Godspeed You! Black Emperor keeps its mystique in cathedral setting

By Bob Gendron

If slow and steady wins the race, then Godspeed You! Black Emperor took first place in the equivalent of a long-distance marathon Saturday at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. Optimizing tonal contrast and cinematic sweep, the instrumental  collective spoke volumes without expressing a single word during its 105-minute set. The Montreal-based octet, in town for a two-night stand, had the foresight to utilize the cathedral's premium acoustics as a secret weapon.

At typical venues, sound simply projects outward. Here, it seemed to climb up the gothic arches and pool beneath the vaulted ceiling. The sonic effect heightened the impact of the group's subtle dynamic shifts and sudden mood changes — an intense combination that hinted at deeper-seated meanings lurking in songs that often stretched past the 15-minute mark. Film loops projected on a screen behind the band further underscored the music's political tenor.

Treating concerts as performance art has helped the innovative ensemble maintain a sizable following since its mid-'90s origins. Never a band to abide by conventional rules, Godspeed You! Black Emperor retains a low media profile and operates outside traditional industry channels. An extended hiatus earlier this century added to the mystique — a valuable trait increasingly endangered in an era in which every move gets broadcast on social media.

In keeping with the enigmatic vibe, members played in a semi-circle amid a dark environment that turned most of the attention toward the compositions. While possible to determine the endings of certain works, Godspeed You! Black Emperor treated individual songs like "Hope Drone" and "Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'" as pieces of an interlocking suite or extended film score. Just as no single emotion prevailed, no musician emerged as the leader.

Such concentration yielded pieces simultaneously steeped in calm and — after a series of string-driven swells and seesawing guitar lines would run its course — heaviness, punctuated by groaning distortion. As repeat out-of-focus images of water, woods and deer flashed behind it, Godspeed You! Black Emperor counterbalanced peace with terror, romance with sadness, elegance with ugliness. Providing a constant, Eastern-tinged melodies swirled amid minimalist static and howling crescendos.

An overlying sense of paranoia and destruction clung to many arrangements. As if to emphasize a certain plight, Godspeed You! Black Emperor closed by breaking stride with abstract imagery and patient pace. Backed by video footage depicting anti-war protesters, the band whipped chamber-rock passages into violent squalls that erupted with explosive fury. No verbal translation was necessary.

Published in the Chicago Tribune.