on December 7, 2002
"The car's on fire and there's no driver at the wheel, and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides, and a dark wind blows. The government is corrupt, and we're on so many drugs, with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death. The sun has fallen down, and the billboards are all leering, and the flags are all dead at the top of their polls."
With this harrowing, deep-voiced monologue begins _f#a#00_ (I can't make the infinity symbol so I'm improvising), a cinematic masterpiece lacking pictures but telling a lucid tale. Long, dusty, lonely elegies of smotheringly morose music illustrate a world on the brink of apocalypse. This is Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s first readily available album (forget trying to find their debut...only 33 copies were ever made ::sigh::), and to many it was their first experience to this band's stunning power. Calm but eerie silences can be extremely disarming as crescendos and loud dynamics can creep up unexpectedly, then retreat with equal abruptness. The band has seemingly concretized into a nonet, but here I'm not sure how many musicians actually worked on this record (I've heard numbers from nine to seventeen). Needless to say this is not a conventional rock band at all. I'm not sure I'd call this rock music anyway -- the writing is so structurally unusual, stylistically diverse, and instrumentally the band works more like a mini-orchestra. Each instrument, from violins to guitars to percussion, is an integral part of an organic collective rather than different musicians working together. Erm, those might sound like the same thing but they really aren't.
Each track is a lengthy suite (16-minutes, 18-minutes, and 28-minutes long) languidly flowing through several movements. Taken individually, each section is remarkable in its own right but the full power of the music is the meshing of different passages to splash different undertows of emotion over a general mood. One could easily say the individual passages have nothing to do with each other and feel randomly spliced together, but I couldn't disagree more. Each movement carries on from the last with coterminous emotions, establishing a congruous whole encapsulated within each track. Perhaps the different movements don't make cohering musical sense (though I don't know who would be actually qualified to say such a thing), but they _do_ make emotional sense.
"The preacher-man says it's the end of time...so says the preacher-man, but I don't go on what he says."
For all of GYBE!'s anguished dirges for apocalyptic endings, there is a faint sparkle of hope sluiced somewhere inside that doomed, lonely shell. This dichotomy of tone -- faint-but-defiant hope and crushing despair -- is emotionally twisting, uniquely powerful, and has resonated through me ever since I've started listening to this band. I'm not sure how long the feeling will last, but this stuff cuts deep. The crescendos this band peaks at are nothing less than utterly overpowering -- 11 minutes into track 2, "East Hastings", I come dangerously close to crawling into a dark corner, clutching myself in the fetal position, and whimpering , "mommy..."
"...hungover it's awful, the sound of trains collapsing back behind of here; outside there are distant birds circling in front of 7 miles of heavy cloud falling down, &from where you're lying one of those clouds looks like a hanged man leading a blind, indifferent horse...THIS IS MILE END MY FRIEND, the hollowed out ruins here &a train runs straight thru them... we made a record here in mile End..."
Those familiar with the band's mythic anonymity and vehement artistic credo may call them pretentious, but I'll be damned if they don't write some of the greatest music I've ever heard. Turn off the lights, crank the volume (this needs to be heard LOUD), and become lost in Mile End. It's a despairing, forlorn place, but you may never want to leave.
on May 3, 2005
The opening monologue of Dead Flag Blues, followed by approximately five minutes of the most gloriously bleak and desolate music imaginable, is worth the price of this album alone. This is the hymn of civilization's final days.
Some critics love to refer to as Godspeed You Black Emperor! as pretentious, and I can see where that claim is valid. The protracted song lengths, the symphonic pretenses, the long expanses of what seems to be dead air, the found sounds, the apocalyptic imagery (as noted in aforementioned monologue), the whole lot. But this post-rock collective (pretty hard to refer to them as a "band," what with a rumored nine members and orchestral feel) easily transcends all those petty criticisms with their awe-inspiring and challenging music.
