If Slint were the launching point for much of the dark, brooding and largely instrumental style of indie rock that took off in the mid-to-late-'90s, Godspeed You! Black Emperor were its logical conclusion. Mogwai and Tortoise were just as well-known in their day, but few bands matched the breadth, dynamics, band membership or sheer pretentiousness of Godspeed.
The Montreal-based band rose to prominence in that in-between time that straddled the zine and tape-trading culture and the have-it-all-at-once version of the Internet we know today. Hearing about a band in the era of dial-up Internet was easy — actually hearing them wasn't always. Somewhere in this World Wide Web sprinkled with Geocities and Angelfire, I read about this band with a weird name (lifted from an obscure documentary about a Japanese bike gang) who were hyperpolitical and took themselves way too seriously. They sounded right up my alley.
So before hearing a single note, I bought Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven in 2000, mostly expecting this band to sound like Fugazi or Nation of Ulysses or any of those other bands that are great but espouse impossible convictions that seem to make total sense to 18-year-olds. Somehow I had missed the part where this band had three guitarists, two bassists, two drummers, a violinist, a cellist and a couple horn players. But I never looked back.
From Lift I worked my way backward through their catalog, devouring every bit of the melodrama, righteous indignation and band photos on railroad tracks that all seem so much more obviously clichéd now. Perhaps no band has been given a bigger pass on heavy-handedness than Godspeed, and it's just as likely that no band has put that to greater use.
The band put out a limited-run cassette in 1994, but for most people the band's recorded debut was F#A#∞ in '97. The title refers to the key signature of the first side of the record, the key of the second, and the locking groove that loops at the end. It opens with a metaphor-strewn monologue from an unfinished screenplay by guitarist Efrim Menuck that depicts a post-apocalyptic scene: Cars are on fire, buildings are toppling and some guy's wallet is full of blood.
It's grim and dark stuff. The way the band weaves field recordings, ambient noises, minimalist chamber music and brute force is at one moment gorgeous and the next pummeling. Over the course of the following EP Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada in '99 and Lift Your Skinny Fists in 2000, Godspeed had perfected their craft — the first six minutes of Lift contain one of the greatest crescendos in a career built almost entirely on slowly getting louder.
Godspeed's music is complicated in the sense that it isn't immediate, but these are melodies that are easy to wrap your head around. Harmonically, there isn't anything too off-the-wall. But for a band so intent on delivering a message, not writing lyrics probably struck a lot of people as counterintuitive. Part of that message was about engagement, which is where the live show came into play.
Among the band's lineup credits is a film projectionist who makes video loops on the spot using reel-to-reel projectors. On record, these songs contain samples and interviews of people talking about decay, despair and frustration, but live was when the band hunkered down and powered through all that. In one song, as the band neared the climax of a particular passage, video footage would depict protesters taking to the streets, and the word "hope" would flash repeatedly onscreen. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but the message was coming from the same people who started the band A Silver Mt. Zion as a side project, whose debut CD sported the insignia "destroy all dreamers w/debt + depression."
In Atlanta, where I saw the band perform in 2002, propaganda books lined the band's merch tables, most of it anti-government. When the band was mistaken for terrorists in 2003, and detained briefly by the FBI in Oklahoma, those propaganda materials no doubt got special attention. Eventually they were released without charge, but that episode likely did nothing to quell their affinity for conspiracy theories. The packaging for their third album, Yanqui U.X.O., contained a diagram purporting to link each of the major record companies to weapons manufacturers. That was the point when the band's heavy-handedness turned into overreaching. They eventually admitted to some of their research being faulty, and there hasn't been a new Godspeed album since.
In the short three years between when I first learned about them and their last album, the market was glutted with similarly cinematic bands writing big, sweeping epics, and the more robust Internet that had replaced the primitive dial-up network seemed less interested in separating the wheat from the chaff.
So seven years later, how does a reunited Godspeed You! Black Emperor plan to enter this new fray? Judging by the statement on their website that announced their intentions, much the same way as the first time. Promoters were told to leave them alone, and they aren't giving any interviews. They just want to play with their "heads down and leaned into the squall."
And about that Internet thing? They called it a "tyrannical monster," and continued with this: "Please remember that really all that matters is the keep on keeping on. And all that really matters is the shows. And physical engagement in the world. And folks like us and folks like you."
God bless you, Godspeed.
^^ The JNCOs of Cream comments ^^
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