Ascending to Godspeed

Godspeed! You Black Emperor

If you want to know what being at a Godspeed! You Black Emperor concert is like, rig up a high-quality sound system somewhere in the Antarctic and turn them on so that you get that electronic silence right before you push play on your music device. Then find a glacial pool deep enough to wade into, close your eyes, hold your breath, and walk in at the pace of molasses spreading across the surface of a table. Or, if all of that sounds too inconvenient and confusing, you could just wait until they come to Vancouver and go and see them play at The Vogue.

Going into the venue, I wasn’t entirely sure of what I was getting myself into. That being said, now that I’ve experienced it, I’m still not entirely sure what it was I saw.

Visually, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. The Vogue was almost completely dark save for a big split-screen playing a series of black and white clips timed perfectly with the music, and some dim overhead lights that I can only assume were lit to help the band see their instruments.

Fortunately, the audience got a general idea of the stage’s setup thanks to the opener who sat centre-stage with a single spotlight illuminating him for all to see. Unfortunately, that meant we were all able to watch him pluck the opening note of his first song, which would have been fine had it not also been his second, third and fourth notes as well. Eventually he switched it up and moved up a string, but before things got too hectic, he bounced back to that first note and continued to play that for what felt like an eternity.

To be fair, that’s a moderate exaggeration – I’m sure he played at least six different notes per song, and there was definitely some sort of wordless open-mouthed humming mixed in every so often, but the fact remains that for the better part, it sounded a lot like he was tuning his guitar with his reverb turned up to maximum.

After a while, he quietly left the stage to polite applause and some less polite comments from somewhere in the back, but the audience quickly lapsed into silence as the lights went down and everyone held their breath in anticipation for Godspeed! You Black Emperor to take the stage.

Even if we couldn’t see it (again, it was really dark), we couldn’t help but hear them as they transitioned from one of their characteristic slow builds into the heart-hammering, explosively moving soul of one of their 20-minute long songs from their latest album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

The members on stage filtered in and out, and it was hard to keep track of who was on stage at any given point, let alone which person playing which instrument was playing which part of the enormous sound they were producing. Fortunately, you get a solid 10 minutes as they slowly play you into the heavier parts of their music, and by the time you’re fully submersed, the sound storm begins to make patterns, and it ceases to be a cloud of white noise, but an ocean of sound with melodies weaving in and out creating a wash of harmonies you can’t help but lose yourself in. Sound abstract? It was.

The graphics flickering on the screen were as hipster-noir as can be. The audience was a sea of mismatched fans spilling from the very front of the stage to the aisles to the back door, and each and every one of them was standing motionless with their hands in their pockets and their eyes on the stage. It was the stillest passion I have ever seen.

Despite the fact that it was generally hard to tell precisely what was going on, it was an amazing show to be at, and seeing them (or not seeing them) play was a perfectly presented reminder of what being part of a band is all about: getting together and playing great music.

Godspeed! You Black Emperor aren’t about flashy shows or stage presence; their music alone is body enough.