GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP (Constellation)
Peter Jolly raved about this mini-album, the second long-ish player from shadowy Canadian collective Godspeed You Black Emperor! in the last issue, and quite rightly so. The music on here is of a kind that probably exists nowhere outside the aegis of Godspeed's bleakly paranoid worldview - maybe some of the crashing crescendos may sound a bit like long-gone industrial art terrorists Swans, and their predominately instrumental (save for the sampled dialogue that often forms the core of Godspeed songs) sound might see them lumped into the post-rock trolley alongside the likes of Mogwai and Tortoise, but nobody else warps and wraps the whole up into such a multimedia event for eyes, ears and brain. Even the sleeve is peppered with biblical text and what looks like an extract from a play that, on closer inspection, and read in conjunction with their recent (and rare) NME interview, might well be the encapsulation of the whole Godspeed philosophy. Whatever, the two tracks here make for one of the most powerful and committed albums released this year: not for everyone, but if you like (if that's the right word) it you'll like it a lot.
Strange coincidences corner: the track "BBF3" takes its name from the sampled conspiracy theory ranting of one Blaise Bailey Finnegan III (recorded on a sidewalk in Providence, RI, according to the sleevenotes). Blaze Bailey, once of Wolfsbane, was Bruce Dickinson's replacement in Iron Maiden. The IM track "Virus" apparently contains lyrics not dissimilar to the poem Mr Finnegan recites on "BBF3". Now ain't that peculiar?
GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! f#a#¥ (Constellation)
This is Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s debut long-playing waxing from 1997, and as with this year's superlative "Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP" mini-album it's pretty much a full-blown multimedia experience for the senses, the Canadian collective's frequently stunning music arriving wrapped up in a handmade sleeve bundled up with scraps of literature, art and what looks like a small, disfigured copper penny. The music is configured as two untitled side-long pieces (although the first seven minutes of side one have appeared on an NME cover CD attached to the title "The Dead Flag Blues (Edit)", if that clarifies matters I would doubt whether it does, though!)
Enough of the wacky packaging, what of the music? Well, as "Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada" ably demonstrated, just about nobody makes music that sounds like Godspeed's. Imagine Eno, Laurie Anderson, Tortoise, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine and Mogwai collaborating on the soundtrack for a film version of the Old Testament, buoyed up by all manner of sound effects and lockgroove weirdness. It's a fascinating, scarily intense and alienating piece of work, that rare kind of music for which the words to describe it with any adequacy have yet to be defined. If you're comfortable with the more melodic and - dare I say it - commercial works of Tortoise and Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s music is a logical next step - you'll be entering a world of pain, but you probably won't want to turn back.GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (Constellation)
"Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven" is the third commercially released long player from this Canadian anarcho-collective, and arguably the one that will either bring them international recognition or see them condemned to an eternity travelling the same marginal alt-rock spaceways they've so far mapped out. There is a sense of a band leaving home on this album, which manifests itself in everything from the packaging, which is the most conventional of any Godspeed record yet and lacking the myriad inserts and trinkets that characterised their previous efforts, to the way the four side-long pieces have been subdivided somewhat haphazardly into what most listeners would recognise as individual tracks. This is Godspeed's biggest brush with commerciality yet, the story seems to go.
So why do I find "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven" strangely unsatisfying? All the traditional ingredients are present and correct, including the long stretches of dialogue (""Welcome To Barco AM/PM " [L.A.X., 5/14/00]" and "Murray Ostril; " They Don't Sleep Anymore On The Beach "") field recordings ("[Glockenspiel Duet Recorded On A Campsite In Rhinebeck, N.Y.]"), sawing strings and apocalyptic visions of death, dread and disease. But only occasionally do Godspeed stumble across a memorable melody (for example the heavenly opener "Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas To Heaven ", possibly their finest five minutes of music yet), and often when they do they quickly abandon it in favour of something a little more avant-garde ("She Dreamt She Was A Bulldozer, She Dreamt She Was Alone In An Empty Field" being a good/bad example). Much of the album seems to involve the long tortuous journey through static and feedback from brilliant tune A to brilliant tune B, before a glimpse of brilliant tune C in the far distance compels them to trundle off through oceans of noise and distortion in search of it .
Godspeed You Black Emperor! are a marvellous band, a musical treasure. But "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven" is their first album to not completely support the argument: it has its moments, but they're unfortunately too few and too far between. If you know and love their music you'll surely forgive them this uncharacteristic self-indulgence, but the initiated might be better directed towards the exemplary "f#a#¥ " or "Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP".
GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR Yanqui U.X.O. (Constellation)
Like The Fall, Godspeed You! Black Emperor's music is currently enjoying arguably its largest audience yet, with great swathes of "East Hastings" featured prominently during Danny Boyle's fantastic post-apocalyptic film "28 Days Later ". And, being similarly disinterested in mass acceptance, Godspeed have responded to this multiplex-torching ubiquity with probably their most uncompromising album in an uncompromising career. Recorded by the legendarily terse Steve Albini, "Yanqui U.X.O." presents the Canadian collective's purest music yet. Gone are the raving sidewalk preachers and contextualizing samples and soundbites - for almost the entirety of its four sides not a word is spoken. This initially makes "Yanqui U.X.O." appear an underwhelming experience, as if the content is being crammed into the wrong medium, like a mime production of "Apocalypse Now". But gradually the theory suggests itself that this new stripped Godspeed experience is an attempt by the band to force listeners to think for themselves and formulate personal interpretations of the music, in effect saying "We've given you the tools and taught you what we know - you can work out the rest on your own". Of course, the occasional signpost remains: the U.X.O. of the album's title is military shorthand for unexploded ordnance (i.e. landmines, cluster bombs), and a family tree on the back cover illustrates the ties between your favourite entertainment conglomerates and defence manufacturers. The title "09-15-00" references "Ariel Sharon surrounded by 1,000 Israeli soldiers marching on Al-Harram Ash-Sharif and provoking another intifada", and "though Godspeed is guilty of profiting from hateful chainstore sales, we encourage you to avoid giving money to predatory retailers and superstores".
Enough sermonising, what does it sound like? Pretty much the same as Godspeed ever did, wandering exclamation mark, Steve Albini and the excised dialogue snippets notwithstanding. The brooding, beautiful music remains intact, rivers of desolation and heartbreak surging slowly across strings, skins and keys, broken waltzes and morse code messages from the end of the world. There's a definite concentration on the musicality of their music: the habit - which dominated their previous album, "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven" - of leading the listener stumbling across acres of static, distortion and noise before offering the briefest respite of glacial, gorgeous melody is happily absent here. There are slow-moving signs of diversification: "Rockets Fall On Rocket Falls" takes a spiralling tumble right out of The Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" into the kind of woodwind and brass drones Gil Evans orchestrated on Miles Davis' "Sketches Of Spain". And although "Motherfucker = Redeemer" might take the best part of a side and a half to get going, when the payoff arrives it is truly mighty, great slippery tectonic plates of guitar and cello, melody and distortion sliding over each other. The piece closes with a furiously fragmented cutup of what sounds to me and my ignorance like a George W Bush speech, the occasional phrase that leaks through unmolested - 'Bin Laden', 'police the world', 'terrorist' - indicating the general heft.
"Yanqui U.X.O." isn't the greatest Godspeed album ever, and the passage of time does nothing to lessen the concern that they might never improve on the glories of "f#a#¥ " or "Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP". But it does show the ensemble's music slowly evolving, its desire to challenge and educate stronger than ever.
GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR / MICHAEL FLOWER Manchester Academy 7 December 2010
Mr Flower has long hair and an electric guitar, which he proceeds to plug in and belt sound at us with. The noise gradually resolves itself into the missing link between Fennesz and Peter Frampton, a stadium-sized AOR groove absolutely slathered in effects. Eventually it mutates into what sounds like a deconstruction of the Mac’s “Albatross”. After about 25 minutes of this – mostly spent with his back to the audience – he’s off, without a word. At least there’s none of that “I’ve got a CD for sale in the foyer” embarrassment so beloved of support acts.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor perform shrouded in darkness, illuminated only by the film loops – yes, real, manually intensive real projected films, none of that meticulously edited DVD regularity for them – projected above them. They’re sprayed with predominately black and white images of nature, night drives, train journeys, blazing smokestacks, typewritten documents and row upon row of files that look like some Watergate-era version of Wikileaks. And they play…well, their set opens with a drone that could be the sound of rust eating through a ship’s hull, which metamorphoses into what might be the timestretched throb of a slo-mo jet engine, all to the flickering visuals of the word “Hope” scratched into celluloid like a prison tattoo. And then we’re really, properly off, although it’s hard to say where exactly because there are no signposts or landmarks to mark out this unfamiliar terrain. I recognise what I think are great chunks of the “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” and “Yanqui U.X.O.” albums, albeit reconfigured from their original contexts, but it’s not until the closer “BBF3” that I feel confident in putting a title to what I’m hearing. The relative lack of melody in the setlist posits their performance closer to their later, heavier work – nothing is played from their extraordinary debut “f#a#∞” – meaning that the evening feels a bit like 135 minutes of constantly ratcheting tension with precious little release. It’s awesome, nevertheless, in arguably the original sense of the word, but despite being trouser-flappingly loud the many and frequent crescendos become soupily swamped, although they kinda do on the records as well. An experience, definitely, albeit one in which it’s difficult to know when it’s appropriate to applaud.
A Silver Mt. Zion
Set Fire To Flames