Godspeed You! Black Emperor
-Album Reviewed by Jacob Kresovich–
‘Godspeed You! Black Emperor’ is a post-rock band from Montreal, Quebec lead by guitarist Efrim Menuck. Active from 1994-2003, the band took a long break from performing together, but in 2012 released their first new work in nearly a decade. The members of the band have often been called anarchists, but no member has formally voiced anti-government beliefs. Nevertheless, there may be some merit to the tag.
Godspeed’s first studio album F# A# ∞ (pronounced F sharp A sharp infinity) was produced in 1996. The first song, “The Dead Flag Blues,” features a sample of a Native American man discussing the scenery around him. He says, “We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death” illustrating an unsustainable capitalistic system that devours resources and confines individuals to a status quo existence. A few fiddles join his monologue as he describes what sounds to be like the end of time. “The skyline was beautiful on fire, all twisted metal stretching upwards… I said kiss me you are beautiful, these are truly the last days,” the man speaks in a stern tone knowing the end to his way of life is near. Then the music trails off until a guitar introduces a dark yet twangy phrase evoking scenes of the Western Plains. The strings emerge and retreat eliciting and maintaining a dystopian mood.
The second movement of “The Dead Flag Blues” starts with the sound of a steam engine starting up, ringing its bells and tooting its horn, again reminding listeners of a time when the United States was focused on Manifest Destiny. Initially the instruments are played off key, inducing stress. Gradually, however, the cacophony of noise falls away and a lone guitar is left strumming a more peaceful tune. Bass and drums join in with other guitars, introducing a phrase with increasing energy. As more instruments join, the tempo picks up. But this movement is not sustained. There is no climactic release. On the contrary, the music stops short, the crescendo deflating as quickly as it was developed.
Godspeed has a unique talent for taking listeners to a deep, dark area of the mind, although by the end of the track they haven’t left their audience behind. A lighter, more upbeat melody prevails, relieving the tensions they have stirred. Their music toys with impressions of the American experience viewed from multiple perspectives, starting with those who lost their way of life in order to exhibit how others began theirs. The second song of the album, “East Hastings” transports listeners to a different time period, sounding more militant than the prevailing melancholy from the first composition. The track opens with a man screaming about Jesus Christ in a foreign language. This song falls into the previous pattern, using layered instrumental bursts to build up a sense of impending doom. This time, however, the pent up energy is allowed release like an exoergic reaction.
The final track on the album, “Providence” begins with a sample of a man being interviewed in the street with a car idling in the background. He states, “The preacher-man says it’s the end of time, says that America’s rivers are going dry,” echoing the sentiments voiced by the Native American speaker in the first song, but in a modern era. “Interest is up, the stock market is down,” he says taking an additional stab at America’s renegade wealth inequality.
Much like the other tracks, the final song exhibits Godspeed’s ability to layer instruments and paint landscapes with sound. The significant contribution of each of the songs on the album is that it transports the listener forward through time, although the messages remain constant. Since America has embraced Manifest Destiny, there have been winners and losers. The tone of the instrumentals provided by Godspeed focuses on the latter, but never forgets the former.
The album F# A# ∞ is an excellent concept album that needs to be listened to in full. The post-rock and modern style of Godspeed is evident through the structure of the album and its dominating instrumentals. The first song is by far the most moving of the album as it does the best job of painting a picture of a failing utopian America through the lens of a saddened Native American. Listeners interested in experiencing a failing system’s crumbling sounds, and the growth of those who follow will be swept away by the powerful emotions evoked in the first track and relieved when the song draws to a cheerful close. Many will want to stop there, but the rest of the album has its rewards. F# A# ∞ gathers the sounds of American pastoral scenes through time, evoking all the angst of a transient culture too often at odds with itself and ever-grasping for a melody that puts the world at ease.
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