Milwaukee has been spoiled on the post-rock front thus far in 2016. Three weeks ago, Mad Planet somehow landed a Tortoise performance—only the band’s second live date following the release of its first new album in seven years. Aside from maybe Mogwai, no other outfit is more respected as a pioneer of the genre than Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Friday night’s packed Turner Hall show marked the group’s first Milwaukee appearance in 15 years, although to be fair, seven of those years constituted a hiatus. Godspeed officially reunited in 2010, releasing a strong comeback album (‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!) in 2012 to rave reviews, although much of the material on that album predated the hiatus.
The current tour suggests that the band isn’t coasting on past glories, however. In 2012, they began performing a new 45-minute piece of music called, appropriately enough, “Behemoth,” which eventually got split into four separate titles on last year’s Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress album. This formed the centerpiece of the set at Turner Hall, beginning with “Peasantry Or ‘Light! Inside Of Light!,'” a sprawling mass of guitar, bass, and violin noise that shifted from a plodding, metallic drone indebted to second-wave Earth into an upward spiral of intertwined melodies and chaotic percussion and back downward again. Although the sonics of the ballroom aren’t always ideal, the crew and band seemed to have dialed things in perfectly for this show, and the crowd was remarkably attentive even during the quieter moments.
Godspeed’s greatest talent is the creation of waves of dark tension that resolve gradually into major-key themes as if by magic; the push and pull of emotion during these exercises can be overwhelming, although it can also result in multiple paths over very similar musical ground. The grand descending pattern in “Peasantry” was very reminiscent of a portion of “Mladic,” the 20-minute opus that preceded it. No complaints were registered, however; this was one of only two pre-hiatus pieces, although it didn’t appear on an album until ‘Allelujah. The other oldie was set-closer “BBF3,” complete with the deranged doomsday ramblings that bookend the song on record. It’s the closest thing to a signature tune that Godspeed has in its repertoire, sounding somewhat more guitar-heavy than on record and almost primitive compared with the more ambitious newer material.
Perhaps the highlight of the show was a brand new song that debuted only last month; according to the Internet, it might be called “Buildings.” Rather than a typical creeping beginning, this song opened with a warm, anthemic motif before settling into a stretch of violin/guitar hypnosis as the percussion died out. This mesmerizing Steve Reich-ian passage eventually built up intensity as the drums reentered, rising in a violent barrage of sound to a monstrous peak and then dropping triumphantly back into its opening theme. There was certainly tension involved, but overall this has to be one of the most uniformly uplifting songs Godspeed has ever composed. It was a very powerful indication that the band’s songwriting continues to evolve, breaching new territory after more than two decades at the forefront of its particular musical movement.
Along for the ride on this tour: experimental folk duo Xylouris White, who wowed the crowd with their opening set. Some fans may have recognized drummer Jim White, who rose to quasi-fame in the ’90s with Australian instrumental rock band Dirty Three; he has also accompanied a veritable who’s-who of indie rockers in the ensuing years. His stream-of-consciousness playing style is visually delightful and sonically riveting, and he has clearly developed a unique cohesion with Cretan lutist/singer Giorgos Xylouris. The rambling dynamic of their songs combined various traditional European styles with stretches of post-rock-ish intensity, particularly as Godspeed bassist Thierry Amar joined them for their last two tunes. Their set was equally unforgettable as the headliners’.