F#A (infinity) is not at all an easily digestible affair. We're talking 3 tracks, each composed with several movements, and the shortest being over 16 minutes, the longest close to 30. Even by post-rock standards (eight-minute songs are not outside the norm for bands like Explosions In The Sky and Sigur Ros) this is pretty inaccessible. Short attention spans need not apply. The instrumentation consists of guitar, violin, cello, bass, various electronics, drums, brass and more. In this respect, I am reminded of late Talk Talk but whereas the touchstone in albums like Laughing Stock was jazz and ambient, Godspeed You Black Emperor! seems to take its cues from classical orchestra.
Dead Flag Blues kicks off the album, establishing the desolate, resigned mood that defines the experience with its weeping strings and distant guitar. It's just devastating in its emotion and in the pictures it paints ("the skyline was beautiful on fire"). The third movement (The Cowboy) builds on a motif that is vaguely spaghetti-western, almost Morricone-ish, and ends in a twinkling, almost happy theme that suggests that there is hope, however distant it may be.
East Hastings kicks off with a sample of a crazy street preacher, backed by a short reprise of Dead Flag Blues on bagpipe. This eventually gives way to The Sad Mafioso, which is one of the most stirring pieces on the whole album (this was features prominently in the movie 28 Days Later, giving its most memorable and creepy scene even more resonance). The instrumental buildups, culminating about 11 minutes in, are so harrowing in their power that the quick retreat in the next movement (Drugs In Tokyo/Black Helicopter) takes one aback. The track concludes with a hazy, creepy, almost narcotic drone that is one of the most quietly terrifying things I've ever heard.
The final track, Providence, begins with another sample and continues in a vaguely similar fashion to The Sad Mafioso with its first two movements (orchestral buildups, though neither is as huge as its predescessor), and progressively getting more abstract before drifting off to a false ending. After several minutes it all returns for one last desperate hurrah to close out the album.
To my ears, this debut is Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s best, though the Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada gives it a run for its money. Lift Your Skinny Fists.. is good, but feels a little too drawn-out at times; and their latest Yanqui U.X.O. sounds a bit too much like the "band" simply repeating themselves (and also loses out on the found sounds, which I thought gave their previous albums a lot of character). At any rate, if you like post-rock in the vein of Dirty Three, Sigur Ros, and Explosions In The Sky, this is for you.
[On a totally unrelated note, does anyone else think the packaging for this album bears a striking resemblence to Slint's Spiderland? It's got the black-and-white pic on the front, a small illustration on the back, even the font used is similar.. a homage perhaps? Who knows?]
on November 16, 1999
this is it. there's a sort of fury in this music, it lies low and then whelms up and then overwhelms. the music is about tension and the subsequent release, and oh god is it beautiful. the one term that gets kicked around with this godspeed you black emperor! is 'apocalypse', and that goes so well with it - not in the oh-so-boring goth sense of the word, but more in the implications of decay and futility that the term inspires. this is not quiet desparation, however. this is music about life, and all the joy, sadness, rage, death and any other stuff you come across in your period. it's all here. the music swirls around and builds and builds, until you're so caught up in it that you can't leave until it's all over, and at about this point the music breaks. it explodes in a holy fury of brilliant white light and noise and passion, and it's a sort of surrogate emotion in and of itself. we've all been here. this is gooesbump music. it makes you die. very possibly the best album of the decade.
on July 4, 2005
Sigur Rós has been described as the music God listens to. I'm entirely in agreement with that, but I'm sure it's referring only to the version of God in the New Testament, the forgiving one. Godspeed You! Black Emperor is what the terrifying, destruction-dealing Old Testament God listens to. And I'm willing to bet His preferred album is F#A#(oo), in which GY!BE have penned their most powerful and evocative music to date.
From the opening apocalyptic monologue intoned over a forboding bass drone in the Dead Flag Blues to the pounding madness of East Hastings up to the last surreal strains of Providence, GY!BE craft sounds so vibrantly original they almost seem alien. There has never been any group quite like Godspeed and there most likely never will be again. Get this album.
