Gathering Storm: The Cerebral Majesty of Godspeed You! Black Emperor
As humans, we often take our emotions for granted. Our society is built upon the concept of haste, urging us to always work harder, work faster, and never look back or inwards, only forwards. Rarely do we slow ourselves down and truly take the time to comprehend or try to explain our feelings. When we do, we usually brush off such subjects with generalization and shy away from discussion, avoiding any critical thought other than surface level observation. Are our emotions becoming a taboo subject in this day and age? In truth, even the simplest of emotions take many words to express. Humanity has always sought to find a more convenient way to express these feelings, and in art, we found a perfect medium. We need not words and descriptions to portray these visceral sensations, but allegories, paint, and instruments. To avoid sounding any more pretentious, I’ll try to get to the point. Holding the desire to make a quick buck, individuals have always jumped on the bandwagon of art, and instead of striving to create an opus that will reach out and grab a certain few and impact them profoundly, they instead concoct a generalized, watered-down formula that will reach many people, but change little in them. These cons have been the artist’s foil for as long as art has lived. For every Herman Melville, there is a James Patterson. For every Van Gogh, there is a Thomas Kinkade. In music, you can definitely expect this conflict to ring true. Sometimes, it is very difficult to find a musical artist that truly connects with us, and we often need others to expose us to them. Though I do not expect many to develop the same feelings I hold, with this article, I would like to share an artist that truly changed my thought processes, and I hope that this may help a few find a new favorite artist for themselves.
In 1994, three young musicians living in Montreal decided to form a band together, perhaps without an idea of what they specifically wanted to attain. They named themselves Godspeed You! Black Emperor, after the title of a Japanese film about a biker gang. It seems they carried some excess baggage, and merely wanted to express such feelings, as evidenced by the one track I have heard from their first release/mixtape, the questionably titled “All Lights Fucked On The Hairy Amp Drooling”. Only 33 copies were produced on cassette, and one would be incredibly lucky to hear the tape, as the only proof we have of its existence is the word of the band and a minor leak from a Reddit user who actually had the tape (and later deleted their account, after they found the pressure of trying to sell such a tape too great). We may never hear the tape, but that would be alright, for it would certainly not even compare to what was to come.
Starting in 1995, the three piece group of Efrim Menuck, Mike Moya, and Mauro Pezzente expanded, taking on a number of new members. At their most massive, they became an unmanageable collective of around 15 musicians. After internal conflicts rendered such a group impossible, they settled with 9 musicians, the lineup as follows: Efrim Menuck, Mike Moya, and David Bryant on guitars, Thierry Amar and Mauro Pezzente on contrabass and electric bass, Aidan Girt and Bruce Cawdron on drums and percussion, Sophie Trudeau on violin, and Norsola Johnson on cello. Though lineups would change subtly across albums, these are the core members. You may be asking “what genre is Godspeed?”. You could say they fall under the genre of post-rock, which basically boils down to instrumentals and long songs. However, post-rock was not quite a recognized genre during this band’s early existence, and I find the blanket term devalues the music. What we have here is a unique blend of experimental/avant-garde music, instrumental rock, neo classical, and dark ambient/drone. With songs colossal in length broken up into movements, the band often utilizes a quiet to loud approach centered around jaw-dropping climaxes. In between, they sandwich quiet, beautifully contemplative music and intimidating experimental pieces. It is incredibly difficult to put a label on Godspeed, and as such, I find that the classifications offered by genre labels to be lacking.
The band, then a 10 piece collective, would release their first true album in 1997, the landmark “F#A#∞”. This was the first album I heard by the band. Their name had been one I heard like wisps on the wind for a number of years, and this album was often floated on that breeze as well. So one day, I picked it up in a small underground record store in Ann Arbor. Prepared for a 3 hour road trip, I put in my headphones and decided to have a new experience. I was floored by what I heard. Ominous drones carrying equally ominous monologues about the state of our capitalist society, segueing into dingy urban folk crawls and spaghetti western like soundscapes. A street preacher with bagpipe warning the public that the time for salvation draws near. Soundtrack like movements of sustained, slowly building tension, reaching a thunderous, epic climax. The movement dropping into terrifying experimental sections, portraying a true sense of pain, schizophrenic confusion, fear, and suffering. Orchestral dirges break into tribal-like rhythms displaying impressive restraint. Martial sounding drums pave the way for a great crescendo, and the listener is left with a cold, glitchy, and artificial drone, leaving them with a sense of emptiness and longing. Only after 4 minutes of dead silence is the state of dark engrossment shattered by one more movement of surf-rock like power, so loud it clips the audio and shakes the listener to their core, reminding them that not everything is as it seems.
I was a Godspeed fan the moment I finished that album, and for me, they are an artistic success in that they managed to make me experience emotions I normally don’t and shouldn’t. “F#A#∞”, while remaining somewhat ambiguous (most of the themes are hinted at through the expansive liner notes), focuses on the struggle of the working poor, the inherent flaws of capitalism, and the difficulties of life in the inner city. By inspiring critical thought centered around empathy, they managed to impact me in a way that countless others have failed to, who sacrifice emotional depth in lieu of commercial appeal and accessibility. This is why I don’t expect everyone who reads this to like Godspeed, and that is ok. It takes time to find an artist whose message truly resonates with us. But considering the diversity of this band’s sound, I plan to review each of their albums (they have only released six), spanning from 1997’s “F#” to 2015’s “Asunder, Sweet, And Other Distress”. It is my hope that somewhere in this eclectic storm of sound, a listener may pick out something that could move them, inspire them, and perhaps make the world a more open minded place in the process.