Few rock bands have ever crafted and performed instrumental music with the same power and majesty as the Montreal ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Nine years after releasing its most recent album and several years since its last tour, GY!BE is playing concerts once again, including three sold-out shows in Chicago — Saturday (March 26) and Sunday (March 27) at Metro, and one more, tonight at the Vic.
The term “orchestral rock” usually refers to bands sweetening their pop sound with the lush sounds of a string section; that’s not what GY!BE does, but if any rock band deserves to be called an orchestra, this one does. When the group reaches the dramatic climax of one of its compositions, it sounds like a cross behind a noisy rock band playing at full-on, feedback-drenched intensity (think Sonic Youth) crossed with dozens of violinists, cellists and trumpeters performing a classical score (think Mahler). Actually, there were just eight musicians onstage Saturday and Sunday at Metro making those thunderous chords. As rock bands go, that’s a big lineup, but GY!BE often sounds bigger than that number would suggest.
The eight musicians — three guitarists, two percussionists, one violinist and two bassists (one electric and one upright) — said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. There weren’t many moments of obvious virtuosity. These players are more interested in blending its instrumental voices together than showing off as individuals.
As they played in near darkness, four film projectors sent flickers onto the screen behind them — visual poetry that matched the music, with images of garbage dumps, birds in flight, medieval churches and fire — including the disturbing image of motion pictures melting in the projector. (It seems appropriate that Wikipedia lists film projector Karl Lemieux as a member of GY!BE, bringing the total lineup to nine.)
The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these “songs” (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.
A recording of Saturday’s concert is posted on archive.org. GY!BE set lists can be difficult to decipher, given all of the band’s multiple-part compositions and its alternate names for songs, but this appears to be what the group played Saturday: Hope Drone / Storm (Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas to Heaven/Gathering Storm/Il Pleut à Mourir + Clatters Like Worry) / Monheim (Murray Ostril: “…They Don’t Sleep Anymore on the Beach…”/Monheim) / Albanian / Dead Metheny… / Floyd (Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls) / Gorecki (Moya) / Blaise Bailey Finnegan III
Sunday’s concert featured some of the same pieces, as well as three other songs: 12-18-99 (a variation or alternate name for 09-15-00?) / World Police and Friendly Fire / The Sad Mafioso.