Godspeed plays Chicago, doesn’t bring moog along

By Chris Heaney

Night falls on the North Side. The Division Street bus pulls up to Milwaukee, and I and my retinue descend, construction-paper tickets clutched in hand. We are headed to the Centrum Hall, a tiny pink stucco hole-in-the-wall in Wicker Park that might be described as sketch, were it not for the Jewel across the street. No lights, no signs, no cleaning crew, just an appliances store to its right with a visible backyard filled with washing machines and range-top stoves. The Centrum is easy to miss, but not last Tuesday. For it was there that an avatar of post-rock had chosen to do one of its five USA shows this year. I speak, of course, of Godspeed, You Black Emperor!, a troupe whose gritty, progressive sound invites comparisons to anything from Mogwai to Yes.

Centrum from the inside is pretty swank — it’s cozy, chandelier-lit, with Romanesque frills adorning its walls and balcony, and a pathetic bar in the back room guarded by a bouncer who clocked in at about 5′ 3″, 300 . Soon after doors opened, Telefon Tel Aviv, the first openers, took the stage. This band consisted of three guys, one on bass and two on Powerbook, and for the next half hour entertained the crowd with an odd mix of lounge funk and Krautrock that lent a certain chill ambience to the evening. They were soon followed by Califone, indie-rockers with a southwest tinge and a penchant for incredibly short songs. Despite a pretty original sound, Califone weren’t tight, and it hurt their set; credit is due, though, for their final tune — a rollicking slide-guitar jam packed with bluesy fervor that saved them from the dregs of unremarkability. With their set complete, the headliners began to set up. Perhaps that begs for a bit of explanation.

You see, Godspeed isn’t like all those other “normal” “rock” “bands” out there. Right now Godspeed consists of nine players, unless you’re drunk, in which case there are 18 players. This includes two drummers, a bass, a cello and violin, and four — count em — four guitarists. That doesn’t include the offstage soundmen, who had their hands on a vibraphone, a mellotron, and who knows what else — Moog? Theremin? Hammered dulcimer? With an ensemble such as this, one can be sure it will not be a conventional evening, and in the next two-and-a-quarter hours Godspeed proceeded to pulverize the expectations of the pedestrian concertgoer.

The show opens with the sound of a movie projector. On the wall behind the band, a scratchy black-and-white stretch of film repeats a scribbling of the word “Hope” as the first song begins. Herein lies the magic of what Godspeed does best. A typical foray into the Godspeed world begins with a single note or chord, held for what seems an eternity as white noise floats in and out of the background. A theme enters, perhaps an arpeggio on one of the guitars, or a lilting violin melody barely audible above the din. From here no holds are barred. The genius of Godspeed lies in their talent for taking a simple musical idea and extrapolating without boundary — variation upon variation, instrument upon instrument, fragment upon fragment — to produce music of such ferocious intensity and cerebral complexity that one is both drawn into a mesmerizing vortex and shown the fringes of insanity all at once, culminating in an acoustic explosion of seismological proportions. A chord progression can seamlessly repeat dozens of times, and yet each brings a new level of concentration and force, with the addition of a new guitar line, a new rhythmic pattern, a slight tweaking of the bass line (did he just draw a bow across the cymbal?), a little more distortion, and so on, for anywhere from six minutes to a half hour. They drew the set list both from unfamiliar material and from their three albums, including a soaringly beautiful rendition of the first track off their latest effort, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven and a baleful 10-minute piece set in seven time.

Coupled with these sonic epics were desolate and eerily frightening film depictions of urban decay, often cast in negative or two-tone — rusting railroad cars, dilapidated architecture, concrete detritus strewn across a construction site. The music builds and builds, seemingly uncontrollably, under these scenes, and one senses new quandaries are being brought to light. There is a multitude of forces in the world over which man has control, but which he does not completely understand — music, art, progress and technology, mathematics, the processes of thought and understanding — and so that control is not total. By carefully exploiting the duality of their presentation, they highlight the gap between technology and ruin, between society and anarchy, between ration and emotion, between structure and chaos. It is that theme more than any — structure rising from chaos, and falling again back into it — that dominates the milieu of Godspeed. The scenes of hopelessness and bleak dejection gave way at the end of the last song of the set, and as the band walked off the stage, the last image played on the projector was once again the garbled scrawl of the word “Hope,” flickering and dying out as the last guitar fades. So what wins in the end, hope or hopelessness? Well, they did play an encore, if that’s any indication.