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Monday, May 6, 2019

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven


1) Storm; 2) Static; 3) Sleep; 4) Antennas To Heaven.

General verdict: And they said Yes was "pretentious"... then again, maybe Heaven just loves symphony more than virtuosity.

[Note: This is a slightly reworked and adapted version of a review that was previously posted in the Important Album series.]

While it is now perfectly clear that GY!BEʼs unquestionable masterpiece did not exactly appear out of thin air — for six years, the band had been meticulously laying down all the necessary foundations — this seems to have really been the first time when our Canadian friends had the perfect opportunity and the full capacity to say everything they had to say and say it precisely the way that they wanted to. I might be slightly biased here, of course, having a bit of personal history with that album: I remember all too well how in the early 2000s, desperately craving for fresh ideas and new insights in music, I was sent the record, lovingly burnt on CD-R, by a music fan who set himself the tough goal of convincing cranky old (actually, still young) me that there was still quite a bit of mind-bendingly innovative music being produced in our time, and included GY!BE among the specimens — and out of all the specimens, this was the one that made the most impression on me at the time. And not just on me: you could easily trace the huge, huge influence of that record on the entire musical decade following it — pretty much every British, Canadian, or US indie band with grandiose symphonic ambitions, from Arcade Fire to British Sea Power, owes a large chunk of its spirit to Lift Your Skinny Fists. (The major difference being that GY!BE wisely preferred to keep their mouths shut, heh heh).

In terms of sheer scope, the world already had certain predecessors to this experience, all of them in the «post-rock» aesthetics — a close match is Sigur Rósʼ Ágætis Byrjun, whose own influence on the planning and construction of GY!BEʼs soundscapes can hardly be denied. And yet the genre had not yet truly produced its own Tales From Topographic Oceans — a sort of mega-statement that would cause people to sit up and not simply go «ooh, what a heavenly slice of beauty!», but crank it up to an «ooh, what a glorious way to summarize all the mysteries of the Universe!» And ultimately, it was only a matter of time before somebody would get the gall to go for oneʼs own «symphony of a thousand» — well, in GY!BEʼs case, «symphony of nine» would be more accurate, but add the appropriate decibel power and you can get a thousand-like effect in no time anyway. Like it or not, the result was one of the most important albums of the year, whose repercussions would be heard loud and clear over the next decade.

For all its scope and ambitiousness, the album in its entirety was recorded in a very pedestrian location (Chemical Sound Studios in Toronto) and over a rather short period of time (February 2000), which is probably responsible for the recordʼs semi-spontaneous nature, since only its basic themes were pre-composed, while many of the drones and crescendos that form its bulk were largely improvised in the studio. Since this is their masterpiece, after all, let us briefly recall the bandʼs core line-up at the time: Efrim Menuck (guitar and general leadership), David Bryant and Roger Tellier-Craig (guitars), Mauro Pezzente and Thierry Amar (bass), Bruce Cawdron and Aidan Girt (drums), Norsola Johnson (cello), Sophie Trudeau (violin; not to be confused with Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, who plays Justin). There were also a couple of semi-anonymous guest horn players, going by the names of Alfons and Brian (although where the hell is the C in this alphabetic sequencing?). Also, the producer was Daryl Smith, who (as of 2019) does not even have his own Wikipedia page, so fuck him (okay, just joking — he must have done quite a bit of a job to get all that noise to sound properly coordinated); and the record label was Kranky, whose main alternate claims to fame since then were probably acts like Deerhunter and Tim Hecker, but otherwise I am largely ignorant of all those other obscure artists they had harbored.

The album was originally conceived as a coherent and symbolist statement — improvised or not, it has a certain masterplan of which only vague hints are given by way of the track titles (and also the lengthy subtitles to individual sub-sections of each track, including such cryptic sequences as ʻCancer Towers On Holy Road Hi-Wayʼ and ʻEdgyeswingsetacidʼ) and album art (including a diagram of each of the four movements, personally written by Menuck and included in the vinyl edition of the record). Each of the movements occupies one side of vinyl (so the Topographic Oceans reference is at least formally spot on) and is supposed to be appreciated in its entirety, although the album as a whole, I believe, may be cut up into four distinct listening experiences stretched over four days — in fact, this would probably be the right way to soak it in at first, rather than let you get lost and confused in its no-ship-on-the-horizon ambient infinity. But, in any case, there is no direct, unambiguous meaning to any of the musical parts, all of which are wide open to emotional and intellectual interpretation.

Upon release, the album got almost nothing but positive reviews; however, due to the enigmatic and attention-demanding nature of the music, critical success was not enough to turn the band into a viable commercial proposition, and even after their relatively recent reunion (by which time the legend had enough time to take root, mature, and stabilize) album sales continue to be rather low — not that, honestly, anything else could be expected from a band that specializes in 20-minute long droning instrumentals, no matter how inventive, unique, or emotionally shattering they might be. (Which does make it fun to compare them with Arcade Fire, who have always had an instrumentally comparable lineup, but who also, from the very start, were setting their minds on the pop format in order to, quite intentionally, break on through to a larger audience to spread the good word. This, by the way, kind of makes GY!BEʼs achievement all the more amazing, since it takes far more guts to hold together a large bunch of people with no initial hopes of commercial success than a bunch of people who at least had the explicit hope of becoming a household name some day).

