Formed in Montreal in the late ’90s, the band Godspeed You Black Emperor! took its name from a documentary about Japanese motorcycle gangs. The group added musicians and instruments as it grew, at one point totaling 15 members before whittling down to a nine-person line-up with two drummers, three guitarists, a bassist, and a three-piece classical string section.
While many forward-thinking rock bands start out with traditional arrangements then modify them in search of new territory, GYBE came from the opposite direction, making eerie, sprawling landscapes of sound that only occasionally included familiar signposts from the world of rock ‘n’ roll.
The band’s songs, which average 15-20 minutes in length, include fuzzy field recordings of passing trains and thunderstorms, with distorted loops of A.M. radio preachers, narration from sidewalk doomsday prophets, and droning sound effects. GYBE doesn’t make “songs” so much as it makes epic, analog collages, large sections of which are performed live by the ensemble.
Despite these ingredients, the music is never dry or inapproachable. It’s often bleak, steeped in paranoia, cynicism, and despair, but also filled with beauty, quiet tension, and carefully crafted, emotionally satisfying shifts.
Each record is divided into multi-part suites notated via dreadfully self-serious and incoherent liner notes, jumbled with Christian iconography, decayed photographs of industrial structures, and scrawled ramblings that read like a cross between an emo kid’s journal, a schizophrenic conspiracy theorist’s scribblings, and a map drawn in hobo code.
The band has no lead singer or frontman, doesn’t use last names, and shuns interviews and traditional promotional strategies, lending it a cult-like mystique, though one suspects it’s more grounded in a Fugazi-esque principled non-participation. It is a band for whom rabid fascination is the only means of approach, but the music is great enough to reward obsessive, repeated listening.
The first three releases by Godspeed You Black Emperor! are unassailable classics. The 1998 debut, f#a#∞, is the most elusive, but also its most intriguing, a patient and delicately balanced album that re-thinks the rules of listening— existing just outside the boundaries of chamber music, rock, sound collage, and industrial experimentation.
1999’s follow-up EP, Slow Riot for a New Zerø Kanada, is simpler and heavier. Slow, patient ambience builds to two cathartic crescendos, interspersed with a lengthy audio vérité interview in which a narrator talks about traffic court, the downfall of Western society, the number of assault rifles he owns, and also offers to read some of his poetry—which turns out to be cribbed wholesale from an Iron Maiden song.
2000’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven! is the masterpiece, an ambitious double-album that redefined the band’s parameters and took it to new heights. It begins with “Gathering Storm,” which quickly builds to a thrilling and joyful cacophony that recalls the aggressive density of Glenn Branca’s guitar armies and the ecstatic excess of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti westerns. It’s a triumphant, extended crescendo that eventually turns into a sonic thunderstorm of despair for the rest of the song’s 17 minutes. The remaining hour of the album details subtler points—from gentle chimes and weird nursery rhymes to sad monologues about Coney Island and oceans of static and hiss.
2002’s Yanqui U.X.U. was a misstep at the height of the band’s popularity. Though the band was paired with legendary producer Steve Albini, the record failed to capture the tension, energy, and space of the self-recorded efforts. (It also took the occasion to move the exclamation point to the middle of the group’s name, a pretentious gesture for which it was widely mocked.) After that, the band dissolved into smaller groups with most of the members ending up in A Silver Mt. Zion (whose 1999 debut, He Has Left Us Alone…, ranks easily alongside GYBE’s best work).
The majority of the core members reunited in 2010 for a handful of shows, and eventually released a new album, last year’s critically acclaimed ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend! (humorously credited to God’s Pee–the words “black emperor” appear nowhere on the packaging or label).
The music doesn’t quite reach the heights of the band’s early work, where each release felt like an expansion and offered a few more clues to the puzzle, but it is a fine victory lap through its greatest strengths and most satisfying moments. The album recently won Canada’s esteemed Polaris Music Prize, which the band took as an opportunity to pen a profane and dismissive open letter criticizing the bloated excess of awards shows, vowing to donate the prize money to fund educational reform in Canadian prisons.
Today, Godspeed’s morose, dystopian outlook is more relevant and convincing than ever. Conversely, its damaged, analog aesthetic, semi-anonymous mystique, and deadly serious attitude make the band sharply anachronistic in the hype-fueled, glossily digitized, tweeted transparency of the contemporary music industry.
What few peers and devotees the band had during its first go-round have long since moved on: Mogwai simplified, Sigur Rós became cute, Mono got boring, and Explosions in the Sky made television commercials. The further these groups grew apart, the more the records that GYBE left behind seemed vital, mysterious, and unique.
GYBE has always stood apart, but now it does so in a different way. If the passage of time has helped to demystify the band somewhat, it has also helped to underline its importance. We need its music even more now than we knew we needed it then.
Godspeed You Black Emperor! will appear on Sunday, October 20 at The Jefferson Theater. Doors open at 7pm and the band is known for playing very long sets. For those concerned about how the music translates to the stage, I can assure you that a concert I saw in L.A., on the eve of Skinny Fists’ release 13 years ago, ranks among the best I have witnessed. I can’t speak for how the band’s abilities have weathered the years, but I am eager to find out.
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