The near disastrous 1998 Ice Storm in Quebec, Canada was not the beginning of Montreal’s Godspeed You Black Emperor!, but one could easily believe it was. Their cold, dark isolated landscape could easily have been born from this ecological disaster. The orchestral avant-rock nonet of GYBE! formed in 1994 through the dissatisfaction of the local music scene and the hungering do-it-yourself ethic that they still hold so dearly.Looking to put on a performance that was more than a typical rock show, Godspeed married the punk ethos of punk rock label SST’s hardcore bands with symphonic gloom and doom, creating an utterly unique and powerful force. Composed of three guitarists, two drummers, a bassist and three string players, GYBE! is a powerful force.
As a band, GYBE! is much like their music – enigmatic, cynical and estranged from society and even themselves. With nine members, you get a lot of conflicting reports, subjective opinions and at times, fierce bickering. Their self-loathing makes them a better band. A brutal set of self-set lofty standards that they can never reach, make them constantly unsatisfied and hungry to always overcome and surmount any obstacles or challenges. They’re hopeless martyrs of culture, capitalism and globalization. In fact, their self-righteousness can sometimes be too much. But musically, their frustration and alienation works religiously.
It’s hard to mention Godspeed without referencing the “post apocalypse.” Their dreary, isolated soundscapes and doomsday samples conjure up visions of a dead and dying world. As much as it’s overused, it’s a fair assessment. Lamenting the decay of modern civilization, crying guitars and weeping strings rage over a tumultuous ocean of crashing cymbals and pounding drums on a barren and diseased seashore.
Godspeed comes in grainy black and white, like the slow fade out of a frozen dog or a homeless person sitting in the cold waiting to freeze to death. It’s delivered gradually and painfully and you’re strapped to the seat and cannot look away. You’re forced to embrace the suffering and tragedy.
The band uses tape loops and spoken word pieces collected on the road or from old recordings, and the bleaker and more desolate, the better. As if the music weren’t telling enough, GYBE! utilizes these melancholy manifestos as an indictment on society today.
More composition than song, the collective segues through hushed moments, near silent, ambient passages only to explode into roaring wails of sound and fury, playing fervently like it’s their very last note, like the reaper is upon them. Lift Yr. Skinny Fists like Antennas to Heaven! features movements rather than verses and contains two songs per disc that are essentially one piece of streaming music.
GYBE! usually has critics creaming in their jeans, but the bulk of the two-disc LYSF might test their patience. Initially, it does seem like too much music and, admittedly, does take a while to absorb, but it’s worth the wait because what seems like a burden, quickly becomes a liberating experience.
LYSF sees Godspeed expanding their palate. More moods and shade are painted onto the sonic canvas rather than just the dark, cold sculptures of the Slow Riot for Zero Kanada EP. Unlike the complete juggernaut of desolation that was Slow Riot, LYSF evokes many more subtleties. At first, the album sound more upbeat and up-tempo than anything they’ve ever released, but the dark, oppressive anguish of earlier releases is still intact. These morbid musical vignettes are intense and heartbreakingly visceral. Bleeding melodies tear down the face of overworked hands, under-appreciated artists and unloved children. But the biggest difference between LYSF and their earlier work is the sense of hope that seeps into the album.
As bleak as it all is, there is an underlying romantic notion, a noble rage of essential art in the face of a dying and decrepit world. These tragedies, no matter how sad, are still beautiful. The hope is doomed to failure but defiant, like two lovers sharing one last kiss while the world collapses around them.
Canada’s best-kept art-rock secret may not be such a secret anymore. Witness Maxwells’ Thursday, Dec. 8 performance that has been sold out for weeks. What’s more, they’re playing three nights in a row at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, which is usually move reserved for indie gods like Yo La Tengo. But Godspeed have quickly developed a devoted following. This modest Montreal band with small ambition has captured the world by surprise to become one of the most important and visibly sought bands today, bar none. – Rodrigo Perez