Godspeed You! Black Emperor

  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  • F?A?∞ (Can. Constellation) 1998 [CD]  (Kranky/Iris) 1998 
  • Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP (Can. Constellation) 1999 [CD]  (Kranky/Iris) 1999 
  • "lift yr. skinny fists like antennas to heaven!" (Can. Constellation) 2000 [CD]  (Kranky) 2000 
  • Yanqui U.X.O. (Can. Constellation) 2002 

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a nine-piece orchestral/ambient band from Montreal, is more technically skilled (not to mention much darker) than such post-rock peers as Tortoise and Mogwai. GY!BE creates sweeping soundscapes full of epic drama and anti-government sentiments, variously shading into the wide stylistic realm between Sigur Rós and the Arcade Fire. Despite the extent of their audacious ambition, Godspeed are no prog-rock wankers; they’re far too intimate with the existential horrors of the 21st century for that.

F?A?∞ is spectacular. With three songs averaging 20 minutes in length, Godspeed sets about establishing its dark template. Mournful violins give way to an isolated guitar riff here or an empty space there; every note drips with end-of-the-world weariness. The spoken-word pieces, from a street corner preacher to a random interview at an open mic club, only enhance the paranoia. The centerpiece is “Dead Flag Blues,” in which a bleak poem is read by a Lee Marvin soundalike describing the apocalypse with detached resignation: “Mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble / and pulled out their hair.” Along the way, GY!BE proves equally adept at precise orchestral movements and Chrome-style industrial noise, which adds resonance and depth to this arresting debut.

A companion piece of sorts to the first album, the two-song Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada reprises and deepens F?A?∞‘s dark tone. “Moya” further explores the contrast of violin and cello with the group’s three guitarists, while “BBF3” features the return of the open mic poet from the first LP, now with an angry anecdote about a corrupt judge and the stockpiling of weapons. The band seems intent on transforming F?A?∞‘s downtrodden outlook into anti-authoritarian bluster. And it works.

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is a departure as well as the band’s crowning achievement to date. A post-rock magnum opus, the album spreads four songs across two discs. Dispensing with the darkness, Lift Your Skinny Fists instead embraces an eclectic outlook, channeling early Pink Floyd-style suites and a variety of styles, including folk blues and ringing post-punk guitars. The bitter diatribes are replaced by childhood musings of Coney Island and grocery store PA announcements. “Storm” is everything post-rock should be: a majestic, hummable romp that builds to a triumphant orchestral crescendo. Glorious.

Yanqui U.X.O. discards the voice samples and attempts to engage the listener directly with mood and melody. If this approach reduces some of the clutter of earlier GY!BE recordings, it also minimizes the band’s mystery: the three extended tracks are technically arresting but little else. Few groups could construct an orchestral goth anthem as intricate as “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls.” Still, other than the cover photo of falling bombs, the band’s swan song fails to harness the artsy-anarcho vibe of its previous work.

[Jason C. Reeher]