So, This is What Triumph Feels (Sounds) Like
Hope in the apocalyptic soundscape of Godspeed You! Black Emperor
When I was about 10...
I used to wander around the playground at lunch. I would abandon my friends and take my unwieldy, oversized body to the grassy sprawl that was the school yard. Headphones on, Walkman in hand, a small case of CDs in my backpack.
It was "me" time. Time to tap into something deep and landscape-shaping. It was usually Korn, Nine Inch Nails, or DMX. But being it was around the year 2000, it was more often than not, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
We'll return to the playground in a bit, but first...
OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN.
In the liner notes for their latest album, Godspeed You! Black Emperor (otherwise known as "God's Pee"), states:
"this record is about all of us waiting for the end.
all current forms of governance are failed.
this record is about all of us waiting for the beginning,
and is informed by the following demands=
empty the prisons
take power from the police and give it to the neighbourhoods that they terrorise.
end the forever wars and all other forms of imperialism.
tax the rich until they're impoverished.
much love to all the other lost and lovely ones,
these are death-times and our side has to win."
For largely wordless music (save the sounds of short wave radio doomsday preachers and field recordings of criminal vagabonds), their latest album does all it can to put you into such a specific mental scenario. And it succeeds--at least with me.
The new record, "G_d's Pee AT STATE'S END!" (yes, that's the actual title) still travels down familiar dirt roads. Apocalyptic, ravaged by nuclear winter and irresponsible governments, but this time, things are different.
Maybe time softened the otherwise hardened-by-reality band, who refused to take many photographs or license out any of their music (except for a handful of times.) In recent years, they've toured more than ever. In the last 9 years, they've released more music than their initial 7 year run (before the great hiatus of 2002-2012.) For a band once content with fading away in the chaos of unexploded street bombs and ends times anticipation, they realized what all eventually come to realize:
It's better to hope than to dread.
Godspeed--a name derived from a documentary about Japanese motorcycle club, the Black Emperors--made records about embracing death, embracing terror, and accepting we can't change a dying world, we can only watch and let it engulf us.
Stubborn tiny lights vs. clustering darkness forever ok?
It began with an EP titled "All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling" (yes, also real.) Only 33 cassette copies were ever made and unless you own one or listened to one through a haze of bong smoke in your buddy's bedroom, only shit-sounding partial bootlegs float about the open seas of the internet for all to enjoy. The band themselves say it simply is "not interesting enough" to reissue. I would agree.
It is a sound rooted in teenaged, Canadian angst. Young, dumb, full of anger, anger that would later be channeled far more memorably and effectively on their first official outing, "F#A#∞." It is a monster 3 song, 63 minute album filled with sprawling landscapes, a memorable monologue, and, on "Providence," the sounds of what it must feel like to approach a deadly battlefield. An imposing, forced walk into madness. This is also the album whose most popular track, "East Hastings" is featured in 28 Days Later, about 5 years after its initial release.
Okay, I won't bore you with overviews of every album. From 1993, starting with "All Lights Fucked..." through 2002, their output became a thing of doomsday-coated legend. "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven" is considered by some the crowning achievement of all modern instrumental music. "Yanqui U.X.O." (my personal favorite) is a stunning indictment on American imperialism and interventionist policy. "Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada," "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" "Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress," and "Luciferian Towers" are all, in their ways, incredible works (even if some tracks come up shorter than others.)
But they all end in the same place. A place of fear, a place of doubt. There is an uneasiness to each that make you feel as if you are being pushed into the afterlife against your will with the dying cries of each final track.
That brings me to "G_d's Pee AT STATE'S END!"
OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (CONT'D.)
The reason I am writing this piece is two-fold.
One: It's admittedly an ego-stroke to be able to put my prowess for music criticism on full display. You may disagree, you may think you've seen these takes elsewhere but better, but I also get to actively not care and ignore all responses. This is for me.
Two: I am chasing a dragon. Like a runner's high, I am constantly listening out for music that will place me in a specific state. When I was younger, it was easier. Things were new, it didn't take much to blow my mind. These days, the sound waves better make the grey hair in my thin, short beard quiver if you want me to feel something.
When I listened to this album, that's exactly what happened.
I hadn't felt this kind of feeling since the first time I listened to the aforementioned "Yanqui." I could even argue the feeling was not this strong since I was about 10 years old, wandering through the thick, engulfing fog of my junior high at lunch time, the sprawling sounds of "Lift Your Skinny Fists..." blaring, mirroring the seemingly endless sprawl of the thick, atmospheric grey of the playground.
Music's job, when done well, is to evoke not only emotion, but a sense of space and time. Sure, an Ariana Grande song can activate your sassy button and raise your serotonin ever so slightly, but can it place you in an old memory? Can it place you in a memory you've never actually had? What are memories? (I'll save that for my eventual Blade Runner 2049 essay.)
It's rare when music can do this exact thing from a group of musicians who, in most peoples's opinions, maybe peaked 20+ years ago.
As the album raged on and the short wave radio transmission (a resurrected classic Godspeed tool) kicked in on "GOVERNMENT CAME..." I felt the power transport me somewhere I had at once not been in decades but also had never been at all...
A Foggy Field in the Bay Area
I found myself back in the fields of my youth, though it wasn't a memory I ever had. This was both everything that happened and nothing at all. The fields were still foggy but we were grown men, women, and otherwise. A war was raging between believers of truth and believers of lies. "Cliff's Gaze" blared as we shed the blood of the other side in this battle.
The dust settled and we looked on at our victory through the opaque air around us, covered in viscera and sweat, sore and aching. We walked through the field and looked over the casualties of battle in the larger war. It was sobering to see the bodies of our comrades in this fight over ideology, but we looked ahead and we knew, with Sophie Trudeau's strings dominating the caverns of my mind, "OUR SIDE MUST WIN."
I thought about melting glaciers, fields of fire in California, Venice drowning, and despite it all, finally felt a sense of hope for once in a long, long time.
I found myself suddenly understanding every bit of Godspeed's anarcho-punk declarations, their liner notes like a miniature manifesto that spoke volumes. I felt the soft, dewy air of the fog, the grass beneath my feet and I swore, a Walkman in one hand, headphones over my ears.
That's the power of this album.
Where can you purchase this?
Support musicians the way they deserve and make sure they get the revenue share they've worked so hard to get...
Or, if you can, hit up your local record store. They'll be happy you did.