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culture

Godspeed You! Black Emperor Skips the Polaris Prize Gala, Wins Anyway

The Montreal post-rock act was a no-show at Monday's ceremony.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Norway’s Øyafestivalen, earlier this year. Photo by NRK P3, from Flickr.

When music journalist Jessica Hopper “introduced” veteran Montreal post-rock act Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Monday night’s Polaris Music Prize Gala, she said the band’s time together was an example of “the sort of career you could have if you said ‘no.’” At the time, she had no idea how apt a description this was.

The notoriously contrarian band was nominated for its album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!. Its members didn’t attend the ceremony, although no one expected them to.

“They wouldn’t be Godspeed if they did,” said Hopper.

(Tegan and Sara also didn’t attend, although they did send Choir! Choir! Choir! to perform their hit “Closer” in their stead. No one stood in for Godspeed.)

It turned out attendance wasn’t mandatory at this year’s Polaris, because Godspeed took the $30,000 grand prize, absence be damned. Polaris founder and executive director Steve Jordan said that in some ways, he was happy that a band that didn’t bother to make it to the ceremony won this year’s prize.

“We were very clear with the grand jury that you weren’t judging what you saw tonight, even though all the performances were great,” he said. “You were judging the record.”

“I think it’s a testament to [the jury’s] commitment to the Polaris mission.”

He added that Godspeed was, in some ways, one of the bands that made him want to found the prize in the first place.

“In 2001, I made a trip to Iceland, and as I do in every place I visit, I like to check out the record stores and see what kind of Canadian music they have in their record stores,” he says. “And there were three record stores, and two of them had not just full Godspeed sections, but a Constellation Records section. Then I went to the Icelandic equivalent of Walmart, and they had Godspeed records.”

“As much as Polaris gets tagged as exporting Canadian music to the world, we’re also importing Canadian music back to Canada.”

Ian Ilavsky from Constellation Records, Godspeed’s label, accepted the award on Godspeed’s behalf and said the group would donate the prize money to music education programs in Quebec prisons.

Of the nominees that did perform at the gala, A Tribe Called Red, Zaki Ibrahim, and METZ were all particularly impressive. A Tribe Called Red’s high-energy mix of dubstep, hip-hop, and traditional First Nations powwow music was accompanied by a hoop dancer, who brought a whole new level of live excitement to the show. Ibrahim came out clad in a niqab-like face covering and was accompanied by two female dancers in military-style uniforms. METZ was just brilliantly, chaotically, punishingly loud—a welcome addition towards the end of the ceremony. The sonic assault jolted everyone back to life.

The gala had new hosts this year, with former nominees Kathleen Edwards and Shad taking over from CBC’s Grant Lawrence. It also had a new venue, The Carlu on Yonge Street. Previously, it had been held at the Masonic Temple.

“We’d outgrown [the Temple],” he said. “It had been a dream of ours to do this at the Carlu for a while now.”

Metric, Whitehorse, Young Galaxy, Purity Ring, and Colin Stetson were also nominated.

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