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Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Initially deemed by critics as “a cinematic orchestra for a post-apocalyptic generation”, Canadian chamber-rock collective GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR combine hypnotic, meditative and minimalist music that most always builds to a climactic crescendo – and then some! Their multimedia live turns were as impressive as their Japanese short-film moniker suggested, while several albums (more if one counts sets by splinter The SILVER MT. ZION ORCHESTRA and others) were simply awe-inspiring. From another world indeed.
Formed in the Mile End district of Montreal in 1994 by guitarists Efrim Manuel Menuck and Michael Moya plus bassist Mauro Pezzente, the trio issued a very limited 33-copy cassette, `All Lights Fucked On The Hairy Amp Drooling’. Enlarging the outfit to a 10-piece collective and enlisting David Bryant (guitars, etc.), Aidan Girt (drums), Bruce Cawdron (percussion), Thierry Amar (bass), Norsola Johnson (cello), Christof Migone (violin), plus Thea Pratt (French horn), the group pitched in ideas that could work within the confines of small-ish venues. Revolting against the “pay to play” system that many of the local establishments employed, the ensemble took to playing empty warehouses and other such venues, enabling them to gain popularity among the more alternative centred individuals in their town.
In 1996, GY!BE retreated to Hotel2Tango (a mythological apartment which certain members of the band were said to occupy), putting down material with the assistance of Chemical Daryl at his Chemical Sound studio. Broke again, they obtained free reel-to-reel tape from a friend and remixed their old material, adding two tracks and sequencing their efforts at the Mile End studio. The result was the devastatingly bleak F#A#(infinity) {*10} album, issued in limited numbers by Canada’s Constellation Records in the summer of ‘97, and soon harbouring the attention of Chicago-based cult experimental imprint Kranky for its global release a year later.
From its emotive post-apocalyptic opener `The Dead Flag Blues’ (with its darkly-spoken intro dialogue of “The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel / And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides / And a dark wind blows…”) interpolated with the eerie rumbling effects on the self-explanatory `Slow Moving Trains’ and cruising into the epic tour de force of `The Cowboy’, this was a landscape of spiralling David Lynch-esque peaks that quite literally tickled the ears into orgasmic proportions on headphone experience!), all uplifted by the bright and folky denouement of its `Outro’.
The album’s second piece, `East Hastings’, faded into the broken ramblings of a distressed street anarchist (see below) complaining “Nothing’s Alrite In Our Life” lamented by distant bagpipes and overlapped with soft vibrato acoustics and paranoid MOGWAI-meets-TANGERINE DREAM (their cinematic period!) slow burning crescendo culminating with ear-bashing orchestral avant-metal. Section two of this lengthy piece, `The Sad Mafioso’, navigated the psyche into further head-busting headphone gymnastics with its plucking harmonics swaying continuously like a rocking chair uneasy in a derelict porch. The track’s third instalment, `Drugs In Tokyo – Black Helicopter’, was arguably the most disturbing piece of the set, its Oriental chimes festooned between sounds of bees trapped in a generator. Song(!) number three, the 29-minute `Providence’, began with a doubtful riddle lecturing about the current state of America linking that with the end of time, waking up to a sunrise owned by ENO. Each of its three pieces were like a homage to late 60s/early 70s experimental rock (e.g. PINK FLOYD) battling on a stranger plateau of military percussion and space-age guitars. Thankfully, the collective we survived this aural apocalypse, but only just!
The following spring, the group (now with new violinist Sophie Trudeau) returned with SLOW RIOT FOR NEW ZER0 KANADA E.P. (1999) {*8}, an unusual two-track mini-set that again stunned audiences and critics alike. Soft violins, rattling guitars, orchestrated crescendos and bizarre vox-pops were all the standard on opening track `Moya’, while the deeply negative `BBF3’ (named eponymously after the aforementioned street/soapbox anarchist, Blaise Bailey Finnegan III) attacked world society and all its corruptive forces.
During all the hype and journo commotion, Roger’s side-project FLY PAN AM took off on their campaign of climax-induced minimalist (s)lo-fi, the result being a well-received eponymous album in October ‘99. GODSPEED… had now secured such a reputation on the leftfield scene that tours were being sold-out all over Europe and America, with film director Oliver Stone requesting to use the band’s previous music for his forthcoming movies. They politely declined. Efrim, Sophie and Norsola established A SILVER MT. ZION, just one of the many militant groups which were springing up around Canada from the GODSPEED camp. They issued their debut album `He Has Left Us Alone…’ (2000), a beautiful lament for what the band called “a falling/fallen world”. 1-SPEED BIKE, EXHAUST and FLY PAN AM all issued equally astute albums in the time it took GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR to complete the recording of their eagerly awaited sophomore double-set. Roger Tellier-Craig had replaced Mike (for now).
