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With Godspeed on Our Side 

How did an experimental political punk octet become the hottest ticket of the winter?

Thursday, Feb 17 2011
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Post-rockers don't talk. They don't write lyrics, and they sure as shit don't sing. They name their songs in eight words or more, or don't name them at all, as if to obfuscate any radio DJ who would dare play them or short-circuit the Billboard charts that wouldn't have them anyway. They recognize "drone" as a genre of music, and sound like chamber orchestras that opened their viola cases to discover electric guitars instead. They think 15 minutes is a good length for a song.

None of this helps to explain the fact that Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a post-rock archetype if there ever was one, almost immediately sold out its Wednesday-night show at the Music Box in Hollywood. Or that tickets to Sunday's San Francisco gig hit $306 apiece via one aftermarket-seats site before disappearing entirely. It's been happening all over North America, actually: Vancouver, New York, Nashville (yup, Nashville), Chicago. Five months in advance in some cases.

"Apparently GY!BE has underestimated their fan base," wrote one fan on the blog Consequence of Sound in response to the back-to-back news of the tour announcement and its selling out last September. "[They] left a lot of us out in the cold. I've been looking forward to this tour since I heard the rumors around April." In December, user Aaron commented, "Athens, GA, sold out FAST. Please add another date. Some @$$hole is selling tix on stubhub for $399/ea." Commenter Edawg echoed the sentiment: "Disgruntled, bitter and perplexed big-time fan here in Seattle begging you guys to add more shows, please."

click to enlarge IMAGE BY AGAINST THE DALEKS - Craziest game of Risk ever: The inspired Glennspeed You! Beck Emperor mash-up
  • IMAGE BY AGAINST THE DALEKS
  • Craziest game of Risk ever: The inspired Glennspeed You! Beck Emperor mash-up

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But Godspeed shouldn't be faulted for selling themselves short, or upgrading to less cozy venues, as they eventually did in Seattle. We're mere months removed from one of the most cancellation-fraught tour seasons in history, when names as huge as U2, Christina Aguilera, Limp Bizkit and Simon & Garfunkel fell victim to what resembled a pop-tour bloodbath. Yet, here's an experimental octet that hasn't released any new material in nearly a decade, flouting all of that.

Local promoter Sean Carlson (who is bringing them to Fox Theater in Pomona for a warm-up, pre–Music Box gig on Tuesday) doesn't have a solid answer for the obvious question: Why now?

"I'm a huge fan," says FYF main man Carlson. "I guess it's just that good music doesn't age. Or that their music aged well. Godspeed still moves me every time I listen to them. Their songs are timeless. They broke genres. They're a punk band that plays beautiful music."

All of which is true, of course.

The group has released a precious three full-length studio albums, but the last two are gilded classics. Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven! was a double-disc epic divided into four 20-minute tracks. Allmusic.com called it "a windfall for any fan of ambient pop, orchestral rock [or] space rock ... who understands how powerful love, melancholy and frustration can be." The 2002 follow-up, Yanqui U.X.O., produced by Steve Albini, fared little worse, but the band declared an indefinite hiatus shortly after its release.

Members of Godspeed went on to other projects — Silver Mt. Zion, Fly Pan Am and Set Fire to Flames, to name some — all well regarded but none captivating fans and critics, as their former group consistently did. Since, younger music aficionados have been able to trace the lineage to the source, or skip directly back to the font via contemporary praise. Pitchfork, for instance, ranked Fists the 65th greatest album of the 2000s. Beck's Sea Change was No. 82.

So maybe it's a lot of anticipation. Or maybe it's something else. There's a YouTube clip slowly picking up steam. It's called "Glennspeed You! Beck Emperor," and in it, Fox News demagogue Glenn Beck blathers on about how the popular upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia spell out the free world's damnation. He points at those famous blackboards, running back and forth across the studio in mock frenzy, pausing to punctuate his points with a steely glare into the camera."The whole world starts to implode," he says.

A clever YouTube citizen has dubbed the old Godspeed song "Moya" over the Fox footage, and (in a better-edited version of the video mash-up) the dooming string section rolls back for this moment, leaving only spare, sad guitar to accompany the words of the right-wing loon: "And what do we do? This is not happenstance. This is not poor people mad at rich people. This is coordinated."

"Glennspeed" is a way hipper version of the old "Let's play Dark Side of the Moon over The Wizard of Oz" meme but one that also raises an unexpected concern. Is there such a thing as musical fearmongering? Are we drawn to Godspeed and their brethren — Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Rós — for the same reason millions of Americans tune in to Glenn Beck's show night after night? These bands take us right up to the edge, brazenly and beautifully pulling at our emotions, making us feel like every second spent with them is the last we'll ever experience.

Hardscrabble times call for appropriate theme music, and Godspeed's specialty has always been a dark and vivid intensity that communicates more through its downturned melodies and sweeping gestures than most lyricists could hope to in a thousand poems. By replicating doom in a sonic lab, they position themselves to become the only blanket that protects us from the cold.

"The world is in a terrible state, and the future is not so bright," founding Godspeed guitarist Efrim Menuck said last year in an interview with The Quietus. The writer went on to ask him if he was feeling positive about the new decade. "No," he continued. "There's nothing to suggest that there's gonna be a spontaneous movement toward more goodness in people's lives."

Did we mention that Detroit sold out, too? Of course, that's not to say Godspeed are highly evolved leeches, quantifying human misery for monetary gain and political sway. Or that they're a bunch of monks, divining the apocalypse from some ancient sheet-music scroll.

As one fan on The Guardian's website said, "The only thing I would say about post-rock is that it is impossible to describe to your friends without sounding like a completely pretentious twat."

Here's our very own twattish attempt: It's just great music for drowning out the mad mutterings of idiots, on Rupert Murdoch's payroll or otherwise, who thrive in uncertain times like ours.

And Godspeed to that.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor perform Wed., Feb. 23, at the Music Box, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. Also Tues., Feb. 22, at the Fox Theater, 301 S. Garey Ave., Pomona.

Reach the writer at christopherlmartins@gmail.com

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