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The Emperor Returns

October 5, 2012

By Michael Shank

It’s been nearly a decade since Godspeed You! Black Emperor last came through town. The cult band weathered a six year hiatus that ended in 2010. Times have changed since Godspeed played the Masonic Temple back in 2003, but despite post-rock’s recent dormancy they still drew a large crowd. The apocalyptic never goes out of style, at least not for long.

It felt a bit odd walking to the show through the theme-park-like Power Plant Live. Outside of Rams Head the Orioles game played and a band covered a very Cake-y “Staying Alive.” Inside the mood was somber and crowded, the venue packed all the way up to the theater seats on the second level.

While the use of drones connected Godspeed to the opener, Baltimore’s Zomes, the bands ultimately functioned very differently. Zomes featured layers of drones, the blanket of sound on which meandering scalar runs snaked through. The duo took their time, it wasn’t until thirty minutes in that rhythmic structure debuted with sampled hand drums and a four note riff. Their music was mesmerising but largely uneventful, for better or worse. The crowd was attentive at first but eventually, as more people packed in, the anticipation of Godspeed and, for some, the drama of the last day of regular season baseball distracted as the chatter grew.

Godspeed started similarly with a seasick bass drone that rattled the venue. They took their time to gradually enter, joining the drone. The sound shifted in timbre and grew, getting gradually more aggressive until fifteen minutes later toy piano and drums entered, bringing rhythm. The word ‘hope’ appeared across the bisected screen of abstract projections. It jumped about on the screen, scrawled and squiggly.

On paper the eight-piece band can seem highly esoteric. Songs last at least twenty minutes with plenty of ambient intros and outros. There are no vocals and the band does not chit-chat with the crowd. But the music is actually pretty easy to grasp. Riffs and melodies are repeated ad nauseum while the mass of sound builds higher and higher until the music’s emotive drama is inescapable.

Hope is an interesting word to introduce such a dark band. Rarely do they let light in on their bleak symphonies. The band was arranged in a semicircle, mostly seated. The stage was all dark save for blue and red LEDs from amps and effects pedals which offered a constellation for the band’s mythic music. It was clear that your attention was to be given to the projections, which often played with the edges of film, the holes forming patterns shifting in time with the music.
It wasn’t until an hour in that the band let a little joy and triumph shine. A muted slide guitar sang, rising through the murk, but it didn’t last long. Most of the time the music sounded desolate and dismal, punctuated with weepy vibrato.

About two hours after they entered, the band gradually exited leaving behind loops and feedback. The audience clapped for more, but it was a bit half-hearted and after a few minutes the lights went up. After all, two hours of doom and gloom is probably enough.