There’s a certain expectation that comes from attending a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert. For one thing, the sort of elusive image that the band has fostered over nearly three decades through their press-shy persona, inability to assert a group leader and decision to name their band after a 1976 documentary about a Japanese biker gang inherently sparks some intrigue. Along those lines, there was a period of nearly a decade where they dropped off the face of the earth, and even after returning to music in 2010, live performances were few and far between. Even so, what made me most excited about their return was the music itself. It’s not necessarily its quality — which, given the numerous accolades the group has accrued over the years, speaks for itself — but rather the style of it that seems so well-suited for the live format. The average length of their songs is well over 15 minutes. This comes from their predisposition toward constructing cinematic, almost orchestral soundscapes. Add to that their unparalleled ability to build monstrous tension, and I couldn’t help but feel antsy driving to their Nov. 8 concert at The Majestic Theatre in Detroit.
Yet I wouldn’t be focused on Godspeed for too long, as the opener made their way onto the stage. MANAS is a live project from Asheville, N.C., formed by guitarist Tashi Dorji and percussionist Thom Nguyen. There was something so direct and impactful about the way they walked onstage without saying a word to the crowd and started their set with the most engulfing wave of noise I’ve ever experienced. The vibrations from the bass started at my feet and crawled up my spine until I was sure something got misaligned. Dorji spent most of his time shredding up and down the neck of his guitar, shoving it into the amp to produce feedback and fiddling with the armory of pedal boards in order to get the most manufactured sound possible. Meanwhile, Nguyen was putting in a much more physical performance, almost manifesting the image of Zach Hill (from Hella) with his limbs stretching out to nearly every surface of the kit at a frantic pace. In terms of influences, MANAS feels like a strange blend of the rugged sensibility of Hella and the refined calculation of Horse Lords.
In any case, for the first 10 minutes, I was completely transfixed. It was at that point that I realized that this was still the same song. In fact, the entire 40-minute setlist was all one song, which I would later discover was also mostly improvised. If the first quarter of the performance was all just frenetic noise play, this would maybe be less surprising. However, every time the crowd was starting to get lost in the chaos, the trio would slow things down, institute patterns and change up the soundscape. Needless to say, the performance felt — and probably was — a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And this was only the opening act. When it was time for Godspeed to go on, perhaps inspired by the stoic entrance of MANAS, all eight members of the band silently made their way to their positions — a mostly seated semicircle facing the crowd — and began playing. One might assume this nonchalance comes from a place of pretentiousness (something they’ve been accused of throughout their career); however, it seems to me to be a recognition of what we’re there to see and what they’re there to do: music. This was only further solidified once the music began in full. Each member was totally focused on their respective instruments, making as little unnecessary movement as possible. Even violinist Sophie Trudeau, who often rocked her body along to the flow of her bowing, seemed to do so only to get herself more in line with the music. There was a total lack of showmanship on that stage. Not a single individual stood out more than anybody else. As cliché as it sounds, Godspeed as a collective let their work do all the talking. Even so, the performance itself was something to marvel at. Without even looking at each other, there was a true sense of synchronicity across the group. Their timing was so impeccable, and if not for the natural sense of progression that they built across each song, one might assume the concert was mechanical. This was only made more impressive by the fact that these songs were nearly 20 minutes each in length. It was clear the audience was meant to witness a musical gauntlet.
The irony was not lost on me that I was attending a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert, a band whose entire identity has been built on radical anti-capitalist and anti-government sentiments, on Nov. 8: Election Day. Moreover, this Election Day in particular felt like it had an added sense of weight to it. It seemed they understood this as well, as the first thing the band’s film projectionists Karl Lemieux and Philippe Léonard put up behind the stage was a maelstrom of lines occasionally coalescing to spell out “HOPE.” At the time, I couldn’t quite understand why that image unsettled me so much, but then more film was projected throughout the show. Collages of Wall Street imagery with a burning factory spliced underneath, machines indicative of industrialized agriculture and continuous footage from a train car overlooking miles of abandoned city infrastructure were paired with the most monolithic and exalted music the genre of rock has seen in decades. It’s fitting that their setlist was almost the entirety of their latest record G_d’s Pee at State’s End!. This album in particular envisions the world at the most crucial crossroads we have ever faced. Take it from an excerpt of the short manifesto that came along with it: “this record is about all of us waiting for the end. all current forms of governance are failed. this record is about all of us waiting for the beginning …”
Toward the end of the concert, the collective started playing music the crowd was unfamiliar with. I heard a slight gasp from some guy next to me as he whispered in his friend’s ear, “This is supposedly their new material.” Whatever it was, it somehow elevated itself past anything they’ve put out in the last decade. The tense builds are more harrowing. The triumphant denouements are more sanguine. Their presence dissolves on stage until only the grainy video of seabirds in the wind remains. What makes Godspeed so excellent at what they do is that these rises and falls in both pace and sentiment never feel polarizing, which seems to be what they’re really aiming for us to understand. These societal expectations that we all possess — hope and despair — don’t exist as a binary. Rather, they intertwine to form what we call the future. And for a moment on that stage, almost like a gift, they made the future not matter.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org