Album Review: F# A# ∞ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Easily a cornerstone in the world of post-rock and a rousing artistic statement on the fast approaching 21st century, Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s proper debut album, F# A# ∞, still stands as one of the most important and compelling experimental art records ever created. Consisting of ten members at the time of recording (3 guitarists, 2 bassists, 2 percussionists, 1 violinist, 1 cellist, and 1 french horn player), the collective compiled scraps of ideas and musical pieces, eventually creating a varied yet cohesive piece. The concepts that drove the album were cemented through the use of found sound recordings, some more thematically implicit than others. When all was said and done, the band hand-packaged a limited release of 500 vinyl records, and sold them through the independent Constellation Records label.
Released in 1997, F# A# ∞ (named after the opening key of side A, the opening key of side B, and the locking groove ending the record) was well received by the critics and listeners who managed to hear it, but the limited run did it few favors. However, come 1998, the band partnered with American label Kranky to release their output on CD, and returned to the studio to further flesh out the album. With new samples and whole new musical movements, the CD release of F# A# ∞ remains the definitive version of the album, one which gained recognition largely through word of mouth, and in the nearly two decades since its release has been hailed as a masterpiece, some even considering it one of the greatest albums of all time. Where lies the appeal of the album, however? In the genre of post-rock, this album has inspired many, just as it has produced many copy cats. The slow, building crescendos and clean, reverbed guitar lines have been played out to the point of them becoming stale, so why go back to something that theoretically allowed for such boredom?
Simply put, F# A# ∞ is an aural adventure. I would give almost anything to experience hearing it again for the first time. With vast, sweeping sonic landscapes and worldbuilding sound samples, it is easy to get lost in the intoxicatingly anguished, dysfunctional world and society painted by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, one that was, and is, a bit too relevant for some. With incredible pain comes catharsis, and with catharsis comes hope, and this sliver of hope, no matter how tiny it may be, is what drives the album through the tempest of anger, fear, and depression. If there is one thing certain, however, it would have to be this: never has the end of the world sounded so beautiful.
“The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel” so begins the infamous monologue of “The Dead Flag Blues,” over a low, ominous droning. What ensues is a chilling account of the isolation, loneliness, and detachment that permeates late-capitalism, given by an elderly man who sounds like an elder Lee Marvin. While with enough listens some may eventually find that the metaphors and descriptions become a little ham fisted, there is still certain genuine honesty that haunts the words, making them seem all the more desperate. As the narration unfolds, a funereal violin-cello melody takes precedence, underscoring the tragedy of the apocalyptic imagery described. While many like to make claims that F# is about the apocalypse itself, I prefer to interpret it as mere hyperbole, capturing how for the working poor in modern society, every day seems as if the end of the world is looming, just beyond vision. The strings fade, and are replaced by barely recognizable guitars, laden with reverb, playing the same elegiac theme, which begins to feel more and more like a great mourning, the dingy guitars echoing off the walls of filthy sewers and back alley tenements. “The Dead Flag Blues” is quick to introduce the minimalist element that would come to define and pervade all of Godspeed’s output, with repetition being key. It is with layers of sound and color that same melody is kept interesting, holding and building tension as the guitars separate from each other, creating a multi-tiered vision of inner city sorrow, or the burgeoning storm clouds over expansive, empty farmlands , the nervous scrapings of a violin punctuating the gloom like the cries of a beggar.
