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godspeed you! black emperor

Umělec magazine 2010/2

01.02.2010

Adam Nenadál alias Aran Epochal | The End of the Western Concept | en cs de ru

Album covers containing neither the name of the band nor the title of the album. Promotion kept to a minimum. Official band pictures? They don’t exist. And the music? Long, and upon first listening, a randomly ‘collected’ series of compositions without vocals or any clear rhythmic structure. Godspeed You! Black Emperor have always done everything differently. Instead of communicating with the world, they have built up an impenetrable web of myths, dogmas, and legends. Still, the band has managed to take advantage of its chaotic lineup (at one point, the band had more than twenty musicians!) in order to create a monumental sound that, almost as an afterthought, just happens to have been recorded on excellent albums. For its fans, Godspeed You! Black Emperor embodies the purest possible approach to music. Does such a strict vision even have a place in this world? Of course not. But, Godspeed You! Black Emperor never pretended that they have anything more in common with this world than a random co-existence in space and time.


Album covers containing neither the name of the band nor the title of the album. Promotion kept to a minimum. Official band pictures? They don’t exist. And the music? Long, and upon first listening, a randomly ‘collected’ series of compositions without vocals or any clear rhythmic structure. Godspeed You! Black Emperor have always done everything differently. Instead of communicating with the world, they have built up an impenetrable web of myths, dogmas, and legends. Still, the band has managed to take advantage of its chaotic lineup (at one point, the band had more than twenty musicians!) in order to create a monumental sound that, almost as an afterthought, just happens to have been recorded on excellent albums. For its fans, Godspeed You! Black Emperor embodies the purest possible approach to music. Does such a strict vision even have a place in this world? Of course not. But, Godspeed You! Black Emperor never pretended that they have anything more in common with this world than a random co-existence in space and time.
The journey taken by Godspeed You! Black Emperor began in 1994 in Montreal, when the band was founded by Efrim Menuck, Mike Moya, and Mauro Pezzente. Over time, the lineup has changed numerous times, making it practically impossible to put together a detailed genealogy of all of the band lineups. “There were three of us at first. We met a friend who is a horn player who isn’t playing with us anymore. It was like if anyone knew anybody who played an instrument and seemed like an okay person, they would sort of join up,” remembers guitarist Efrim Menuck, a key figure in the band. “We got up to fifteen people or something and that was horrible and so we went back down to nine and have sort of been around nine ever since then.”
The musicians’ names are not all that important anyway. Everyone who has been a member of the musical collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor (the name is a reference to a Japanese documentary from 1976 about a motorcycle gang known as the Black Emperors) left his musician’s ego at the door of the practice or recording studio and became a part of a giant orchestra. The band’s incredibly urgent—almost epic—sound would not be possible without an absolute sacrifice of all ‘desire’ for showing off. Among other things, the changing lineup allowed the band to constantly engage in a free approach to composing and performing; Godspeed You! Black Emperor has never fallen into a rut. “The plan was always to get more people involved and then the band was always changing. That was always something we wanted. Lately it has become a lot more solid than it ever was. We used to change line-ups at every show. There would be two or three different people playing different instruments...” The result has always been immensely powerful music. David Bryant, “I don’t think we ever intended to put out a record and we certainly never intended to put out a record that people would actually listen to and we never intended to be a band that would play all the time. It was never supposed to be any of those things and the trap when you start playing all the time is you end up not listening to what other people are playing. You just focus more and more on what you’re playing, what your defined parts are and you play those parts but you don’t listen anymore. That’s a real problem.” As a result, instead of a fixed structure, the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor has always preferred communication; the mood of the moment, intuition and mutual respect are more important than a pre-defined arrangement.
Although Menuck & co. made their debut in 1994 with the cassette All Lights Fucked On The Hairy Amp Drooling—which was released in an edition of just thirty tapes—the band’s discography is usually considered to start with its mystical debut album with the unusual name F#A#∞. The vinyl edition of 500 records was released in 1997 on Montreal’s cult music label Constellation, with a CD released a year later by the equally well-respected Kranky (the CD is almost twice as long as the LP).
The album was a sensation on the underground scene. F#A#∞ is less a studio recording of pre-rehearsed music than a stream of collective consciousness that apparently manages to hold together only by sheer force of will. The album’s dynamics are totally unlike anything else—fragments of music emerge without warning from the darkest depths of silence, and the aimlessly wandering, ethereal guitar has completely given up on normal chord structure, and is more reminiscent of an eerie set design. Actual sounds of the city and the street, with all their human voices and sounds, transition into orchestral arrangements, all joined together by a dark and hopeless atmosphere of the coming end. At the same time however, F#A#∞ manages not to sound like a mosaic of sounds, with its individual audio elements holding together to create an absolutely hallucinogenic recording more reminiscent of a film soundtrack than a music album.
