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Friday, April 5, 2019

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: F♯A♯∞


1) The Dead Flag Blues; 2) East Hastings; 3) Providence.

General verdict: Fifteen Canadian bohemians mixing modern classical, industrial, and ambient with dark country — and creating one of the most convincing, if a bit overdrawn, sentimental goodbyes to the old world.

Curiously, GY!BEʼs debut exists in two completely different versions. The first, shorter one, was originally released on vinyl in August 1997; a year later, as the band had started generating some buzz, a Chicago-based indie label offered to release the record on CD, and this was used as a good pretext to not only extend the running time by about twenty minutes, but also swap around some of the individual sections and, most importantly, completely re-record everything. I have not heard the original vinyl release (and, doubtlessly, there must be people around who would swear about its being superior), but I would like to put off this experience for now, at least until the time when Godspeedyoublackemperology is formally introduced as a new Liberal Arts discipline. Besides, this is GY!BE we are talking about; their whole point is about being big, big, big, so a 40-minute version of a 60-minute album seems almost insulting.

Although F♯A♯∞ is not nearly as ambitious, multi-layered, and intricately crafted as the bandʼs later output, it is still one of those records that has to be heard just once to fully understand what these guys are all about and would go on to be all about. The musical approach embraced here, and then refined and perfected on subsequent albums, is something I could only define as maximalist minimalism — a term that I have so far only encountered applied to interior design, but for lack of a better equivalent, let us drop it here and see what happens. Actually, what does happen when you take a bunch of twenty or so musicians, most of whom are quite far away from virtuoso standards, but are still driven by the desire to create something grand and unforgettable? Thatʼs right — maximalist minimalism happens.

The three tracks into which the CD version has been organized feel seriously more crude and disjointed than the bandʼs future output; and, frankly speaking, some of the sections, particularly the ones that consist of field recording samples, are fillerish and bring the total a bit closer to the insufferable «anything-goes» ideology of performance art. But these are forgivable sins as long as you can develop and maintain the feeling that, essentially, GY!BE know very well what they are doing — taking certain kinds of anti-music (so to speak) developed by the likes of Talk Talk or Slint, expanding them into drawn-out, slowly expanding epics and using them to paint a picture of Earth where life as we know it has pretty much ceased to exist. If anything, F♯A♯∞ could be envisaged as the perfect soundtrack to Cormac McCarthyʼs The Road (which had not even been written yet, but talented people at the border of the millennium tend to think in similar directions).

"The car is on fire, and thereʼs no driver at the wheel, and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides, and a dark wind blows..." When an album opens on a single bent note of synthesized gloom and this kind of not-too-cheerful narration, you could probably expect the music to take a quick turn into either soft Gothic darkness or harsh doom metal. But this is not exactly what those quirky Canadians had in mind. The intro to ʽDead Flag Bluesʼ is essentially a dark country waltz, lightly crossed with baroque elements (represented by the cello pattern, presumably played by Norsola Johnson, though in the case of GY!BE, I am always afraid to associate specific instruments with specific people — Iʼm pretty sure even the album credits might be occasionally wrong, with so many people coming and going all the time). The second section, ʽSlow Moving Trainsʼ, consists of actual sounds of trains over which they slap distorted string samples — so that the moving trains might come across as fuzzy memories or hallucinations rather than the actual experience. ʽThe Cowboyʼ brings back the country blues sound with a vengeance, painting a soundscape dominated by violins and slide guitars; and the ʽOutroʼ brings back the waltz tempo, with soothing xylophones and peaceful violins to end the day.

