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 news came down the wire, Godspeed You! Black Emporer* were releasing a new LP this month. They’re not a band who sell huge amounts of records, or are ever much name-dropped but this Montreal based collective undoubtedly pack a certain cultural weight as much for the impenetrable, inscrutable uncompromising way they operate as for their music: you want heavy? this stuff weighs like a continent and I’m still trying to digest 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
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
But let’s hitch a ride in the belly of the bleeding beast back to where it all began 1997’s F#A# (infinity), which a far cooler friend hipped me to pretty much as soon as it came out. I’d never heard anything like it, the closest I’d got was (the very unfairly mostly forgotten) Rachel’s but GY!BE had a weirder wider sound palette than they did, mixing in some astonishing guitar crescendos, voices, tape effects and the like into their anarcho classical stew. I still remember the first time I saw them, just marvelling at the sheer number (10 I think, on that particular tour) of people on stage including three guitarists.
The skyline was beautiful on fire
All twisted metal stretching upwards
Everything washed in a thin orange haze
There were no track names, no pointers on the homemade LP sleeve, F#A# (infinity) unsettled from the off. Opener ‘Dead Flag Blues’** hinges around an ominous introduction, read by a man who couldn’t sound more ominous if had graduated with a PhD in Advanced Applied Ominousness from StareDown University; it’s so damn ominous that it borders on the comic. It works a treat, you’re immediately plunged into a world-turned-to-shit, drunkards corruption ruination and flames being the order of the day. The music saws as much as it soars, sounding during its 16 minutes like a decayed world glimpsed from the passenger seat of a fast-moving car, building amidst beautiful violin flourishes to a section that is pure Spaghetti Western, always sounding like it must surely rise up and be noisy. It doesn’t. This time. It’s a remarkable piece of music, from a remarkable band.
The sun has fallen down
And the billboards are all leering
And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles
‘East Hastings’ does bring the noise, featuring an almighty rollicking crescendo towards the end, along with a sampled manic street preacher*^, traffic noises, bagpipes and some lovely reflective guitar passages. No band does crescendos like GY!BE, I’ve seen ’em four times now and live, the volume is such that you feel every note, every not, every rest, every crest to a ridiculous extent. Even cranked up really high you can’t replicate that at home, or not without really pissing off Doreen and Norman next door, but this is no bad approximation on vinyl. This is such an accomplished piece of music, to think that F#A# (infinity) was a debut LP is quite humbling.
I said: “kiss me, you’re beautiful –
These are truly the last days”
The music got more intricate, both more ragged and more polished and certainly more punchy on later releases but F#A# (infinity) is the LP of theirs I return to most often. Sometimes there are a couple too many ideas vying for your attention and the production on the later LPs is sharper, but for all its flaws this is GY!BE’s most human album. As always it conveys that sense of vastness and space, large tracts of Canada glimpsed from trains and trucks – the projections they use live, make this link explicit. The monotony and poetry of water towers, signage and dereliction. There is a lot of feeling and emotion in these grooves as well as a certain amount of artifice. Make no mistakes about it this is art with a capital ‘A’, straddling that fine line between the portentous and the pretentious but coming down on the right side.
I would be neglecting my duties though if I didn’t tell you about the sheer physical beauty of . I spent some money and bought one of the 500 initial copies that were put together by the band and their chums, the postcard on the front hand-glued^, the cross on the back drawn on (I think) individually. It’s the sheer number of exciting little bits that come inside the album that I like:
- Print of a steam train bearing the legend ‘For the Reverend Gary Davis’
- Hand bill for a gig
- Card carrying the LP credits and rantings about Mile End (where the LP was made) called ‘The Story Thus Far’^^
- Diagram drawn by band entitled ‘Faulty Schematics Of A Ruined Machine’
- A Canadian penny crushed flat by a train
The last one is the biggest prize – how cool a thing to give away inside your LP, is that? the one in my LP used to be all shiny, but isn’t now. Even in later reissues I understand that all the goodies are still being included. It’s nice to be looked after, even if these are truly the last days.
*Godspeed You! Black Emporer were originally Godspeed You Black Emporer! and changed their punctuation on their Yanqui U.X.O album, but I use the latter format to keep things simple. These things matter to me.
**all track names taken from the CD version. When given a chance after the initial vinyl release they went back into the studio and cut an extra 25 minutes of music, messing with the running order and the starts and endings of the tracks. The CD is a completely different musical artefact than the vinyl – on this one rare occasion, I’d say it was … better.
*^not the Welsh dudes, I’m talking about a genuine ranting street crazy.
^there was a mix of three different ones, the one I have of the water tower being the one they used for the later re-issues too.
^^’the future is bleak, uncertain and beautiful … the van is gassed but the pistons are cracked’ and so on.