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Dark rumblings 

Godspeed You! Black Emperor emits a glorious roar

Variety Playhouse, March 9 -- Ten years into its existence, Philadelphia's Bardo Pond shouldn't be having many technical difficulties. However, on Sunday at the Variety, after extensive delays, the band had to start its opening set with only one of two guitarists due to a dysfunctional amplifier. Luckily, this didn't prevent these veterans from fleshing out their psychedelic minimalist rock. Isobel Sollenberger alternated between rich violin, trippy flute and her distinctly entrancing vocals. The Gibbons brothers' guitar duo -- with both amps working by the second song -- strummed somber effects-laden chords atop the simple backing of bassist Clint Takeda and drummer Joe Culver.

However, the band's choice of songs didn't make the most exciting transfer to a live setting, where four repeated chords without much variation manage to get boring way before the 10-minute mark. Bardo Pond's best moments came in the sporadic bursts of distortion and wah-drenched guitar noise accented by somewhat spastic drumming. Unfortunately, these moments were few and far between, and Bardo Pond became little more than a distant memory once the main act hit the stage.

The members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor quietly and humbly shuffled out -- some with shoes and some without. Amidst a virtual minefield of effects pedals (there must've been 40 in all), a semicircle of amplifiers, two drum sets and enough cables to stretch all the way back to the group's hometown of Montreal, the nine members (three guitarists, two bassists, two drummers, a cellist and a violinist) situated themselves amongst the already heavily crowded performance space.

Throughout its existence, the band has wanted its music to speak for itself. Godspeed stresses this by refusing most interviews and avoiding photographs. This aesthetic was in full effect as the group launched into a two-hour set without any formal introduction. There was no need for one -- the fans knew quite well what they were watching.

As the lights dimmed and a blue haze was cast upon the ensemble, a hum of feedback grew solemnly as cello and violin were bowed ever so delicately. Then a lone guitar plucked the distinctly haunting notes that open "Storm" and, one by one, instruments started coming in. The strings picked up speed, drums started thumping out a rhythmic mantra and speedily picked guitar lines cut through the ominous rumblings with an eerie power.

Layer after layer of sound was added to the droning blur of noise, each building upon one another until the piece reached an intense crescendo. The tense drum march turned into full-on skin pounding, and the dual basses thudded with a syncopated rhythm. Triumphant, upward-spiraling guitar riffs pierced the roar, while violin and cello bowed furiously and manically, providing a voice of raw beauty among the aggressive instrumentation.

Slowly, the climax subsided, the song winding down piece-by-piece as it had begun. "Storm" ended with same hum of feedback that emanated from the speakers at the beginning.

And so it went -- the music continued in similar building-and-unwinding cycles for the rest of the set, each song lasting anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes. The minimalist nature of the collective's compositions might have made the less patient fidgety, but most in attendance seemed to easily fall under Godspeed's hypnotic spell. Awash in sound, the audience passively swayed back and forth in the wake of the band's deafening roar.

The group's stunning mastery of contrast provided some of the strongest and most memorable moments in Godspeed's performance. During the encore, "East Hastings" from the group's 1996 debut LP, a stunning silence cut off an ear-scorching moment of droning symphonic cacophony. Muting their instruments, the nine members quietly hummed an eerie vocal harmony. At another point, one of the drummers stood up from his set, began to lurch around the stage and quietly blew a piccolo as he weaved in and out of the amp stacks.

On stage, Godspeed You! Black Emperor uses a projectionist, who screens footage behind the musicians. For the most part, the film consisted of what one might expect from a Godspeed visual -- images of rubble, burning trees, time-lapse traffic shots, empty parking lots and desolate fields of snow. Predictable as they might have been, the projectionist's choices accented the music well. At one point, as violin and cello swept with haunting melody, a low-angle shot of a brilliantly lit skyscraper at night filled the screen, fog fading across the night sky.

Pretentious? Well, sure. But absolutely fantastic nonetheless. Godspeed You! Black Emperor may perplex with its long songs, bizarre instrumentation and tendency to place political statements in unlikely spots ("Burn all flags" written on the bass drum, for instance). But when it comes down to it, this band offers rock at its very best -- intense, fast and louder than hell.

music@creativeloafing.com

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