interviewee that preludes the song Sleep, was provided for us as best as the band could give. We were free to do whatever we wanted. That’s what everyone felt at the Danforth that night. We felt free. During recessions, times of trouble and hatred, wars and the upcoming political election scares, we came into the building troubled and we felt our anguishes dissipate. With shots of buildings crumbling behind the band, I felt like Edward Norton with Helena Bonham Carter overlooking the bittersweet state of the world at the end of Fight Club. Godspeed may have questioned their country in their Polaris letter, but they may agree when I say that our world, and not just our country, may be considered “fucked”. When you see Godspeed live, though, it all disappears, unlike any show I have ever been to before. You are cared about, important and loved.

Go see Godspeed You! Black Emperor live. There’s a reason why they sold out and needed another date. This has become my concert event of the year, and that’s saying something if theatrics and banter were extinct during this set. It is one of the few times you will acknowledge what is wrong with society while feeling protected from it for a little while. It is a surreal and zen experience that can only be described as sublime. Like a classical orchestra’s album slowed down and set on fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are extravagantly destructive.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.