The singularity of it all lies precisely in the fact that they are establishing a mournful, somber, desolate mood with the same means that are typically used to establish its opposite. The only vocals on the entire track are contained in the introductory narration — which seems to be coming out of a tape recorder, just to confirm the suspicion of nobody left alive. Everything that comes next is the musical equivalent of a vast, desolate panorama where you can still see traces of manʼs activity on this planet, but with man itself thoroughly removed from it. Itʼs like records are still spinning, musical boxes are still grinding, carousels are still rotating, trains are still moving, but in creepy, ghostly, inertia-based ways. It is very important that «solo voices» are almost completely absent from the music — even when a single instrument actually steps out from the overall mass, like the slide guitar in ʽCowboyʼ, it moves carefully and slowly in well-planned and predictable patterns, so as not to spoil the impression of total mechanicity. The end result is a very realistic, believable picture of «soft apocalypse» — heck, just take a stroll through a random American ghost town, and this soundtrack will come very much in handy.

ʽEast Hastingsʼ, coming fresh off the trails of ʽDead Flag Bluesʼ, is not nearly as revelatory in comparison to its predecessor, but the ʽSad Mafiosoʼ part is important in that it contains the first of what would soon become GY!BEʼs trademark crescendos: this one is fairly short and a bit fussy, but already does the job well, with the strings, guitars, and percussion gradually gaining in intensity and speed until the whole thing starts furiously rolling off the hill at hundreds of miles per hour and finally crashes head first into the start of the ʽDrugs In Tokyoʼ section. The parts that surround it, however, are somewhat too minimalistic and field-ish to deserve any special analysis — like, for instance, ʽBlack Helicopterʼ pretty much does exactly the same thing as ʽSlow Moving Trainsʼ, and so on.

ʽProvidenceʼ is essentially more of the same: a quick dialog about the end of the world, a tragic dissonant violin dialog that gives way to a doom-soaked crescendo (ʽDead Methenyʼ), a ghostly vocal interlude that segues into a short bolero-style passage (ʽKicking Horse On Brokenhillʼ), and an industrial noise finale that unexpectedly samples the "where are you going?" line from the Godspell musical — as if there werenʼt enough religious references in the previous narrations already. (If you stick around for a few minutes of silence, there is also a hidden outro track, but it is nothing particularly special — just another stereotypical crescendo).

In the end, it all boils down to the question of whether this debut effort truly deserves its length, and this, in turn, boils down to the question of how one is supposed to experience the experience: sit back and give it your full attention? treat it as background music and let it surreptitiously influence your conscience? smoke a joint and lie under that big shady tree in your back yard? crank it up to eleven and blast it from your living room windows to give all the neighbors a solid chance at an epiphany? The first of these approaches would not be very productive, because at this point, the band has not yet properly mastered all the fifty shades of post-rock that would appear on their subsequent releases; any of the other three, however, might be quite promising in comparison.

Overall, since this is easily the single most «roots-influenced» recording this band ever made, I think that the people who could prefer it over their later, more heavily acclaimed releases, are those who have a prior penchant for rustic Americana, with the emphasis on the ʽrustʼ in ʽrusticʼ, if you see what I mean. None of these end-of-the-world references really work in turning F♯A♯∞ into a properly cosmic-psychedelic experience, but this is not necessarily a flaw: sometimes contemplating a broken-down vehicle rotting away in some gutter can put you in a much more eschatological frame of mind than reading the Book of Revelation, and this is quite comparable with the effect that these softly sad sonic panoramas set out to produce. Where a contemporary masterpiece like OK Computer would lament the oncoming dehumanization of society, F♯A♯∞ is, instead, a lengthy dirge for the depopulation of empty spaces — both Radiohead and GY!BE, then, use progressive elements to complain about the side effects of progress, but do so from different angles and in vastly different ways. And, of course, OK Computer is a far more accessible (since it is song-oriented) record, but still, even with all its flaws (such as too many field samples in place of more melodies), feel free to add F♯A♯∞ to the list of cool, serious, thought-provoking, innovative late-Nineties releases that gave this short period of music-making a distinct face, the likes of which — who knows? — we might not be seeing again until the year 3000 appears on the horizon. 

1 comment:

  1. That's cool you're reviewing all the GY!BE albums. One of my favorite moments from this album is the "Divorce and Fever" section at the beginning of Providence. Not to be missed among the heavy hitters like Sad Mafioso and Dead Metheny. So gorgeous!