Monday, February 17, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #250: Godspeed You! Black Emperor - F#A#∞ (1997)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (or GY!BE) are well known for their long, instrumental post-rock compositions. GY!BE has been described as cinematic in their approach to music; their songs and albums seem to tell stories and there are times when their music wouldn’t feel out of place as the soundtrack to some unconventional work of genius. Their extensive discography is also notable for the artistic statements it makes on events, politics, and ideas, which is rather impressive when you consider the fact that there are no lyrics to almost anything they’ve written (although they do include audio samples of people talking as part of songs on most of their albums). Listeners should note that the CD and vinyl versions of this album are not quite the same; the order of the music is different. In this review, I will be talking about the CD version.
What makes GY!BE stand out is that they’re able to blend innovative experimental sounds with musical storytelling and deep, powerful emotion. Emotion dominates this album; it draws you back again and again. It’s expressed in a way that can only be accomplished with music. The fact that there are no lyrics allows for an exploration of feeling that words simply can’t articulate in the same way. This is an album that will manipulate your emotions.
This album, on first listen, was very clearly made by GY!BE, but it immediately stands out from their other work because it begins with a very distinctive spoken-word segment that gradually blends into the music. "Dead Flag Blues," the first song on the hour-long, three-song album, tells a bleak story about the end of the world. It’s sad, but it’s the kind of sad that’s oddly comforting, and the story it tells feels as relevant as ever two decades after its release. Whether or not you agree with the band’s anarchist and anti-capitalist stance, you can’t deny there’s something that cuts very deep in a world like this one about the imagery of leering billboards and flags “dead at the top of their poles.” It’s eerie, it’s sad, and it’s beautiful in a pleasantly disconcerting way. It sticks with you. The melancholy music puts you at ease; it’s dreamlike and comforting, and you don’t really want it to end.
Part two of "Dead Flag Blues" begins with the sound of a train and the distinctive feeling of falling. It maintains the dreamlike feeling from the first part as it transitions into something reverb-heavy and Western-sounding, like a cowboy’s eulogy for the city that burned in part one. As long as this song is, it’s not something you’ll get bored listening to; there are clear transitions that bring each part together in a way that feels natural, like changing scenes in a movie. There’s a moment of falling in the immediate aftermath of the disaster at the beginning, then a period of mourning, and then at the end a happy and upbeat segment that gives the listener a feeling of hope; the story the song seems to tell is that the world ends, we mourn it, and then at the end we begin to recover and build something better from the ashes.
"East Hastings," the second song on the album, begins with the sound of bagpipes playing a variation of the riff from part one of "Dead Flag Blues" over the sound of a street preacher. This fades into a segment of quiet and mournful guitar played over a tense, uneasy background. The tension builds gradually along with the volume. You can feel something bigger coming, but you’re not sure what; all you know is that it’s getting closer. It’s incredible how much variety in sound can be accomplished with the relatively simply riffs and the addition of a violin and a cello; the dynamics shift constantly. Part two of "East Hastings" tells an entire story in itself. The song’s mood then shifts to something strange, like a dream dissolving in several directions at once.
As you realize you have no idea what’s going to happen next, "East Hastings" ends and "Providence," the longest song on the album, begins. There’s an audio sample that echoes the themes of the two previous songs: it’s two people discussing the end of the world and what the preacher has to say about it. Then a haziness seems to settle over the music, and it feels like a dream again for a while before something new starts. You’re left thinking about what’s been said so far by this hypnotic album.
Then a new segment begins that feels like movement and liminality; the light rhythm in the background is constant, but it doesn’t want you to stay in one place. Things are happening; the world is changing in this part of the story. Sound and tension build once more (something GY!BE are very good at) and guitar is joined by drums, horns, and glockenspiel. It ends abruptly. A ghostly, echoing voice enters unaccompanied with what fans will recognize as a melody teased in GY!BE’s 2000 album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. It sounds like an old folk or gospel song; one you’re hearing in your sleep.
But then the melody ends as abruptly as it began and a militant, drum-driven segment begins. Somehow, the juxtaposition between the peaceful, ghostly folk-gospel melody and the aggression of the drumming seems to make perfect sense. But just as the drumming seems to reach a sort of climax, a haunting voice begins to ask, “Where are you going?” and a mournful droning begins that feels like the aftermath of a war. Once again, you begin to think about the story the album is telling. How did the world end? It’s never explicitly stated. But the distant sounds in the background are reminiscent of bombs and battle.
The sound fades. All is quiet for a few minutes. You have a chance to process. The album is almost over. It’s been like watching a movie, the way the scenes shifted and the tension built at various points. Just when you think it’s over, an ethereal echo begins – a hidden track, or a post-credits scene. You can hear a guitar, but it sounds distant, like something heard through a cloud. Then the drums come back. Everything is echoing but there’s a melody now. Once again, the tension builds. It all comes together at the end.
It’s strange to think of an album like this coming out in the mid-1990s. It feels so relevant to the present. As long and strange as F#A# is, it’s not difficult to listen to. On the contrary, it’s deeply emotional and engaging and the long tracks are split into shorter segments that only go on for as long as they need to. With very little dialogue, this album tells a story. The details of the story aren’t important; what’s important is that the world as we know it ends, and it’s our fault, but it’s not necessarily the end of everything; there are moments of hope.

            - Madden Ott

No comments: