Monday, January 19, 2015

Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!


director's cut, i simply cannot remember who i wrote this for! 2000

by Simon Reynolds

If Radiohead's Kid A is the upper-middlebrow candidate for this year's Most Important Album, Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s Lift Yr. Skinny Fists looks set to sweep the highbrow/hipster vote. Both records are grand statements, bleak panoramic views of the Zeitgeist wrapped in music that revitalizes the "post-rock" project of the mid-Nineties. But where Radiohead, influenced by Britain's omnipresent electronica culture, embraced the psychedelic possibilities of digital technology like Pro Tools, Godspeed retain a typically North American commitment to live performance. Spawned in Montreal's bohemian milieu of cheap apartments and squatted venues, this nine piece collective jettison conventional song-structures in favor of tumultuous 20 minute instrumentals whose only vocal element comes from spoken-word field recordings--like the cracked street preacher Blaise Bailey Finnegan III ranting about America as "third world, third rate, third class" nation on 1999's Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP.

Post-rock tends not to be about anything, beyond the exploration of sound-in-itself. What immediately distinguishes Godspeed is their expressionistic passion and their politics--which are vague, but anti-capitalist and apocalyptic in tenor. In the CD booklet, Lift Yr. Skinny Fists is dedicated "to quiet refusals, loud refusals and sad refusals". "Loud" is what Godspeed are most reknowned for, especially in their legendarily gobsmacking live shows. With keening strings, harrowed guitars, and two drummers, Godspeed stir up a wall of sound that escalates and abates like popular disorder. 

Mournful yet exultant, the music has the doomed Romanticism of revolutionaries dashing themselves against an immovable status quo, or the epic historical clash of vast impersonal forces (something reinforced by bombastic titles like "Terrible Canyons of Static", "World Police and Friendly Fires", "Cancer Towers on the Holy Road Hi-Way"). Godspeed's "loud" mode often provokes comparisions with soundtrack composers from a classical background, like Ennio Morricone and Michael Nyman. Indeed, the group's name comes from an avant-garde movie by Mitsuo Yanagimachi and they perform with film projections looped behind them. But composer-wise, they actually remind me more of Penderecki, symphonic mourner of 20th Century atrocities like the Holocaust and Hiroshima. A Pendereski-esque alternative title for this album could be Threnody for the Victims of Globalization.

After a while , though, the "loud" Godspeed's hope-against-hope histrionics start to seem a little hammy and (pardon my Quebecois) deja entendu: the maudlin' strings, the canter>gallop>frantic>pell-mell dynamics, the anguished crescendos. Personally, I much prefer the "quiet" and "sad" modes: interludes of intricate anxiety, plangent sound-collages, beautiful lulls of spidery, jackfrost guitar. Much of disc two is taken up by gorgeous ghost-town driftwork redolent of Ry Cooder's haunting slide-guitar score for Paris, Texas: saloon doors slapping in the breeze, tumbleweed richocheting off a picket fence, wind whistling through the telegraph wires. In this desolation row context, the vocal samples are potently poignant, like old-timer Murray Ostril lamenting the bygone golden days of Coney Island, when "we even used to sleep on the beach overnight... they don't sleep anymore on the beach". Deliberately or accidentally, the sample echoes the Situationist graffiti that was ubiquitous in Paris during the build-up to the May 1968 uprising: "underneath the pavement lies the beach." What Godspeed mourn is the withering away of the utopian imagination, the way people seem reconciled to the panglobal triumph of what the Situationists called "the commodity-spectacle society," to living a dreamless existence. 

Ultimately one can only salute Godspeed's courage for risking Big-ness--sheer size of sound, emotion, theme. If this sometimes results in deluges of grandiosity, it's because Godspeed music dramatizes the internal struggle within each band member: optimism of the will versus pessimism of the intellect.

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