I've discovered Godspeed You Black Emperor's discography in a backwards fashion. I picked up their 'Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven' album a couple of years ago and was fascinated by their ability to create such complex soundscapes in the course of album's four long pieces.
Today I faced 1998's work by the Montreal-based ten-piece ensemble, 'f#a# (infinity symbol)'. Notice that I used the term "faced", because this is not precisely your ride-to-work type of music, which is what I like them in part: they challenge the listener, they invite him/her to get out of the comfort area, come close and LISTEN!
The album is definitely darker than their 'skinny fists...' album, and an indicator of their brilliance, how far ahead of their time they were six years ago: they were playing what today is labeled as post-rock, even before the term had been coined. Though I'd contend that I prefer 'skinny fists...' to this album, I have to say 'f#a#' has more than a few moments of brilliance.
They introduce the listener to a somewhat apocalyptic world with extended intros and samples of people and things leading into long songs (three of them, for a 60-minute long production) that last for what may seem like a musical eternity to most people. With the aid of a brilliant guitar work (by one or more of their three guitarists) layered on top of very rich atmospheres created by the two percussionists, strings (cello and violin), glockenspiel here and there, and further tape loops alongside the occasional bagpipes, the album results in a cratfy musical collage of a rather dark beauty that can be tough to appreciate if you don't give it a chance. As with your eyesight in a dark room, you need to give enough time for the album to sink in.
You may argue GYBE's view of the world back then (and these days too) is too dark and a little apocalyptic for your taste. While I respect that, I'd like to think that they're making a musical statement: there is quite a metaphor in their music inviting us to give ourselves more time, be more patient and develop a sense for things past the regular attention span that today's society has grown us accustomed to. Godspeed saves quite a few musical surprises within worth waiting for, to those who are patient enough to go past instant gratification.
on November 11, 2003
I ran across Godspeed via the film "28 Days Later" (which I also highly recommend). The music used in an early scene in this movie was so memorable that I had to hunt it down (I found out it is not on the original soundtrack).
I wouldn't know what to really call this music, as if that really mattered anyway. To my ear, its extremely (VERY extremely) introspective and (often, but not always) bleak, dark and moody. These (9? 15?) musicians go everywhere musically: apocalyptic spoken word/poetry, found samples of street preachers, dark ambient soundscapes, a sort of western movie soundtrack, atonal weirdness, classical chamber music (think Kronos Quartet), punk, Velvet Underground-Pink Floyd-Joy Division-70s King Crimson darkness... But this band is original, truly original - there is no real comparison. I think I'd even go so far to say that this is one of the most unique bands since the Velvet Underground.
This album will pull emotions out of you that you never knew you were capable of feeling!
GYBE's music tends to build slowly, gradually, inevitably - it reminds me of what Pink Floyd did in the early 70s (when they were good), songs like "Echoes," except GYBE succeeds even more so. The music is not completely pessimistic in tone, though it is certainly bleak... There is I think a sense of hope, of a real future in their music. There is some achingly beautiful music here. Nevertheless, the music can easily put one in the mood for reading Beckett or Cioran. It is the soundtrack to the inevitable collapse of a civilization, fallen gods... and, for better or for worse, a new beginning.
The album opens with some imagery that was too reminiscent of September 11, 2001, almost prophetic: "It went like this: The buildings tumbled in on themselves, mothers clutching babies, picked through the rubble and pulled out their hair. The skyline was beautiful on fire, all twisted metal stretching upward, everything washed in a thin orange haze..." But this was recorded in 1997.
Get this album!
on August 15, 2006
This is headphones music. To be listened to alone as it takes you on a trip over the landscape, full of valleys and peaks. A natural orchestra of modern life, that picks up and tranmits bits of radio static as it flows out. More like a painting or a collage of images than traditional music that if you're lucky will inspire you to do something yourself.
on June 10, 2002
This 9-piece collective remain one of the important avant-garde purveyors of jazzy, experimental rock.