This album tends to be as dramatic as one wishes it to be (given to it being instrumental), and a little melodrama goes an especially long way here. As the melody winds down, the narrator returns, concluding “We woke up one morning, and fell a little further down. For sure it’s the valley of death. I open up my wallet, and it’s full of blood.” While traditionally a track would end here, Godspeed has a unique style of blending multiple distinct movements into one track. As such, the entire track “The Dead Flag Blues” runs about 16 and a half minutes. This lends a sort of sense of discovery to the tracks, with innumerable details buried within them. The next movement, the aptly titled “Slow Moving Trains,” begins with the chugging and whistling of a train, speeding off into the distance as slowly rising and falling slide guitar creeps in. A much more experimental segment in nature, a sense of emptiness and dread begins to consume track, until reaching a sustained drone, enforced by Godspeed’s trademark screwdriver to guitar playing method. A low bass line emerges from the drone, as windswept chords capture a spaghetti western vibe, which is to be expected of a movement called “The Cowboy.” A lonely slide guitar line gives shape to the movement’s arid atmosphere, and with the sudden entrance of percussion, the track takes off. Wailing fiddle and tremolo picked guitar supplement the steadiness of the rhythm guitar, and the return of the slide guitar pushes the song to its serene, peaceful conclusion. Easily one of the most beautiful movements on the record, one can imagine the barren rural landscapes passing them by, devoid of life, yet oddly blissful in their loneliness. Right as it seems as if the track is done, a coda fades in, a shockingly joyful tune, almost sounding like a folk jig. Fiddle, slide guitar, upright bass, and the jinglings of a glockenspiel cap “The Dead Flag Blues” off in the most positive manner possible, perhaps to symbolize the clarity that comes with hope at the end of a struggle. This gives “The Dead Flag Blues” all of what it needs to be its own standalone work of art, but as merely a piece of something much greater, the hope is only short lived.
All optimism left from the previous track is immediately dashed upon the intro of the 18 minute “East Hastings” (named after Vancouver’s equivalent of L.A.’s Skid Row). The short opening interlude, "...Nothing's Alrite in Our Life..." / "The Dead Flag Blues (Reprise)" begins with a recording of a street preacher, rambling of the end times and the true savior Jesus Christ. If the funeral comparisons on the previous track weren’t enough, the melody of “The Dead Flag Blues” is now played on bagpipes, sounding like both the death of sovereignty and independence at the same time. The opening bleeds into the next movement, “The Sad Mafioso,” cloaked by the foreboding haze of screwdrivered guitars. Out of the fog, a single guitar builds into an anxiety ridden crawl, becoming more and more dense as the other instruments meld together to act as one. The guitars, sounding like quiet, restrained sobs begin to pick up speed with percussion and strings joining the mix. Vast stretches of urban landscape and ghettos are painted in by the instruments, passing by at a more and more disorienting rate.
The track grows more and more desperate by the second, picking up momentum and speed. The guitars are overdriven, and the drums break into double time, and it seems as if the whole Earth itself is collapsing inward, in what is Godspeed’s first, and one of their finest crescendos. The grand power of it all is almost too much to bear, and upon hitting its climax, the instrumental drops out, leaving only faint static, and the mysteriously sinister radio transmission “They have a large barge with a radio antenna tower on it, that they would charge up and discharge”. This little sample serves as the prelude to two of the most horrifying, schizophrenic, and equally fascinating pieces of dark-ambient audio art I have ever encountered, “Drugs in Tokyo” and “Black Helicopter.” What sounds like some sort of sonic echo morphs into something more reminiscent of anguished screaming, with a thick wall of sound, possibly made from tape loop and heavily distorted guitars, ringing out like the clangs of machinery from some horrible labor mill. The whole dichotomy established seems to be based upon the clashing existences of the natural and the industrial, the sickening blend of the organic and the artificial, as seemingly human and animal cries are twisted into sonic assaults. Perhaps this serves to capture the terror and emotional torment that often plagues the minds of the impoverished. This cognitive approach would be congruent with the likely message of “Black Helicopter”. The frenetic chopping of helicopter blades tears across the speakers, circling the listener in stereo. Absolute paranoia sets in, like tied to the fear of surveillance, in accordance to that of big brother-esque governments, something even more relevant today. Suddenly, what seems like hundreds of flies begin buzzing in your ears, with what sounds like highly distorted speech being looped in the background. Strange electronic noises creep in and out, with the maddening onslaught of noise tearing into the listener’s anxiety, creating one of the most nerve wracking sequences I’ve ever experienced. As the buzzing subsides with one lone fly, for only a few seconds, a massive throbbing bass crushes the listener, each brief respite filled with what sounds like something heavy being dragged along metal in some abject, forlorn place, a sound perfectly fit for Silent Hill. The industrial sounds fade to nothing, ending a track that only dug a grave deeper and deeper for any chance of hope.
