Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s performance on Saturday evening at MASS MoCA was a fully synesthetic event; the group played in front of black-and-white projections, and the soft scent of vape pens coupled nicely with the vibrating undulations of the music, creating an immersive experience that was only interrupted by intermittent slaps from the ponytails of head-bobbers.
The show’s museum venue was aptly chosen, as the group, and certainly its opener, the Bhutanese guitarist Tashi Dorji, played music that at times could only be categorized as sound art. The minimalist opening performance featured Dorji alone on stage playing a few fully dissonant songs. Nevertheless, the guitarist managed to simulate the effect of multiple musicians, playing intricate percussive and almost electronic beats on his guitar. The artistry and skill of Dorji’s method merits appreciation, but there was only a certain ascetic pleasure to be achieved from enduring his atonal music. Admittedly, there was a moment of relief when Godspeed You! Black Emperor finally assumed the stage.
The experimental Canadian ensemble included keyboards, guitars, bass, brass and woodwinds. Their set was comprised of songs from the band’s newest album Luciferian Towers and its early 1998 EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. A subtle and endlessly extended note opened their act, a beginning reminiscent of the C-major chord that builds at the beginning of Wagner’s Ring Cycle to signify the birth of the universe. Indeed, Godspeed You! Black Emperor accomplished a similar genesis effect in its musical progression. In most of its songs, after beginning with one held note, the band diversified its instrumental parts and sculpted its songs’ sonic complexity, building up to what could loosely be called a melody. “Moya,” from Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada and the evening’s second song, exemplified this progression.
As the song reached its climax, the crowd followed along, swaying, which mimicked the undulations in the music. Such mob movement was contagious while listening to the group’s soporific sounds. Their songs, however, void of all vocals except some sound bites, also lent themselves to being a soundtrack for a more individual experience. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s music and the visual projections behind the group combined to create a supernatural effect.
The screen behind the band was first filled with spliced footage of subway trains, Brooklyn’s Gowanus canal and pre-fab style apartments. One overheard concert-goer described the projections as “urban decay,” but the black-and-white footage could better be categorized as a visual representation of white noise. The film had no discernable plot and paired well with the group’s songs. At one point, the band played a particularly climactic passage while the film featured a long shot that scaled up the side of a skyscraper. The pairing produced an ethereal effect and simulated a flying experience for viewers.
As the set progressed, the musicians adopted a more political edge. In addition to lacking any sense of regulation in their music, the artists of Godspeed You! Black Emperor are also self-proclaimed anarchists. With their latest album, the group also released a manifesto of sorts calling for, among other things, “an end to borders” and that “the expert f***ers who broke this world never get to speak again.” During their show, the projector showed footage of rallies for Donald Trump with people in “Make America Great Again” hats juxtaposed with clips of heavily clad officers breaking up protests. The group also played the song “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III,” which includes sounds bites of somebody fighting vehemently against paying a parking ticket.
While rejecting any musical confines or political borders, Godspeed You! Black Emperor nevertheless managed to enchain its audience. In a Dionysian experience, the crowd bobbed together, enthralled by the divine performance of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.