Listening to this album was actually a music geek moment for me. I had never heard the album, only heard it described. I was expecting a sort of noisy, experimental record like a Sonic Youth's SYRs. For the most part, that's what I got; shambling, majestic, noisy symphonies of diverse sounds. However, In the middle of their epic twenty minute first track, I got a mind-blowing, wonderful surprise. One of the best and most evocatively expressive guitar instrumentals I've ever heard busts out. It's called 'The Cowboy' and it was so moving-- these beautiful blue slide guitar notes and tinny jangles just build and build to an unbelievably mindblowing crescendo. Honestly, it's as good as anything Link Wray, Duane Eddy or Dick Dale have done. Then we go back to a krautrock/psychedelic long-player.
Thats GYBE in a nutshell; a band that can get things done in any genre. They're even better live.
Come on, kids. Put something else experimental in your stereo besides Radiohead!
on July 22, 2001
The Place of Dead Roads is the title of a novel by William S. Burroughs, and, while music and book have nothing to do with each other, it always struck me as a perfectly honed phrase to describe the music of Godspeed. By now, anyone reading this, with the preceeding 20 odd reviews will know the "facts" about the band (nine-piece collective living in the hinterlands of Canada, yadda yadda); I care not for that end of the discussion (a sort of self-propigating mythos set in motion by the stubborn refusal to go with the grain of music industry standards while not completely giving them up, a cult of personality for indie rock kids.)
And it's reductive to the music, which opens on to such wide vistas of heartbreaking beauty that at times its almost overwhelming. Leave it to a bunch of Canadians to hymn the abandoned industrial parks which line the American landscape, the great machinery of industrialization falling into dust while the people who were supported by it live on, unsure of wither next in our "information society." Morricone guitar (but not as parched and isolated as label-mates Labradford) slides into sweeping, keening, crying strings, carried aloft by the force of two drummers. Learning about the band, accessing other releases, knowing that the voice which opens "Providence" is Blaise Bailey Finnigan the III does detract somewhat from the shocking *newness* of hearing this record for the first time, a big, yearning yelp of pain and confusion and beauty falling out of the black. Ah...I can't describe it; there are moments on this record which easily rank with the best music has to offer (the opening of "All Tomorrows Parties," those first piano chords in "So What?", the throbbing heartbeat that hums underneath Astral Weeks.) Essential.
on October 9, 2005
Every so often an album comes around that completely shatters my mind's fragile framework and takes me over. _F#A#oo_ is an album that demands the listener's attention from the opening narrative; there is this sort of haunting drone underneath a gritty, rough voice that is speaking in an almost warm whisper. "It went like this," and out of nowhere a transcendent violin duet takes over and the mood shifts. It changes from a story with the feeling of bleakness being told by an old man with his eyes closed and a cigar burning next to him to one of hope. Hope. "[...]The skyline was beautiful on fire, all twisted metal stretching upwards, everything washed in a thin, orange haze," as he takes a puff of his cracked, brown cigar and exhales the sweet vapors.
What is so stunning about this album? It's that every note is played with an immense amount of conviction and it makes for a perfectly complete body of work. The narration is woven so beautifully in with the music. It just flows, and the music accompanying works superlatively. Every passage, every string flurry or ambient drone or bass drum hit or electric guitar strum feels like it's going to explode out of the plastic confines of the disc. The buildups are captivating; it makes the listener not want to turn the page. It leaves me, at times, breathless, like I have forgotten I am a part of this world and am an object in something sublimely larger than life. It's a huge body of work that requires numerous listens to wholly understand.
Curl up with the lights out and your favorite blanket and light a few candles and let the music consume you with the blackness. Truly wonderful and essential art.