On the Return of Godspeed You! Black Emperor

A short piece I wrote regarding the return of Godspeed, originally published by SSG Music in February of 2011.  The Events of the Student Strike, and the sudden release of a new LP by the group in the fall of last year make this interesting for me to look at again, in retrospect.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor,  the Montreal-based instrumental musical collective,  are indisputable giants of instrumental music, helping to expose new audiences to music that required a bit more patience and attention, but could be just as emotional, political, and ecstatic as any rock band.   Formed in 1994, it was their epic debut LP F♯A♯∞, first released in 1997, that marked their beginning.  It’s incredible to think how much the band accomplished in the following five years.   Though many listeners were first introduced to the band with the inclusion of one of their tracks (in heavily edited form) in Danny Boyle’s excellent 2002 film 28 Days Later, Godspeed’s body of work spoke to a segment of the public that no longer seemed satisfied with mainstream or underground culture, a level of alienation and confusion that was reflected in the band, along with a hopefulness that wasn’t found anywhere else.

Other ’90s acts such as Rachel’s, Low, Mogwai, and Do Make Say Think also contributed to this shift, but there was something about Godspeed that resonated much deeper.  Especially for those of us who were coming from a DIY Punk/Hardcore scene, Godspeed were shocking and yet familiar.   A two song EP could be half an hour long, and a band without words could somehow be more political than the most outspoken critic.  Looking back over the entire corpus of Godspeed’s work, I think it’s no exaggeration to say that they have been the most influential in opening up new possibilities for how we listen to music;  majestic crescendo-driven guitar rock,  classical-inspired string arrangements, field recordings and tape loops, visual projections,  Steve Reich-like repetitions and patterns, Swans-like intensity, all in the same band.  The ethics of DIY, the iconoclasm of punk, all these things came together to create something that, to their many fans at least, seems to be greater than the sum of its parts.

This probably created a lot of pressure on the band, of course.  In 2002, Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their final LP, Yanqui U.X.O, and toured that year and throughout the first half of 2003.   I was living in Manhattan at the time, but was broke so I hesitated on buying tickets to their show at the Bowery Ballroom.  As it turned out, that was their final tour.  Reviews were somewhat mixed of those final string of shows. (You can download dozens of bootlegs from throughout the band’s career, legally hosted at the wonderful Archive.org.) Judging by bootlegs from that era, some shows were fantastic while others were clearly lethargic and slightly disorganized.  I suppose it came as no surprise, in retrospect, for the band to take a break.  As the years went by, though, it started to feel less and less likely that Godspeed would come out of hibernation any time soon.  Of course, Godspeed’s many members have kept busy with various other projects over the years, perhaps most visible of them being Constellation Records, various iterations of Thee Silver Mt. Zion, as well as numerous businesses in Montreal, including the mighty Hotel2Tango analog recording studio.

Last year, Godspeed announced their reunion. At this point, they are halfway through their sold out US tour. Suddenly 7 or 8 years didn’t seem like such a long time after all.    To add to this great news, founding member Mike Moya (Set Fire to Flames, HRSTA) will be rejoining the group and lending his distinct guitar playing, having left way back in 1998 after recording the Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada EP.

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