I was feeling a bit apocalyptic today and so I reached for Godspeed You! Black Emperor Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven; roughly an hour and half of death and resurrection, flight and fall from the year 2000. I can say without fear of contradiction and you’ll have to hear me out and bear with me here, that GY!BE are my favourite 9-piece avant-classical-post-rock-holocaust purveyors from Montreal. No, it’s true – all the other ones are shit*.
I don’t play this LP very often, how could I? how could anyone? it would be completely overwhelming, but it really does hit the mark for me when I do. It isn’t my favourite GY!BE album, but it is their best I think, in that it is the closest to seeing them play live.
The music is split into 4 tracks, ‘Storm’, ‘Static’, ‘Sleep’ and ‘Antennas To Heaven’ one for each side of an LP and from there into a number of named sections, movements with all manner of very GY!BE-esque titles such as ‘Gathering Storm/Il Pleut à Mourir [+Clatters Like Worry]’ and ‘She Dreamt She Was a Bulldozer, She Dreamt She Was Alone in an Empty Field’. It all feels very important. Sometimes you can spot the joins between, other times not.
The band helpfully illustrate their music for us in a linear diagram inside the gatefold, which shows the relative lengths of the sections/pieces and also their shape – tapering upwards when a track peaks. It really works to help understand the music and also the band’s conception of the music too.
The cliché of post rock is that every track starts out gently and then works its’ way up into a towering frenzied climax, before setting out on an even higher plateau of sound towards the next crescendo. That’s fine and it does hold to an extent, but when GY!BE are driving the sound like they this then I find myself powerless to resist all this sweetness and blight. .
Take ‘Sleep’ as an example (I think the precise bit is called ‘Monheim’) where after some gentle voice reminiscing about the decline of Coney Island the band gradually load up on sound and take us careering towards the hills of LOUD, all stringed instruments wailing and building until you feel wrung out and like you can’t take any more. Then and only then do you realise that you’re not there yet, the band have a whole new gear to change up into. Multiply that by ten, with the volume set to ‘kill’ and you have some approximation of the live experience.
Needless to say Lift Your Skinny Fists** is a serious proposition, GY!BE make music to soundtrack our inevitable descent into the uncaring void, no songs about hot rods or chicks here and despite my propensity to mock, I love it. I think that breaking the music up into 4 sides actually helps the listener to chew it over and absorb it, it’s a more manageable experience than the CD.
Last track ‘Like Skinny Antennas To Heaven’ is possibly the most experimental here, it sounds quite rough in places, which is unusual given how burnished some of their studio work can sound. I love how the jumble of field recordings, eerie open spaces and, at one point, an earnest hopeful guitar line, blend and meld into something much bigger than the sum of the parts involved. I find it repays some serious visiting and revisiting.
The musicianship throughout is top-notch, without ever over-virtuosoing things, lengthy and intense-y as it all is, there is rarely a spare note. The drumming is the thing I noticed most this time around, odd when so much of the LP doesn’t feature any. Every so often it just kicks in steadily and the music coalesces around it, ready to march you up to the top of that hill again.
As always, Lift Your Skinny Fists is a beautifully presented LP. The gatefold diagram is a real treat, the inner sleeve pictures by William Schaff frightened the bejeezus out of me when the band used them as projections (along with lots of Canadian railroads and road views) and one of the LP labels features another, very GY!BE diagram, of a panopticon; abortive prison design and overweening metaphor for surveillance in modern life, again much featured in this band’s projections. All joy and hope is here.
Got serious if you want it. And why not, occasionally at least? this is not a great time of year for me and a vacillate between embracing the darkness herein, blasting it in a cleansing fury, scouring my soul clean and walking anew in the world and/or playing some trivial shit.
Tonight I lift my own skinny fists like antennas to heaven, whilst reminiscing about a Coney Island childhood that was never my own.
*I stole this opening paragraph wholesale from another GY!BE review I wrote, partly because I liked it, but mostly because I was having real trouble starting it off.
**as it will henceforth be shortened to, by imperial decree.