There's always something lost in the translation. Words (famously) don't describe music. And the music of Montreal anarchist collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor is particularly cinematic, making words even less effective. Luckily, we live in the world of the Internet, where a simple click can fill your headphones with the band's music, thus granting me a reprieve. I suggest doing that now and I'll try to make this quick.
There was an opener. Not a highly publicized one, but at 8:50 Olympia producer Kevin Doria took the still-dark stage as KGD. Standing behind what appeared to be a mixing board, though surely was rig loaded with effects, KGD kicked off nearly 40 minutes of droning, sculpted feedback. Overtones evoked a circular saw operated behind an oscillating fan, while the subtler undertones drifted in and out of phase as Doria carefully twisted knobs. As sounds found space they seemed to slowly pulse, like a klaxon warning of a coming storm. But oh, my words are already failing you. KGD's set wasn't alarming. His noise was soft, warm, and rounded. And constant and unrelenting, only allowing space as puzzle pieces were removed to signify the end of the set. There were no "songs" or even separate movements, and Doria left the stage without saying a word to, or even acknowledging, the audience. Many audiences would have been bored, but few phones came out, and no one left their hard-fought post at the stage's edge. This was an audience prepared for an expansive sonic experience.
At 9:40 the members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor began their trickle onto the dark stage. After cautiously stepping over nests of pedal boards and chairs, each picked up their instrument, adding their stamp to the growing introductory din that has been dubbed "Hope Drone." First it was the double bass of Thierry Amar and violin of Sophie Trudeau, but soon it was the drums of Aidan Girt and percussion of Timothy Herzog, the bass of Mauro Pezzente, and the three guitars of Mike Moya, David Bryant, and ultimately, Efrim Menuck that joined the post-rock clamor. Behind the mostly-seated band, two separate screens of moving images played — each controlled and manipulated by another member of the ensemble from the back of the room. While not strictly black and white, the images were desaturated, abstract, and dreary. These projectors remained the only sources of light throughout the performance.
The set began in earnest with the twenty-minute, metallic-tinged epic "Mladic" from 2012's 'Allelujah! DonĂt Bend! Ascend!, then shifted to a trio of tracks from 2017's excellent Luciferian Towers. The final of which introduced a young saxophonist, shinier and brighter than the rest of his band. This was fitting as these new tracks are less punishing, more melodic, and bounce in (mostly) 3/4 time. But the audience didn't waltz, instead the sold-out crowd was a sea of silent heads, nodding in unison, enveloped by the layers of sound.
The set ended with "Moya" and "BBF3 (Blaise Bailey Finnegan III)" from the 1999 EP Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada, reintroducing the field recordings that appeared in so many of the band's early recordings, but had vanished over time. Matching the finale's theme, the formerly abstract projections now regained their saturation, and featured modern political protests. As the song ended, the musicians stepped off the stage with loops and feedback still howling. After several minutes of unmanned noise, two members of the collective returned to the stage, visiting each instrument and amplifier, slowly and artfully removing each from the cacophony until the stage was silent. With only a raised hand of appreciation the last member of the band exited the stage, triggering the return of the house lights, and ending the spell that held the audience mesmerized for the previous two hours.