“Providence” opens with another found sound recording, this one of a man (later immortalized as “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III” on the band’s next release, Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada) being interviewed on the streets. He remarks of the current state of the U.S., all of the problems that it will soon face. However, when asked if the end of the world is coming, he replies “No. So says the preacher man, but I don’t go by what he says.” It was an interesting choice to place this sample at the beginning of “Providence,” in such a way that it conflicts with the sample from “East Hastings.” Perhaps it is an intelligent statement regarding the fact that even in the worst of times, we are still entitled to our own opinions, as there is never one single truth to reality. The torpor has finally at this point caught up with the listener and the music itself, as is hinted at in the brief, lethargic, and defeated “Divorce and Fever,” which is composed of an ominous and unnatural tune, seemingly composed of modified organ and tape loops, once again, almost evocative of a procession. From silence begins the first real musical piece in a while, “Dead Metheny.” A long, sprawling piece, minimalistic guitar strums hint at some sort of struggle, all backed by a groove in a strange time signature. The lead guitars fade out, supplanted by a lengthy cello-violin dirge, with the occasional entrance of the french horn adding to the atmosphere. There is an unusual sense of restraint carried through the track, carried through to a glockenspiel and bass solo, before concluding. However, the rhythm guitar begins playing the same motif again, and cymbal splashes and guitar harmonics begins building tension under a constantly churning bass. At last, all guitars enter, and the groove is backed by frantic tribal drumming, and the piece springs to life. The drumming becomes increasingly forceful, until the guitars break loose into frenzied solos. The track becomes an all out scream of desperation as it blindly hurtles towards its conclusion, like a derailed train.
After another duration of silence and a disturbing segment consisting of a heavily modified tape loop of a woman singing, “Kicking Horse on Broken Hill” emerges. A decidedly victorious tune, its tremolo picked guitars and martial drum beat lend it a sensation of overcoming struggle, a euphoric drive towards opportunity. The track climaxes with a Bolero-esque rhythm concluding valiantly, but no sooner than that it gives way to distorted sample from the 1971 Broadway musical Godspell. “Where are you going?” ominously questions a down-pitched voice, melding into the penultimate movement, the powerfully titled “String Loop Manufactured During Downpour.” The disorder and chaos of the fires alluded to during the opening of the album (“The skyline was beautiful on fire, all twisted metals stretching upwards”) has been drowned in torrential downpour, and the desolate loneliness of it all sets in. The droning of the tape loops, slowly growing ever more distorted, even rumbling like cracks of thunder, creates one of the most unique atmospheres the band has ever captured, almost like walking through the back alleys of the worst part of a city, the heavy rainfall forcing the few inhabitants into fetal position, trying to stave off the wet cold that blankets the buildings and desperately hold onto body heat, pretty much all they have left to their name.
It is a void, one empty on any sense of hope. It is the aftermath of it all, when optimism is but an anachronism, outside of any logic, where despair is and will be the only reality. It seems that this is where the album ends, but it is questionable, as there are 8 minutes remaining in this 29 minute collage of a track. Indeed, on the vinyl release, the tape loop simply repeated endlessly on a locked groove (infinity), but because there was still space on the CD, and because it was the 90’s (Nirvana did it too), there is a hidden track, fading in approximately 25 minutes into the track, after nearly 4 minutes of silence. The “J.L.H. Outro” or “John Lee Hooker Outro” (named after the famous bluesman) is a strange a way to end the album. Seemingly disconnected thematically from the rest of it all, the heavily reverbed guitars build into an incredibly loud and explosive climax, the drums and tremolo picked guitars so deafening and drenched in reverb that the audio is pushed to the point of clipping. The track almost resembles surf rock, pushed to its most wild and delirious. With a few rounds of thunderous drum beats, the journey is over, returning once again to silence, leaving the finality of the album open to interpretation.