Needless to say, these are serious times. There is little place for irony. There is even less place for facile rock and roll rebellion. Enter God Speed You Black Emperor!. The nine-piece Montreal-based trance rock outfit played Toronto’s most attractive venue, the Palaise Royale, on Friday, September 28 in front of a capacity crowd. What the crowd got was what it paid for: a chance to listen GSYBE!‘s often dense, often spacious, tension and release brand of music making, live and at full volume.
Nostalgia, obsession, subtle politics, all of which I hear on GSYBE!‘s two full-length albums, were all well displayed in the live setting. The nostalgia, for me, comes through in the space and in the pace of the much of GSYBE!‘s music. At the Palaise Royale, the slow build and formal repetition of each piece seemed to suspend the headlong rush of the present. In doing so, it was if the music allowed me to nostalgically recall the vague impressions of a place I used to live in, but could not name. The multiply-projected video loops of everyday urban scenes, flying birds and the word “hope” scratched directly on to the film (used at the opening of the show and again at the end), worked only to intensify the feeling. That all might sound a bit corny, but the fact is that throughout the GSYBE! performance the large crowd was nearly silent and almost perfectly still, as if everyone was absorbed in a personal state of reflection. Sure people moved about, drank beer or went on swaying here and there. But compared to the typical rock show, everyone was strikingly absorbed in the act of listening, of experiencing the music.
The sound of obsession came through again in the repetition of the music, but also in its meticulousness. When GSYBE! are playing you can be sure that no one is up there improvising, let alone hot dogging for the crowd. To my ears, to perform their music well must require a kind of devotion to a singular project that borders on obsession, especially in order to pull off anything close to the kind of sustained, intricate density they achieve. And on this night they certainly achieved it, aided by a good sound system, which is something given that they are a band that features three guitars, two bassists, two string players and two percussionists.
The subtle politics of the band came through specifically in their work on stage as a band, and not just in the “hope” film loop, or even the encore’s more overt use of a post-September 11 G.W. Bush speech manipulated so that individual words of war came ringing out. To begin with, the stage was lit only enough to allow the players to see one another. And as they played, there were no spotlit solos used to clarify who is the leader and who are the followers. There were no on-stage introductions. They came on as a band, as a kind of headless collective, and they sustained that perspective for the nearly three hours that they played. While they did juxtapose the Bush speech with the melodic opening music from lift yr. skinny fists like antennas to heaven!, they ended the night with a piece that borrows the structure from “Amazing Grace”, yet which refuses to resolve. That is, the piece made the listener expect to hear “Amazing Grace”, but because the melody was not played all the way through we were left only to keep waiting for it, perhaps even hoping for it. It was as if they were saying, in these times anything close to amazing grace is far from assured.