There comes a point in any band’s career where a signature sound risks becoming predictable cliche. Let’s take Godspeed You Black Emperor for instance. Here’s a nine piece ensemble from Montreal, known as much for their cinematic soundscapes and minimalist drones as for their polemic distaste for corporate capitalism. They are keen to bump up against the contradictions of the music biz in an uncompromising fashion, taking a stand in liner notes, letters to the editor, or etching their slogans onto the celluloid screened at their live shows. This in one sense trades in a rockist tradition of connecting the everyday struggle with creative struggle. It’s also part of that elusive discourse of the rock star/band genius, he/she/they who transcend their circumstance because there is ‘something’ inside them, a deep-rooted desire, that compels them to. As the archetypal ‘romantic artist’ who uses their art to get beyond their tawdry circumstance, there come the inevitable paradoxes, charges of hypocrisy, contradictions, etc., as they try to do it according to their own terms and not those imposed on them.
This can be offered up as a qualifier: As part of this inexorable struggle, Godspeed You Black Emperor have suffered the slings and arrows of the uncaring and ignorant critic in the past. They’ve also made it very clear what they think of the media generally, and for the most part have shunned them as part the capitalist machine that keeps us all down. To take on Godspeed often means, at least in the band members’ eyes, that one risks becoming part of the problem.
Godspeed, by virtue of being virtuous, have mapped out a career (pardon the intrusion of another rockist notion) marked by a number of manifestos targetting those they believe complicit in the perpetuation of structures of inequality. Each missive, each letter to the editor, has been an important and valid as well as validating attempt to distance themselves from the corrupt and corrupting world of capital. Their no-shit sensibility has inspired both awe and admiration, and their music produces the same effect. slack-jawed as we are at the sheer grandiosity of their sound. Rock music is for them, a serious endeavour that must be employed to get stuck in the craw of the powers that be.
Their first LP, f#a# infinity (Constellation/Kranky), was a testament to their commitment to making uncompromised music. A rather inspiring aural commentary on post-industrial decay and urban life, it was a powerful patchwork of field recordings, swirling drones and insistent crescendoes. It was a sign—and the religious overtones of that notion are not to be taken lightly—of things to come. In fact, Godspeed take very few things lightly. And more to the point, religiosity suffuses all of their releases, becoming more and more explicit with each release and the rhetoric of the impending apocalypse always runs thick and heavy.
What has also become more apparent with each release is a definitive style. I always experience a godspeed song as ‘waiting for the chase sequence’, that point in so many of their songs where the slow buildup reaches a peak and gives way to accelerated drums and crashing symbols, the guitar swells pulling themselves up out of the depths and now taking on a new menacing but exhilerating thrust forward.
Of course, it might be said that the music is an analogue of Godspeed’s dramatic vision of their daily life in the money-driven metropolis. For them, this new state of affairs has meant more down-trodden and forgotten people. Their music and liner notes often come across as a anthems and slogans for the dispossessed, the disenchanted. Buried beneath all the noise, is a pure sound of freedom and liberation, the mournful sound of longing for a better time and place. Certainly, the trains which form a part of that vision, are strangely nostalgic, their sounds marshalled together here as part of an aesthetic designed to be a sonic thorn in the side of a faceless, alienating and unforgiving economy. Even the ominous preachings of Blaise Bailey are meant as portents of a dire future, his street poetry narrating their sense of urban melancholy.
So with Lift Yr Skinny Fists… Godspeed continue their mission, a zealous and ambitious two-CD epic (deliberate religious connotation of course). This you can hear on tracks like “Gathering Storm”, “Monheim” and “Cancer Towers on Holy Road Hi-Way”. But despite its sonic grandeur, the album is a subtle change in orientation. Their post-prog rock expansiveness has given over to a more avant-garde exploration of sound and texture. And with that, there seems to be a partial retreat here, a hesitant withdrawal. The polemic is still here, but blunted somewhat by the looser moments, the behind-the-scenes feel of “Mayo Sings Baby-O”.
There is another side of Godspeed appearing here. It’s still out of focus, a little more shambling and vague. It’s the sound of ambivalence. The controlled anger and frustration of their other releases have been recast as doubt and uncertainty. The only certainty here it seems is their signature sound, the creeping sense of a formula making its way into their soundscapes. This is the tension that drives this record: somewhere etched into the plastic pits is a sense of struggle that seems more about the band than some grander project of toppling capitalism. It’s a tension resting on an idea of remaining important yet mysterious, significant but anonymous, visible without becoming celebrities or rock stars. And while there are some great songs here, the epic sprawl seems more important for what it says about the future of the band rather than what the band stand for (or against). The titular call-to-arms is ironized as somewhat misplaced or displaced by a greater anxiety which can’t separate out their and our futures. But a good argument could be made for ambivalence here, adding another layer of complexity to an always complicated band.