WITH a name like this, who needs committees? Godspeed You! Black Emperor were born in the bosom of Canada and named by a monochrome Japanese documentary about a biker gang, but neither of these facts can quite attest to the singular, desolate beauty of their music. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, their unqualified masterpiece, is a brutal, sweeping epic whose lifts, dives and swirling, gorgeous melancholy beats the listener into a bloody pulp before picking them back up and showing them God.
Hyperbole aside (for the moment), Godspeed are a group of astonishing power, combining screeching, feedback-laden guitar with lilting violins. This clout, raw and unapologetic, hits home in spite of their recordings’ length, with individual tracks regularly clocking in at over 15 minutes. While this might sound tiresome, Godspeed’s demarcations of their songs into separate, distinct movements, with a crescendo usually occurring every few minutes or so, nullifies any sense of fatigue. They’re one of the most dynamic groups around, exerting an enormous influence over acts to follow, even during the 10 year gap between Yanqui U.X.O. and Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Their debut album, F♯ A♯ ∞ (F-sharp, A-sharp Infinity), is no different. Traditional lyrics are absent; these aural firestorms are usually unaccompanied by words. When they are, however, it’s usually with gravelly speech, sounding for all the world like Rorschach’s diatribes from Watchmen. ‘The Dead Flag Blues (Intro)’ – the veritable Part One to opening track ‘Nervous, Sad, Poor…’ – is an apocalyptic vision, narrated by a crumbling male voice who intones, “The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel.”
Buffed on a steady drone, this movement slides into ‘Slow Moving Trains’, a nightmarish fugue of train tracks and urban noise. ‘The Cowboy’ follows, a fittingly Western theme lead by a meandering slide guitar and backed by tasteful percussion. It inexorably builds in tempo before falling, glistening, back into glockenspiel.
‘East Hastings’, the second track, opens on the cloying shouts of a street preacher, sermonising on the streets of Vancouver, a bagpipe reiterating the theme from ‘The Dead Flag Blues’. ‘The Sad Mafioso’ will no doubt be familiar to those who watched (band superfan) Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. There, an edited version of the track appears, the doom-laden soundtrack to Cillian Murphy’s ragged, baffled wander through the deserted streets of London.
The apocalyptic overtones of the album reach their peak in ‘The Sad Mafioso’, its tremolo guitars diving in and out of earshot. It’s a prime example of the orchestral layers that Godspeed pour into their music, the cries of atonal strings rearing up beside guitar tones awash with crackling distortion. A gaggle of quiet human voices breach into the din, but they are quickly silenced by a gorgeous, desperate guitar figure, repeated in several registers as the pace, inexorably, quickens, the precise drum patter morphing into frantic hammering and then an endless snare roll.
It’s fucking majestic. It also serves as a valuable precursor to the incredible ‘Sleep’ from Lift Your Skinny Fists…, reliant as it is on an enthralling build-up and release. ‘Providence’, the third track added to the 1998 expanded CD version, is much the same; it also stands as a testament to the confidence that Godspeed gained in the intervening year. Nearly double the length of either one of the previous songs, ‘Providence’ is Godspeed’s longest track and one of their most swellingly ambitious recordings, gleefully eschewing the pop sensibilities of the bubbly late 90s from which it came.
‘String Loop Manufactured During Downpour…’ says it all. This is the music by which the world will end, and it’s as desperate, beautiful and heartbreaking as you could hope for. ‘Bleak, Uncertain, Beautiful…’ ran the original title for Side Two on the vinyl pressing – it’s the perfect description for the album as a whole. Yet to command total self-confidence in their music, this is Godspeed in formative mode, still clawing at the stars from obscurity. Even so, it’s as formidable, enigmatic and impenetrable as you’d expect from them. God bless, Godspeed.