Depending upon how you look at it, the fact that Godspeed You Black Emperor!‘s newest album is a double CD will either seem like the only way to adequately contain the depth and power of their music, or a sign that this Canadian nontet has simply become too big for their artistic britches. But I think that anyone who gives this release a good solid listen will wholeheartedly agree with the former.
You see, Godspeed is the kind of band that makes converts. Their moniker, the titles of albums and songs (if you can call these “awkward pirouettes in the general direction of hope and joy”, as the band calls them, “songs”), their whole approach to marketing, which would put Radiohead to shame… all of these things seem hellbent on confusing the masses. And yet, when actually listening to it all, somehow everything the band is about, including those goofy titles, make perfect sense.
The first thing you notice about Godspeed’s music is its sheer magnitude. Guitars wail and bass rumbles, drums pound and thrash, and strings scream out like mourning banshees. Their music rises and falls, always building towards that inexorable revelation. Then the music dissolves, giving way to various field recordings which usually consist of religious madmen, strange radio transmissions that you could only hear at 2:00am in the middle of nowhere, walls of static and feedback, strangely beautiful tape loops, and the like. And then it slowly builds up again, reaching once more for another climax, one more beautiful and provoking than the last.
But the real power behind Godspeed’s music is that, even in the midst of those epic washes of sound, they never lose sight of the little things. It’s the little details, the things that most bands would overlook, that makes Godspeed as great as they are. The quiet spots in Godspeed’s music are often the most sublime. They serve as moments of reflection, almost as if the band is asking themselves if it’s really worth it to start building all over again. Ultimately, the decision is a resounding “Yes” and the beautiful process begins all over again.
Spread across two discs/records, the album is further broken down into 4 tracks, 2 to a disc. These tracks are then broken down into separate pieces, with names like “Cancer Towers On Holy Road Hi-Way” and “She Dreamt She Was a Bulldozer, She Dreamt She Was Alone In An Empty Field”, that can be listened to by themselves, or taken in context of the bigger picture. Each one flows into the next, sometimes with a clean break, but more often than not, with droning strings and blurred, faded loops and odd sounds. Out of this swirling mess comes the sounds of the next piece, and the cycle begins anew.
You’d think that by now, the band’s approach would be getting stale and old, but it never does. And little surprises do pop up. The horns on Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven sound like a mournful battle-cry. A sad piano melody, reminiscent of A Silver Mt. Zion, adds a solemn center to “Cancer Towers On Holy Road Hi-Way” around which ambient noises and distorted radio broadcasts circle. And those field recordings for which Godspeed is famous for are sprinkled throughout the album. A heartbroken old man reminisces about Coney Island’s glory days on “Murray Ostril”. On “Chart #3”, a preacher passionately cries “When you see the face of God, you will die” with a conviction that borders on fanaticism. Set against plucked guitars and weeping strings, it never ceases to be a haunting experience.
Although many, including myself, label their music apocalyptic and dark, there has always existed a thread of hope that underscores all of their music, a feeling of integrity, that the band means every grandiose flourish and avant-gardism from the bottom of their heart. One can’t help but sense that the band’s little revolutionary-isms, such as “We dedicate this stanza to quiet refusals, loud refusals, and sad refusals… we dedicate it to every prisoner at dawn” or “What does anyone want but to feel a little more free?” are more than just empty threats.
Even in the midst of all of critical praise heaped upon them, they always have this strange feeling of being a “band of the people”, a band concerned by the state of social decay, but also convinced that, in the end, it will be alright. The title Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven may sound awkward and even a little heavy-handed, but given the music, it’s also quite fitting. This an album that speaks of freedom, but also is brave enough to declare that one must venture through darkness and madness to achieve it.