Wednesday, December 23, 2009
#9. Godspeed You Black Emperor! - Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (Constellation, 2000)
You think of Godspeed You Black Emperor! and you think about crescendos. I don't begrudge you for this, after all given what post-rock's come to signify in the years since GYBE!'s last missive it's all but necessary that you associate it with crescendos. That and the fact that there are crescendos here. Huge sweeping crescendos that lay waste to everything around them, crescendos that put most other post-rock bands to shame, crescendos that seem to have reached their peak and then go even further. But that's not all there is to GYBE!, and that's definitely not all there is to Lift yr Skinny Fists... If you came here for the crescendos you certainly won't be disappointed, but you'll find so much more as you dig through the quartet of suites that the collective put forth. You'll find potent statements about isolationism, you'll find incredibly subtle arrangements, you'll find a group of people that know how to put together compelling suites that rarely tread over the same ground twice. You may find Jesus if that's your bag. Whatever you find though, it won't stop at the crescendos, it will spiral outwards until you've found yourself completely immersed in the album.
That's how it starts though, with a pair of mighty crescendos. "Storm"'s first two movements milk their build ups for all their worth, the first time around with the addition of that drunken trumpet that sloppily yet precisely overlays the intense, military drumming and ringing guitars, the second with a piercing, "Amazing Grace" quoting guitar solo that devolves into an atonal shower of guitars. It shows you that the best moments aren't the crescendos themselves but what comes next. After that you're thrown into the meat of the album, the ominous recording of a recorded warning at a gas station advising its customers to avoid contact with anyone offering to help them and the solo piano coda with what sounds like wartime radio chatter in the background. The latter is especially chilling, the voices are barely discernable underneath the resonating piano on top of being obscured by static but they sound panicked, fearful. The words aren't important but the feeling is there. The former is just kind of depressing, but it's the album's theme delivered in a nice little package that gets lost during the comedown from the guitar frenzy of the previous section. The world has become place where people trying to make your life easier are to be feared, turned away. They are not employed by this establishment, they are only doing this for themselves, and that's frowned upon. I used to ignore the spoken bits on here but once they came into focus the album made sense.
You could argue that large portions of this are closer to modern classical and experimental music than they are to post rock. There' a heavy reliance on field recordings, interpolations of recorded voice that are commented on by the music. The one at the heart of "Static" is an evangelical sermon, a heartfelt treatise on the powers of god and by extension faith that unwinds as a simple, echoing guitar figure plays in the background and the violins play out a mournful counterpoint over an ominous drone. "Storm" hinted at faith with the "Amazing Grace" crib, but "Static" puts it right out there, this disembodied voice hailing the power of the lord as the band lays the groundwork for their most devastating climax. "Storm" had alienation on its mind while "Static" edges closer to paranoia as the "World Police and Friendly Fire" section rears up, that ominous plucked upright bassline slowly giving way to an intense as hell crescendo that to this day never fails to send a sharp chill down my spine. That's before Efrim lets loose with that incredible solo that's half angular noise and half piercing emotion. To me, it's like the suite is saying 'You can put your faith in whatever you want, but there's still something out there that's gonna take you by surprise. You'll see it coming, you'll prepare for it but in the end it will still completely destroy you. Every. Single Time.' So we've got alienation and faith wrestling with each other, unease and catharsis working hand in hand to drive home a simple message: Something isn't right.
'They don't sleep anymore on the beach' - Murray Ostril
We used to be trusting as a species. A young Murray Ostril could go to Coney Island and get lost without the fear of being taken. People could fall asleep on the beach and not worry about what happened after they closed their eyes. That doesn't happen anymore. It's heartbreaking to see how far we've fallen, this society where everything that's done is done with trepidation at best and fear at worst. Something isn't right, indeed, and it's us. We've lost faith because we're afraid of everything. They call the religious 'god-fearing' because even in their fervent worship they're afraid of what happens next. What if they aren't good enough to get in to heaven? What if there's a laundry list of minor sins they need to atone for? I hesitate to refer to this as a spiritual album, but it keeps pushing itself there with each new voice that comes into the melange. We, as a society need faith in each other. We've lost that, and we need it back.
That's what's going through my head before a couple of minutes of the second disc have gone by. I don't know who Murray Ostril is or where GYBE! found that sample of him talking about his youthful experiences, but whatever led to its inclusion here it's a fucking masterstroke. A simple story that comments so heavily on what's come before and what's to come as far as the emotions the album invokes. Before "Sleep" has even really begun it's drawn the whole thing into focus and that clarity reflects on what is possibly the finest 20 minutes that GYBE! have ever laid down. It may be the least adventurous piece on Lift Your Skinny Fists... but it's also the most concise and affecting. There are only two real movements so the slightly schizophrenic edge of the previous tracks is gone, but each of the two movements is in and of itself a perfectly constructed piece of 'normal' post-rock. "Monheim" is more affecting and emotional, but the way that "Broken Windows, Locks of Love Pt. III / 3rd Part" builds into that feverish climax makes it stand out as possibly the most hopeful moment on the disc. They're also the best examples of the group's ensemble playing, with each member being used to the best of their abilities and their interplay being amplified greatly over what was seen in the rest of the tracks.
Antennas to Heaven
I don't have much to say after that. Truth be told the final suite is a bit of a let down after the highs, both thematic and musical of its immediate predecessor, but it's still integral to the experience. It's the denouement if you will, the big come down. It serves its purpose but it doesn't have the depth of the previous three movements. It's a shame that one of the best recordings of the decade has to go out on a slightly disappointing note, but after the high that's sustained over the previous hour of material it's not like I can fault it for running out of steam.