I don’t want to use terms like “band” or “ensemble” to find a definition for Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I’m not even looking for a convenient definition. Their predisposition to go against all the logics present in the music scene, their way of presenting themselves with emails that looks like manifestos, their manifold projects and their total lack of any form of compliance with the music market make them an interesting phenomenon. Worthy of attention by itself.The certain things of this Canadian collective, composed of nine musicians, are their particular musical choices:
1) in their records there are no real parts sung, but the voices are present anyway, often reciting in rattling and incomprehensible English, elusive, cold and dark;
2) their pieces frequently exceed fifteen minutes, with epic moments that lead to angry digressions that are placed in an intersection between the Hawkwind cosmic rides, the progressive suites and Glenn Branca’s sound storms;
3) a certain kinesthetic taste very similar to the Ennio Morricone’s dark soundtracks, those related to the B series softporno and violent police films of the 60s and 70s;
4) the epic that they manage to include in each piece. Sometimes they start slow, with the slow nenies cadenced by the cello and then explode in an energetic, electrifying sound wave that deletes some lacks in the harmonic construction of the pieces;
5) the particular layout of their CDs. Their booklets, their cardboard packs denote a particular taste for a certain design with an apparently sloppy and casual look, but which instead betrays a careful study and an intelligent re-elaboration of blurred images in black and white, texts written on an old typewriter.
A faked poor design that they share with all the releases of their record company, Constellation Records, that from a long time continues to churn out always interesting records, perhaps not easy to listen to or catalog but always satisfying. Hauntology? No I don’t think so. I think it’s a complex form of a D.I.Y reworking contents typical of a punk scene now consumed in its own legend, reinvigorated in a post-modern key by graphic experts who seem to come out of the novels of William Gibson. And that they know how to reach a specific audience. A sort of cultural rock elite.
Formed in 1994, the band debuted that same year with a cassette limited edition, “All Lights Fucked On The Holy Amp Drooling”, but their first real album dates back to 1997, with the splendid “F # A # Infinity”, initially distributed on vinyl by the small Canadian label Constellation Records, and then spreaded with a wider diffusion thanks to Kranky in 1998. You can immediately notice the peculiarities of this group: there are only three pieces, all very long starting from the fifteen minutes of “The Dead Flag Blues”, where you can find similarities with Mark Nelson’s Labradford.
But it’s the second piece, the fascinating “East Hastings”, which offers seventeen minutes of pure emotion, with an opening characterized by traffic noise (Montreal?) and a subsequent alternation of light and violent moments growing togheter. The song that concludes the first album is “Providence”: half an hour of musical madness, apparently, at least apparently, logical. The orchestral aspect, not surprisingly I mentioned Morricone before, often dominates everything, but it’s brilliant.
Not easy to listen to, alternating with raw sounds and noises even electronically treated with a clear “concrete” matrix.
In 1999, “Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada” was released, again by Kranky, with which the group fully confirms the expectations created with the first album. A jewel. Twenty-eight minutes only.
Only two titles: “Moya”, a song that begins slowly, with strings that draw ethereal frescoes and then flow into an impetuous epic crescendo, and “Blaise Baylei Finnegan”, a track of seventeen minutes that, after a “spoken” opening, explodes in a crazy instrumental delirium with guitars, violins and strings.
Propulsive, epic, intense music, with total energy and absolute communicativeness. Evocative, intransigent and indeterminate, the Godspeed realize here one of their best works and certainly the first one that one needs to buy to begin to know this collective.
In 2000, they released “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven”, again for Kranky Records, a double CD composed of four tracks divided into sections (the block diagram included in the clear darmstadtian iconography album is indispensable to orient yourself around the record) that continues their ideas as a rock ensemble, but that betrays a deeper setting linked to cinematographic music. “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” is more of an ambient / noise / psychedelic soundtrack than a rock album.
Gloomy atmospheres, scratched by dark and decidedly claustrophobic rhythms, characterize this decidedly melancholic work, less gothic than the previous ones, but with a greater presence of strings and violins that shape the always anarchoid atmospheres far from the taste of large audiences. Perhaps it’s their less creative and original record. “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” suffers from a certain dispersion of themes, some tedious repetition and the true lack of an emotional fulcrum in which to condense the great energy lavished by the collective.
The true potential of the band is shown only in the last song (the most experimental one). “Antennas to Heaven” opens with the sampling of a folk piece and then offers a rarefied noises’ collage. At the end of a long journey through the meanders of an “altered” thought, a tender melody arises from the ashes of harmony.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor return in 2002 , with “Yanqui U.X.O”. enigmatic title that more or less sounds like “Cluster American unexploded bombs”. The atmospheres are darker, but their compositions go through, as usual, a dilated folk-blues, cosmic rock, Morricone’s themes and psychedelia.
Definitely self-referential in the second track “Rockets fall in Rocket Falls”, which begins with the usual guitar’s riff with the other instruments rotating around it, until the music becomes more threatening with drums and wind instruments creating a battlefield’s atmosphere, up to the foreseeable final explosion. This record establishes a reached artistic and musical maturity. In the other two songs, two suites, Godspeed create atmospheres often centered on an apocalyptic folk-blues as in the initial “09-15-00” (date of beginning of second Intifada), where the instruments paint a desolate and fragmented picture, and the development of the piece gives greater strength to the evocative aspect of the music, and above all in the other final suite “Motherfucker = Redimeer”, which sees music going to shattered, evoking post-war scenarios. It’s the most evocative moment of the album, before the powerful last part, perhaps the most “rock” piece ever made by the Canadian collective, enthralling and cathartic.
… then the silence … no new record … uncoordinated rumors of a possible dissolution … the proliferation of a series of alternative projects: beautiful and intelligent things like the Exaustus, the Silver Mount Zion, all worthy of a deepening apart …
“We do not feel part of any musical community, not even of an instrumental one – says the bassist, Mauro Pezzente -. In fact we consider it worrying that several groups may appear similar to us. It is symptomatic of the fact that there is no real progression movement , no changing “.
To be continued….