Confused but enthusiastic critics and audiences began to justifiably ask what, exactly, it was they were listening to. As a result, Godspeed You! Black Emperor was one of the first bands to be labeled with the new phrase post-rock, which however was just as vague as it was confusing. Few people noticed that, buried deep in the foundations of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s sound was a subtle reflection of the most traditional form of musical expression. David Bryant, “I don’t know what folk music is, like, kind of like just someone just feeling a certain thing at a certain period of time and feeling messed up and singing something about himself, writing something that means something to them, I don’t know. Like, folk music is honest music or something, like being honest in music and just like telling a story. And that’s a really big part of folk music, telling a story. And also like folk music is a way to keep yourself sane. I see a lot folk musicians just writing songs to keep themselves sane and if that’s folk music then yeah we’re folk music for sure.”
F#A#∞ also featured another of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s trademarks: an unusual album design. Forget about the traditional visual album design. Band name? Album title? Information and credits? None of this is more important than the overall visual sensation. A ‘slapdash’ font, what at first glance appears to be a random assembly of photographs, artifacts and text. Exactly the opposite of how most bands approach their debut album. Instead of a clear “Here we are, this is our name, and this is what we are calling our first record,” Godspeed closed itself off into its own private space from which, through its music and the album cover, it emits only very unclear signals. Besides the band members and the people at Constellation Records, the first edition of 500 vinyl records involved the collaboration of several independent Montreal artists—each of whom left their personal mark on F#A#∞. When you hold the album in your hands, it feels more like you’re holding someone’s secret diary instead of a rock album.
Often, journalists’ attempts at contacting the band for an interview ended quite comically as well; instead of answers, the journalists received incomprehensible sentence fragments, strange political manifestos, or photographs. “The band apparently refuses to play the typical media game,” reported a writer for Wire magazine. The Montreal band’s apparent inaccessibility only increased its cult status, as did its highly acclaimed concerts, which according to eyewitness accounts were characterized by a kind of magical bond between the band and the audience.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor followed up F#A#∞ with its EP Slow Riot For New Zerø Kanada (1999) and its LP opus from the year 2000, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. For many fans, these two recordings are the best that Menuck & co. have ever created. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven in particular overwhelms the listener with its enormous forcefulness: Where on its debut the band had used real life sounds, it now offered pure musical magic. However in no way can the album be described as being more 'accessible'—it is literally saturated by an apocalyptic mood. Hidden behind the soft strumming, we can hear hints of the angry political message that Godspeed You! Black Emperor emphasized and explained in several interviews that the band eventually agreed to. Reading these interviews, one might get the impression that the band is a gang of uncompromising punk rockers who play hardcore music with an emphatic political message—not a constantly changing army of musicians playing such tender yet torturous, dark and daring music.
Menuck, “Do you know what I really think? My own opinion? I think time is running short. I think time is running short. I think there are forces of evil in the world. I think that global capitalism is just, like, one inch away from being everywhere. I think now is not the time to be frittering away playing in a silly-assed post-rock band. I think everything you do in the face of this is inadequate.”
As a result, during its career Godspeed You! Black Emperor was a unique prototype of a DIY band. It strictly stuck to the underground network of independent labels and distribution, and although the mainstream literally beckoned the band with open arms, hoping for a kind of new avant-garde sensation, Godspeed never succumbed to the siren call.
The band’s stance is best documented by the insert to its last album, Yanqui U.X.O., which features a diagram showing how large record labels are connected to multinational corporations that support the war industry. Yanqui U.X.O. was released in 2002 and was recorded at the studio belonging to the famous producer Steve Albini (who collaborated on albums by PJ Harvey, The Pixies, Nirvana, The Jesus Lizard, Slint, and many others). It is a final shout of defiance, a burning stream of emotions in a cold world, an inspired composition of failed hopes. And, as if realizing that such a recording could not be repeated, in 2003 Godspeed You! Black Emperor announced that it would be taking an indeterminate ‘break’.
“I think the glory days are over,” guitarist David Bryant asserts. “When we first started out, we pretty much knew everyone in the room. We knew why we were there and why they were there—you could talk to them afterwards and they told you why. Now we play in front of 700 people—they leave, you don’t talk to anyone. It’s more and more fucking alienating every time we come over here and it’s less satisfying on a certain level. Not musically, obviously we would have stopped doing it if we weren’t interested in doing the music we do, but on the level of having communication with the people you’re playing to—this presence in front of you that doesn’t respond other then ‘Wooh!’”
“I mean, it’s a real simple story,” adds Efrim Menuck. “It’s a bunch of people in Montreal who started playing in a band and then all of a sudden they had to deal with some things which they didn’t know how to deal with and maybe that story’s got some value—I don’t think it’s got enormous value. I don’t think it’ll have much value in ten years time but right now maybe it’s vaguely interesting.”
The eternally mistrustful Efrim was wrong: Godspeed You! Black Emperor will be interesting in ten, twenty, thirty, and more years. During their break, all the band members have focused on personal projects, with A Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra receiving the most enthusiastic response. In this project, Menuck adds his melancholy, high voice to long compositions reminiscent of the best moments of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But now the band’s sabbatical is at an end and Godspeed You! Black Emperor are planning several concerts in the United States and Europe in late 2010—and there is enormous interest.
In other words, the world needs them. Even if they don’t want to be a part of it.


Translated from the Czech by Stephan von Pohl.




01.02.2010

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