Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Thalia Hall, Valentine’s Day

In the 1980s, avant-garde loop musician William Basinski recorded a collection of loops from a smooth jazz station onto magnetic tape. Twenty years later, while trying to preserve by digitizing these loops, Basinski was surprised to watch the tapes literally disintegrate as he recorded them. This project was finished on the morning of 9/11, and that evening Basinski watched the smoke rising over Manhattan from his friend’s Brooklyn rooftop. These recordings were released in a four album series — The Disintegration Loops. The first hour-long track is paired with a video he shot from that rooftop; the decaying crackling and sputtering of the tape signifying the end of the golden age of the American empire, the horrific destruction of a New York landmark and the birth of a new apocalyptic era.

The apocalypse has never been as popular in pop culture than it is today. From “The Walking Dead”, ”The Planet of the Apes” reboot or even post-apocalyptic young adult literature, our present pop culture cannot get enough of the apocalypse. While the Cold War era has long since passed, concerns about nuclear annihilation have been replaced with fears of apocalyptic death cults such as ISIS, doomsday financial crashes or the mounting effects of global warming.

The post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor is part of the unique phenomenon of Canadian bands with a seemingly excessive amount of members, such as Arcade Fire or the now-disbanded Broken Social Scene. Its eight members (not including their projectionist) play in a semi-circle on stage with no singular musician taking precedence. In lieu of any vocals or a front man, samples of police scanners or interviews with homeless Americans and mesmerizing projections serve as their lyrics, putting the performance into an apocalyptic context.

Godspeed You! was born out of the ‘90s resurgence of American left-leaning anarchism — a political movement galvanized by what many understood to be a capitalist world driven by environmental destruction, unchecked corporate power and government overreach. This is evident in Godspeed You!’s projections: an overwhelming flickering wash of black and white images operated by a projectionist showing scenes of political unrest, factory plants and deer in headlights.

I had the privilege of watching Godspeed You! live in Chicago on Valentine’s Day. The venue itself, Thalia Hall, paralleled the music being played. With the bones of a glorious traditional concert hall, complete with balcony booths and a glass dome, its present owners have left it with exposed brick, gray concrete patches and exposed structural elements, conjuring images of abandonment and repurpose. Perhaps the most stirring elements of the show, however, were the projections shot from the back of the venue from a specialized rig: four specialized film projectors on a raised platform, with dozens of reels of 16mm film dangling from racks like the vines of a plastic tree. A film operator, an official member of the band, physically and intuitively flipped these reels to the music in a enthralling and incredibly moving performance.

For example, during the set’s opening song, “Mladic,” named after the Bosnian war criminal, a faint flickering of white light — not unlike Thomas Wilfred’s lumia “color organ” installations — graces the screen. It grows into a sputtering of blinding film, and a scrawling of the word “HOPE” slowly becomes visible. This is quickly replaced with images from the Soviet Bloc: mysterious Russian blueprints, Brutalist architecture, vacant housing projects, snowy factories — then images of religious fervor: a diagram of a stigmata, sketches of crosses, hurried notes on faith — then the victims of political violence: a dead body in the street, intelligence files and headshots of (presumably arrested) civilians. And when one thinks it has reached its climax, the projectionist takes a lighter and sets the film on fire, the blurry emulsion of film melting downwards like a chemical avalanche.

The choice of having a human operator on 16mm film was an important one. While synced digital projections have become the norm for large touring artists, the organic and human nature of having a person behind the lens made the concert an irreproducible historical and visual event. His destruction of the film is very reminiscent of Basinski’s work in The Disintegration Loops — mirroring the perceived deterioration of society through purposeful artistic ruin.

The “songs” themselves lasted around 20 minutes each, although for all their transitions, the concert could be considered a two-hour long song. The combination of patient overwhelming sound, large projections, mysterious samples and the venue itself merged into a hypnotizing experience unlike anything I’ve seen on stage before.

Godspeed You! shows demonstrate the importance and potential of apocalyptic art. Apocalyptic art is prophetic for it exposes the broken aspects of our world and brings them to their logical extreme. Through that unraveling and intentional amplification we can discern the apocalypse we already live in, from environmental destruction, economic inequality and state sanctioned violence. It also asks the question: Why are we so drawn to stories about the apocalypse? Even though it doesn’t attempt to give any answers, a Godspeed You! concert is a key example of the way that music can go beyond just entertainment and also exist within the realms of philosophy, politics and apocalyptic dialogue. In the same way that Basinski’s Disintegration Loops carried sublime purpose because of the events of 9/11, Godspeed You!’s music is the soundtrack to our own daily apocalypse.