Experimental Rock / Post-Rock

The Maelstrom of Godspeed You! Black Emperor Live

by Stephan Boissonneault

The calm of each passing breath, ephemeral, flickering hesitant lights pouring in from the skies, mutating machinery and twisting construction yards, a black kite’s turn for redemption. We stand on the precipice as a species and loving one another has never been more important. Fractured ink blots over images of bombs dropping from the heavens. The noise never stops and we don’t want it to. Days seem like hours, hours seem like minutes, minutes turn into the very semblance of time itself until it’s pulverized and nothing becomes everything. Transmission detritus. 

That bit of prose may read like a one off from a madman who has disregard for most things, or perhaps love for everything, and maybe it is, but it’s also a testimonial, an account of my encounter with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, one of the progenitors of post-rock—a shapeshifting genre which continues to spawn new bands, seemingly out of thin air. 

They played the first show of two at MTelus (a place the band commonly refers to as the Telephone Venue) and the merch was an anarchist book fair on on side and various vinyls spanning their illustrious career on the other. That’s with no word of hyperbole: they’ve made seven records since their genesis in the late ‘90s. The latest is G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! which homes in on the heavy tenacity and experimentation of this Montreal eight-piece. About a year before its official release in 2021, I heard an early pressing of this album in an Edmonton record store before moving to Godpseed’s home of Montreal. The clerk would only tell me, “It’s a new Godspeed record, but I can’t dare say more.” 

This album might be the band at their most fractured and angry since Yanqui U.X.O. It was written on the road during a tour that was halted because of the pandemic, which in a way presented a twisted opportunity for musicians to reconcile with why they make music in the first place. 

16mm projections created by Karl Lemieux & Philippe Leonard were as much part of the show as the eight musicians sitting and standing on stage. Incandescent alabaster sculptures took the scenery by surprise and footage of dog fights were filtered through tones of dirty craven yellow. 

There was no pageantry. The members of GY!BE took their seats (or stood in the case of the string section which includes a thundering bass guitar) and slowly began “Hope Drone,” a song that has been in a state of metamorphosis since its live debut in San Francisco in 2013.   

The final moments of “Hope Drone” dripped into “First of the Last Glaciers” which, despite its obscurity, is one of the heaviest songs GY!BE has ever conceived (though it’s really part two of the song “A Military Alphabet,” from G_d’s Pee). I know, it’s hard not to think of the person writing this as some pretentious twit who hides in his basement and only listens to Godspeed records, but it’s important to give proper credit to art. And that’s what this is. ART. This band has its own mythology and it’s hard to not get consumed by it.

The next hour and a half was a blur. All I can say for sure is the crowd was enraptured by the performance—head banging, crying, sneezing, wheezing, gasping for air on the crowded floor. GY!BE has never called itself political, but it’s hard to not think about the turmoil and bloodshed much of the world has been subject to during a song like “Bosses Hang” from Luciferian Towers. Music is a weapon, or a means to sonic revolution. GY!BE tricks your mind into experiencing all of the sounds—the crashing drums, whirling guitars, gargantuan bass, trilling violins—and take you on a voyage to a dystopian yet close-to-home world where reptilian overlords rule over a capitalist regime, where the only communication is through fading radio transmissions. As we are forced to hold one another in the shadows, we watch our loved ones wither away… 

That was also the whole point of opener Moor Mother’s set—who honestly deserves her own write up and, who knows, might get one in the future. This songwriter, composer, vocalist, poet, and visual artist, Camae Ayewa, is also a professor at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and her set at times felt like an experimental lecture or sermon.

“I know I’m bringing up a lot of really heavy stuff but it’s not heavy enough. People are hurting and we are living on that hurt, ”she said to the crowd after opening with songs from 2022’s Jazz Codes. Static noise and pulsating bleakness formed a backdrop to spoken and screamed word compositions worthy of “the poet laureate of the apocalypse,”setting the tone for GY!BE. 

Moor Mother live @ MTelus

The dystopian world in both Moor Mother’s and GY!BE’s music is unfortunately our own.

And though GY!BE will never directly tell you to take up arms and fight to fix our broken reality and topple its presiding regime, there is a revolutionary edge to much of their work. Just read the liner notes on some of their albums… I would be remiss not to mention how important their work is to grassroots protests. But that’s a story for another review.