LIFT YR. SKINNY FISTS LIKE ANTENNAS TO HEAVEN (2000) {*8} boasted some of the most poignant and musically mature tracks in the history of rock, outing any prog-rock band with semi-classical pieces evoking sadness, hope and worry. It was a wonder GY!BE had even made a record this non-conformist, this loud, this brash and still get away with releasing it in such a mafia-like music industry. So triumphant was their glory that when the words “freedom can be achieved” flashed at the end of their shows; it was almost as if Efrim and Co had been sent from the heavens themselves to save mankind from dull, unimaginative music.
`Monheim’, their most powerful track, evoked the same crescendo-ing substance as `BBF111’ from their `Slow Riot…’ mini-set. `She Dreamt She Was A Bulldozer, She Dreamt She Was Alone In An Empty Field’ began with sweeping violins, distorted guitar before crashing unannounced into a full-on wig-out, fading into a beautiful middle section reminiscent of “empty wet streets at dawn”. Perhaps the most effective piece was `The Buildings They Are Sleeping Now’, just a drone of feedback that sounded like Chinese symbols being played with violin bows to create a stark and haunting sound. More was to come via The SILVER MT. ZION off-shoot and others. To be honest, the multi projects confused fresh fans who’d just cottoned on the greatness of GODSPEED…
Meanwhile, in Chicago, GY!BE themselves were perfecting five long pieces with legendary producer Steve Albini, which would eventually end up as YANQUI U.X.O. (2002) {*7}; meaning un-coordinated cluster bombs dropped by American planes in the Gulf War. The set, from its quietly building opener, to the scary swirling percussion-orientated ending was a sight to behold. Albini, as usual had just left the microphones on to tell it like it was: pure live orchestrations for a “falling/fallen world”. But this time the Black Emperors weren’t messing about. Firstly, they knew a war was imminent, and from the military-funded major label berating on the back cover to the blitzing beauty and sadness of `Rockets Fall On Rocket Falls’ (with added clarinets, reeds and stand-up bass to brilliant effect), the double-album was a deliberate warning to the world of the brutality that was about to ensue.
Their music and what they stood for was never more relevant.
A decade in which Efrim chose to concentrate on SILVER MT. ZION (he also released a solo set, `High Gospel’, in 2011), GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR returned, initially for live gigs. Efrim, Thierry, David, Bruce, Aidan, Mauro, Sophie, plus original guitarist Michael Moya got together for their long-awaited fourth full-set proper, `ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND ASCEND (2012) {*8}, another behemoth of a record which marked their inaugural Top 50 entry in the UK. Displaying all their usual traits: a myriad of Middle Eastern, continental and space-rock over lengthy repetitive pieces with cacophonous crescendos, the nihilistic neo-prog end-of-the-world meditations were back in subconscious aural technicolour. As close to MOGWAI, SLINT and Krautrock, the 20 minutes each-way of `Mladic’ and `We Drift Like Worried Fire’ contrasted through various degrees, but both re-wound to their “F#A…” heyday, while twisting like a tumbleweed blowing in deserted streets, only the incumbent vultures squawking and crowing, happy to have left only the bones of the corpses – or so it seemed!
When Bruce Cawdron moved over for sticksman Tim Herzog, GY!BE were again ready to reactivate the doom and gloom (like some futurist BLACK SABBATH) on 2015’s UK Top 40 entry `ASUNDER, SWEET AND OTHER DISTRESS’ {*8}. Sprawling, droning and cacophonous to the end, three tracks were trimmed to around 10 minutes max, its 14-minute concluding track `Piss Crowns Are Trebled’ probably the most effective dirge they’d done in a long time. On the other end of the spectrum, and echoing a “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” theme, Trudeau’s screeching violins on opener `Peasantry Or `Light! Inside Of Light!’ were woven in to flow with a punctured 12-bar blues. Not easy listening by any stretch of the imaginative, but with perseverance, the pay-off is in space time continuum…
Twenty years on from their end-of-the-world “Dead Flag Blues” account opener (from the ground-breaking “F#A#oo” LP), grandiose gloomsters GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR was still penetrating one’s psyche by way of the odd set. 2017’s LUCIFERIAN TOWERS {*8} was one such Top 40 record. A matter of prog-meets-avant right from the get-go for the chaotic jazz-Mex offering `Undoing A Luciferian Towers’, gargantuan guitars, visceral violins and dramatic drum explosions substitute any desire for deep dialogue. The ensemble were Canada’s MOGWAI – no debate. Split into three-part suites, both `Bosses Hang’ and `Anthem For No State’, ascend, scale and ultimately peak like all great GYBE cliffhangers should.
© MC Strong 2000-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2015

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