One ugly reservation that I always hold against post-r..., uh, symphonic-ambient bands is the nagging suspicion that, you know, they really play like this mainly because they cannot really play their instruments all too well, and so they mask their lack of technical skill through sheer numbers: number of people in the band, number of decibels collectively produced by all the instruments, number of minutes it takes them to finish, etc. etc. Then I have to remind myself that the reason why Keith Richards is (or, at least, was) such a cool guitar player is because he couldnʼt play the guitar all too well, and the argument subsides. It is probably true that no subsection of GY!BE could ever properly cover a Rush or even a Talking Heads tune if they were pressed to, but that is not the point. The point is: when they get together, all nine of them (eleven if you throw in the mysterious Alfons and Brian on horns) — is it actually worth getting together? Is there a certain «band of angels» feel emanating from these tracks, or does it all seem like primitive and/or puffed-up sonic nonsense?

On the whole, you can predict that the question here is largely rhetorical and the expected answer is an overwhelming yes — although I will not deny that chunks (even large chunks) of the record tend to lose my attention every once in a while, but then again, so do large chunks of Mahler symphonies, where some parts often act, sometimes intentionally, as catch-your-breath interludes where you are allowed, by the composer himself, to let your mind freely roam for a while before it is thrown and stunned once more by the next onslaught. The entire record has an intelligent flow — from the first and most regal crescendos of ʻStormʼ to the dirge-like and catacomb-like sounds of ʻStaticʼ to the howling nightmare ghosts of ʻSleepʼ and, finally, the somewhat anti-climactic (but probably intentionally so) mix of romanticism and noise psychedelia on ʻAntennas To Heavenʼ. You could construe it as anything: a multi-stage journey through various phases of enlightenment, a soundtrack to an imaginary documentary on the private and public life of Gandalf the Grey, a set of impressionistic musical comments on a set of paintings in an art gallery, but there is a sense of unity to all four pieces that means more than just being played by the same people. We do have a symphony here, with an expected alternation of tempos, moods, and purposes all working towards the same goal, and it is your own, wholly subjective, job to try and figure out what that goal might be.

To increase the sense of seriousness, GY!BE often use sampled voiceover passages that are quite pretentious all by themselves — an impassioned sermon in ʻStaticʼ, an old codgerʼs nostalgic reminiscences on the former beauty of Coney Island in ʻSleepʼ, a somewhat sadistic folk song at the beginning of ʻAntennasʼ — none of which seem to be of particular importance individually, but collectively they serve to reinforce the very feeling of importance: Religion, Memory, and Folklore are all invited to come together and cast their blessing on the music. So if the music did not qualify, it would all be one heck of an embarrassment; and if you are used to short and concise pop songs, or even to complex progressive epics with lots of dynamic surges, rousing tempos and twisted time signatures, as your default style for enjoying music, it might be very easy to get the impression that the music absolutely does not qualify. But it does. To continue the classical analogy, even while form-wise the closest analogy is an 80-minute Mahler symphony, substance-wise this is rather the symph-ambient equivalent of what could happen if a Debussy or a Ravel would want to come up with a Mahler-like 80-minute symphony. (Most likely, a thing like that would get very mixed responses — but then again, so do these guys, unless you only count reactions from top dog critical sources).

The top trick of the band is the trademark GY!BE crescendo, the art of which they had mastered to near-perfection on this album and would never again top on any subsequent releases. On the opening track, ʻStormʼ, thereʼs two of them: first, a six-minute triumphant one, as if announcing the arrival of some royalty (God of Art?) on the scene, and then comes the second, properly "stormy" one, with a distorted echoey guitar rising high above the other instruments and the whole thing eventually speeding up into a mad gallop. But the individual instrumental parts, even when they are playing a pretty melody (and quite often they are — in between all the droney pretty melodies on here, they have pretty much written the blueprints for the entire career of Beach House), are denied serious meaning: it is only the build-up that counts, the way additional instruments are slowly and meticulously piled up and up and up and all the different guitar and string drones are woven into a single complex pattern and then the drums and horns give them extra muscle and... well, might as well regard this as a metaphor for the Emergence and Evolution of Life Itself, from the first living cell and all the way up to Homo Sapiens, though, as I have said, there can be any number of possible symbolic interpretations here.

The most powerful crescendo on the album, however, is ʻSleepʼ (the ʻMonheimʼ section), where everything is taking place around one incredibly sad looped riff played on... well, I actually have no idea what the instrument is before the drums kick in and the tempo speeds up. A specially treated guitar sounding like a musical saw? Regardless, the track makes perfect local sense coming off the old manʼs rant about the faded glories of Coney Island, as if it were some sort of lonesome spin on an abandoned Ferris wheel, going slowly round and round until, at about 9:20 into the track, some devilish force grips it and sends it into a much faster spin — accelerating, accelerating, until the mad force rips it out of the foundation and just sends it spinning into outer space, with detached flaming bits and pieces hitting the ground. This is a prime example of the magic touch these guys have: the main melody is simple and monotonous, but they can bind you to your seat for about ten minutes with it, just by adding here and subtracting there and playing with the volume level and the constantly changing role of different instruments in the mix.