I am fortunate enough to live in Canada or Kanata, which is for the most part free despite its shadowed past, but that doesn’t for one second allow me to think that nothing is wrong. There’s lots wrong with the world. And without going on a whole tirade, seeing GY!BE makes those wrongs the fuel, no, the catalyst for change. As you can tell, watching this band live stirs up an unquantifiable emotion, a melody that will stick with you for the rest of your days. 

GY!BE still reverberating in our minds

2012 saw a resurgence of many things—the Mayans believed it would be the end times—but for many at this show, this year represents the return of Godspeed from a 10 year hiatus with the album, ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND!  On this fateful Montreal winter night, GY!BE began the second part of their live set with that album’s opening song, “Mladic.” In music, context can be everything. And this is certainly the case in a song like “Mladic”—Middle Eastern in its sinister drone guitar work (all four guitar players pour in the light) and chimerical string section. The drums, my god, the drums. It’s like a panic attack that you can’t escape or never really want to because it’s all you know. The country you live in may have a flag, but in this moment, this is all you know. ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND! was one of, if not the, best comeback record a band has ever invented. And we were able to hear and see some of it live.

In this socio-political landscape, independent music culture is at a crossroads, fighting, some would say a losing battle. It’s a nihilistically sad story we’re all living, sharing, resisting, protesting, deconstructing and trying to change for the better. I can’t take credit for that last line. It’s lifted from the liner notes and bandcamp scroll from ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND! Again, credit where credit is due. 

The next passage was also a blur. It never ended, but it was around 44 minutes… as the band wrapped up “Mladic,” silence took the air until one fan screamed “FUCK YEAH,” as if he was at a metal show. I can’t fault him for that. “Mladic” is a heavy trip and he wanted more. Of course, GY!BE was happy to oblige.

There are many reasons I go to see live music, but I especially always cherish  hearing a truly deep cut live. That occurred with the last droning number, “BBF3,” a transmutable soundscape that has snippets of an interview with Blaise Bailey Finnegan III aka Blaze Bayley, who appeared in Godpseed’s 1998 album, F#A#. That album was also my first introduction to the band, experienced in a weed stupor in a frozen garage. 

Blaze Bayley was also the vocalist of Iron Maiden during arguably the worst years of the UK metal group. But he has a mouth on him and a distaste for the capitalist system in North America that’s perfect for GY!BE. I had no idea we would hear “BBF3,” it’s a deep cut indeed, from a two song album that many people gloss over. Live, this song is anxiety inducing, especially when Bayley recites which automatic guns he owns as GY!BE converges in whirring static. 

Interviewer: Do you think things are gonna get better before they get worse?

Blaise Bailey Finnegan III: No way. Things are just gonna get worse and keep on getting worse. Like I said, America’s a third world country as it is and… and we’re just basically in a hopeless situation as it stands.

Interviewer: What do you think this country’s gonna look like in the year 2003?

Blaise Bailey Finnegan III: Y’know, I’ll tell you the truth – nothing against you guys, but I don’t wanna answer that question because… I haven’t even got a mind that’s that… that inhumane.

16 mm madness

My god, this song live was another excursion and it continued blaring on even after the band vacated the stage. A super fan, who said this was his 23rd time seeing the band live, told me to “stay after the music was over.” 

But it was never really going to be over. I’m still there. And much like the first time I saw them live, almost a year ago to the day in a much smaller venue in Victoria, BC, this show will be a memory I hold confusingly dear.

People have called GY!BE transcendental, orgasmic, euphoric, mind-bending, anxiety inducing. They are all that and more. The closest you will get to astral projecting without eating peyote from the bottom of a barrel. I should really grab a ticket for tomorrow’s show. Oh wait—it’s sold out. Catch them whenever they play in your city—or don’t, it doesn’t matter to them. They’re indifferent, an elusive band who loves its fans and will make music until they no longer can, but will never tell you the key to understanding their sonic message. That, you must discover for yourself. 

Written during the hours of the early morning, as the sun just peeked up over the apartment buildings. Photos by writer. 

Godspeed You! Black Emperor plays MTelus Mar. 9 (SOLD OUT)

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