I can still remember my reaction the first time I heard Godspeed You! Black Emperor (then stylized as Godspeed You Black Emperor!): “Sonofabitch, some bastards did it! Those crazy bastards did it!”
And it was amazing.
This was mid 1998. I had pulled some friends together for a semi-improvisational noise band called Slumbersigh. We played a few shows early that year, blasted some feedback at the audience, and called it quits before summer. During that stretch, I waxed poetic to the drummer about this sound I heard in my head, this musical thing I wanted to do but had no idea how to accomplish.
Sprawling, seemingly endless instrumental songs that built slowly towards a raging crescendo, backed by strings and horns, with multiple guitars weaving in and out of one another in squalls of sonic fury. The pieces would bleed into one another, one piece winding down only to shift, evolve, and morph into something else entirely on its way to yet another mighty crescendo. I wanted it to sound like the twisted soundtrack of a film that didn’t exist. Like classical music gone wrong after a meth bender with the Velvet Underground. As if the end of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” were done as a chugging Zeppelin groove and was played for 15 minutes.
So when I heard F♯ A♯ ∞, the debut record by GY!BE later that summer, I was floored. Someone had done exactly what I was hearing.
I don’t recall exactly how the record crossed my path. Most likely, I picked it up blind. The vinyl release had been quietly released in 1997 on Constellation Records, but it wasn’t until June of 1998 that it hit the CD format thanks to Kranky, a Chicago label dedicated to ambient and experimental music. At one time, I’d buy just about anything they put out. Labradford, Windy & Carl, Magnog. I knew I couldn’t go wrong if it came from Kranky. It was almost always great stuff.
That first GY!BE record blew me away. It sounded just like what I heard in my head. Bits of music and song ideas connected together into epic dirges, incidental music joined with what could have been soundtrack music, long jams of blaring guitar and string sections. It was stunning.
They put out two more fantastic albums and an EP over the next five years, reinventing the post-rock genre while also influencing the film and TV soundtrack work we’d hear for the next 15 to 20 years. That chilling scene of an empty city at the start of 28 Days Later? That’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The theme song for The Walking Dead? Bear McCeary, the composer for that show, BattleStar Galactica, and others, has clearly been inspired by them. And so on.
The band took a 10-year hiatus, then came back by surprise with 2012’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, portions of which was made up of music they had initially played live a decade prior. It was strong stuff. Another solid record followed in 2015, and then in September of this year we got Luciferian Towers, their newest effort.
A new GY!BE record is always an event for me, so I grabbed some earphones and headed out for a walk for my first listen, not really prepared for disappointment.
Yet the first three tracks, totaling about 30 minutes of music, left me largely unmoved. This sounded like a band going through the motions. Guitarist and band leader Efrim Menuck had a new tone and sound, a shimmering effect on his guitar (some high rate tremolo, I think), that I really liked, and the growls of the bass sounded like an old engine rattling the garage walls. That was good. The overall sound of the band was great. But the songs didn’t go anywhere interesting; they didn’t have interesting musical hooks; seemed to have no path or message or mood of interest to establish. All the parts were there — droning string section, thundering drums, wailing guitars — but it didn’t add up to much. They sounded like a band that was writing on pure muscle memory.
Then the fourth and final song hit, the 15-minute “Anthem for No State.”
It started slow, as is typical for them, but like some alien insect it reshaped itself several times over, working its way through a series of stages that were like a Spaghetti Western soundtrack from some alternate universe, one where Ennio Morricone played from the top of a mountain with amps that went all the way up to 11. It shook and shifted, exploring a series of open themes that suggested empty cities in the dessert in the process of being rebuilt.
And I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a minor chord anywhere in the whole piece, or at least none that came to dominate the track. That was pretty unusual for them — their music has always been bleak, dour, and at times claustrophobic — and yet it still sounded exactly like them. I felt genuine fire there. It hearkened back to that band who did what could have passed for soundtrack music on their first album, but with all the experience that the years have brought them, and a hopeful tone that was new for them. It re-contextualized the whole album for me, but more importantly, it made me excited for where they could go after this.
Saved on the last track!
It’s been nearly 20 years since I first heard Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Much like My Bloody Valentine, Bardo Pond, Slowdive, Flying Saucer Attack and others, they’ve had a big influence on my own ambient music. And after hearing how they reinvented themselves on “Anthem for No State,” I suspect this record is going to grow on me.
Drone on, guys. Drone on.