By the time the album is over — especially if you managed to take it all in one go — you might not be exactly certain what it is that you have just experienced, but there will be a feeling of epic monumentality that no Sigur Rós album can provide (not that it tries to). It might be fanboyish to declare the entire experience as a complete compendium of the human emotional spectrum, but, actually, it does not pretend to be human. Very clearly, to me at least, it pretends to be an approximation of Godly Music — you know, of the Valar, of the Olympian Gods, whatever; sounds produced by Gods, consciously or subconsciously, as they initiate, witness, or remember some important processes of the Universe. Nobody sings; nobody even really «plays», more like «spins» the music the same way the Moirai spin their threads of fate. Who knows, maybe they just spun your personal thread somewhere in there, too. Could take a couple hundred extra listens to find it in the haystack.

If we are in the mood for some dirt, then complaining about the songs not being catchy would be by far the stupidest accusation one could fling against the album — (a) because this style is not supposed to be catchy and (b) because these melodies are repeated so many times over, theyʼre all catchy anyway. What bothers me more is that those parts of the record that are not crescendos do tend to lose my attention and dissipate the accumulated effect. The last chunk of ʻStaticʼ, for instance, completely passes me by (the one that is dominated by bass rumbles and industrial percussion — not tremendously original), but the biggest disappointment is the last track, where, at the end, right after the cool little bit of The Return Of The Son Of Dark Country that reminds me of the first album, you sort of expect an arch-monumental conclusion and instead get a few minutes of minimalistic electronics that sound like a deconstructed fugue for digital organ in a bombed out cathedral. (Hmm, that description now reads more cool to me than the actual sonic part). A bit anti-climactic, though it is also true that with an ambient / drone / minimalist aesthetics like this one, ending the record with a pompous power chord was probably not an option, no matter how you look at it.

More problematic is the issue of ambition: the record almost literally insists that you take it very, very seriously — I mean, Yes and ELP are practically painted clowns next to the religious fervor of Efrim Menuckʼs gang here, and I am not sure if I completely subscribe to this. What bugs me quite a bit is that the album is, indeed, monumental, but it is rarely intimate: individual instruments are not properly permitted to speak out against others, and even if they start quiet and sensitive, everything is eventually drowned in loudness: their strength and weakness at the same time, as if they were a Pink Floyd that never allowed itself to move past the ʻCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ phase. Lots of gorgeous soundscapes here, yes, and yet, not a single one that would actually grip my heart tightly and wring out some tears, even abstract ones, you know, for the sake of all humanity or whatever. (This, by the way, is where the Mahler analogy fails completely, and youʼd do better to seek a new one, maybe with something like Renaissance choral oratorios or Baroque cantatas). I guess that the skinny fists in question are lifted like antennas to Heaven, and that the signal is properly received, but maybe there is simply too much Heaven and not enough skinny fists in the record to make me fall in genuine love with it, rather than be awed by its monumental presence. Alas, such may be the reasonable price of monumentality.

In any case, I have no doubt whatsoever that Lift Your Skinny Fists was one of the most important albums of the year 2000, and possibly the best candidate (much better than Kid A, for that matter) for the hotly contended title of «album most likely to point out a new way for music in the coming millennium» (in the long run, it did not, but who could have made predictions at the time?). The problem is that it could not avoid the fate of becoming a niche product: too simplistic to merge rock instrumentation with classic symphonic values, too pretentious and long-winded to satisfy the basic tastes of pop/rock fans en masse, and probably too rockish to interest the already small bunch of avantgarde/modern classical followers. Not that it doesnʼt continue to have a large enough fan base — its legacy in the «canon» seems assured by now (it is one of the very few albums from 2000 onward to make it into the Top 50 albums of all time on the democratically voted RateYourMusic list, for instance), not to mention the already stated durable influence that may be seen on almost any indie band that has more than five playing members in it. Plus, there is absolutely nothing wrong about being a niche product, either (almost any good album in the 21st century is one); and I am perfectly fine with people calling it a masterpiece and finding no flaws in it whatsoever.

Somehow I feel that the album could have been even better than it was, if only they didnʼt stick to their guns with such utmost fervor — but how, I am not sure. Make it a little shorter? throw in a few guitar solos? vary the tempos? add vocals? This all seems like it could threaten their Olympian God identity, which is not something I would like to have happened. Still, you know, I might be just a tad happier if they could at least invite a lowlife like Hercules for a drink every once in a while. Then again, perhaps Lift Your Skinny Fists is not altogether about exceptional events — it is more like a diary of the everyday, routine life of supernatural entities, and maybe we should all count ourselves lucky to be invited to share that particular «day in the life».

1 comment:

  1. "Sophie Trudeau (violin; not to be confused with Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, who plays Justin)".

    My sides, they hurt!