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Godspeed You! Black Emperor

by Ali Hibbs on September 27, 2012

Basilica Hudson, Sept. 20


If Godspeed You! Black Emperor were given a grant and told to build themselves the ideal musical environment, it would likely look a lot like Basilica Hudson. Which probably explains the intermittently touring Montreal-based band’s decision to make a rare upstate stop on their way south for All Tomorrow’s Parties in New York. The raw brick-and-steel space lent a properly post-industrial setting to the band’s ominous instrumental anthems to a world in transition.

Dan Seward, of Hudson’s John Doe Records, joked, when he introduced the band, that GYBE were keeping the nine-volt battery companies in business, given the sea of effects pedals that filled the stage. The gadgetry was hardly for show, as both electric guitarists, one of two bassists and a violinist spent most of the set hunched over their boards (mostly under the sight lines of the audience), toggling this and that to control each song’s gradual, elemental crescendo. Which left a clear view of the enormous projection screen hanging behind the stage, the show’s true focal point, and reason that parking-lot consensus named projectionist Karl Lemieux the favorite band member.

The term “cinematic” invariably comes to mind when trying to describe post-rock bands like GYBE, given the sweeping, emotional nature of the band’s instrumental soundscapes, not to mention the prevalence of the visual element, but it’s also dangerously vague. GYBE could never score Friday Night Lights, for instance, like fellow post-rockers Explosions in the Sky. Lemieux’s projections, from four reel-to-reel players, were rapid-fire collages of sepia-toned file photos, architectural blueprints, illegible text and purely textural elements. If there was cinematic narrative, it came in the occasional appearance of high-concept nouns like “hope” and “fear,” flashing through the otherwise hypnotic array of discarded ephemera. This proved a perfect complement to the band’s incredibly patient (we’re talking 15-20 minute) atmospheric build-ups toward climactic themes that felt less cathartic or climactic than they did portentous and urgent.

As oceanic drones crested in tempestuous dirges, GYBE proved themselves to have far more in common with doom metal acts like Sunn O))) and Boris than post-rock bands like Mogwai. But not in an occult way. GYBE first made their mark on the eve of the W administration, when anti-corporate globalization movements were giving way to anti-war-on-terror protests. The gravitas in the band’s music is not a product of human romantic drama or self-conscious metal camp; it arrives as a sort of symphony to the macro-global cataclysm that it’s easy to feel we’re on the brink of.

In one of the band’s final pieces, overhead surveillance-camera images of (presumably) Occupy protestors accompanied frantic unison figures in the doubled guitars, basses and drums, with a violin part soaring over top. For a split second, one of the protestor’s signs was visible and read, “Take back our future.” Which seems as good a postindustrial, postmodern, post-apocalyptic slogan as any.