Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Revisit: Godspeed You Black Emperor - f#a#∞

Published at spectrumculture.com

Godspeed You! Black Emperor's f#a#∞ still stands as one of the most foreboding and oppressively dark albums in indiedom. Taking the end of the world and the inevitable apocalyptic well of misery that follows as its primary themes, the album is essentially a modern symphony with several movements within each song. Usually classified as one of the best examples of post-rock (a bullshit catch-all term that means everything and yet absolutely nothing), it blends elements of classical music, avant-garde, pun, and prog rock (the few elements of prog rock that don't completely suck).

GYBE is often portrayed as a darkly mysterious or sinister Canadian musical collective; the fact that in 2003 the band was suspected of being terrorists and were subsequently questioned by the FBI after stopping at a gas station in beautiful Ardmore, Oklahoma most likely didn't help. While GYBE hasn't embraced or encouraged this characterization, it hasn't necessarily challenged it either: their albums offer scant information about or images of the band's members, the band rarely gives interviews, and its overall style is certainly not cheery or easily accessible. While this depiction has probably consigned the band to a cult following - which, given their disdain for mainstream music and corporate rock, the band likely doesn't mind - it has also allowed GYBE to create albums without the dual burdens of undue attention and expectations from either fans or critics.

Though the band's entire discography is worth hearing, f#a#∞ remains their most evocative and representative effort, with Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven running a close second. Originally released on vinyl in 1997 and later remastered and updated for the digital world in 1998, the album was recorded over a three-year period and features no fewer than nine band members playing instruments including guitars, bass, strings, keyboards, drums and various pieces of percussion. Its three songs - "The Dead Flag Blues," "East Hastings," and "Providence" - are all lengthy, mostly instrumental pieces that are alternately depressing, comforting and terrifying. Stark and haunting, the album isn't necessarily easy listening; though it requires careful attention, it reveals more of its strange beauty with each subsequent listen.

Opening song "The Dead Flag Blues" is the album's standout and most startling track; it sets both the tone and mood for the movements that follow. Opening with a recurring drone and a man's deep voice that paints a scene of complete and utter ruin, it's a jarring wake up call for unsuspecting listeners:

The car's on fire and there's no driver at the wheel
And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
And a dark wind blows
The government is corrupt
And we're on so many drugs
With the radio on and the curtains drawn
We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death

The tension is increased as plaintive violin strings are next heard (if this doesn't move you, you're truly a heartless bastard), as the narrator backtracks to describe exactly what happened:

It went like this:
The buildings tumbled in on themselves
Mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble
And pulled out their hair
The skyline was beautiful on fire
All twisted metal stretching upwards
Everything washed in a thin orange haze

The song's movements serve as separate parts of one lengthy end of days lament. Each movement features various mixes of strings, guitars and percussion, along with varying shifts in mood and pace, though these changes are subtle and always short-lived. The song remains undeniably bleak, its various images (crumbled buildings, a horribly wrecked locomotive, dead bodies in the sewers) used to create a parallel with mankind's last days.

The final two tracks showcase GYBE's ability to lull the listener in with quiet melodies, only to then bludgeon that listener with insistent, and immediately disorienting, arrangements. The second movement of "East Hastings" spends its few minutes offering little more than electric guitar strums and random background noises, only to eventually build to a crescendo of drums, percussion, and strings, before again rolling back quietly. Likewise, several movements in "Providence" alternate between sections of gentle violins and sections that sound like pure musical doom and hopelessness, only to recede again to something deceptively soothing.

One of those rare albums that defy easy categorization, f#a#∞ takes a theme that has been explored throughout the centuries - the end of the world - and addresses it in orchestral terms. Its songs develop deliberately, alternating between controlled and melodic isolated instruments and the full force wrought by a nine-member band. Equal parts moving and disturbing, f#a#∞ is somehow both comforting and unsettling; if the apocalypse sounds anything like this, at least we'll go out with some great tunes.

by Eric Whelchel

No comments: