By the time the year started with a 2 (let’s not revisit the debate about new centuries/ millennia, shall we?), pretty much everything had changed in my life. Not as radically is it would a few more years down the road, but I was by now formally working in IT, there was a second small person in the house (born in the height of summer this time), and in the few minutes I had spare to think about it, I was not listening to new music at all.
My commute to work was full of talk radio in the morning, and Radio 3’s ‘drivetime’ snippets of classical music on the way home. I don’t know if I’d given up on rock music, or it had moved somewhere I wasn’t interested in following, but if I was listening to anything, it was revisiting back catalogues – by 2000, it was possible, if slow, to download music (streaming was some way off), and mp3 players were available – I had a primitive early one which I seem to remember was in some way a perk of now working in IT.
Even buying physical music was changing. You could go to your favourite High Street retailer’s website and order CDs to be delivered. The internet of 2000 would be more recognisable, I think, to today’s digital generation, although I think it took us a long time to wake up to digital security – I must have cheerfully typed my credit card number into the online store without much thought about where else it might end up.
The CDs in the car were now a mix of classical (not exactly perfect for in-car listening, no matter how much I wrestled with the ‘compression’ setting on the CD player), brightly coloured discs designed to appeal to the 2-year old in the back seat, or burned copies of downloaded albums, which was how I tried to recreate my old vinyl album collection the first time round.
I wasn’t hearing new music on the radio, and I wasn’t even buying new music by bands I liked – unimaginably to me now, three whole Rush albums had gone by without me hearing any of them – and, whatever else was going on in my life, I seemed to have resigned myself to the idea that, approaching 40, I had ‘grown up’ in my musical tastes, and wasn’t really interested in keeping up with whatever was going on.
One day, however, on one of those messageboards I was talking about last time out, someone mentioned a new release by a band called ‘Godspeed You Black Emperor!’ I’m fairly certain that the exclamation point was at the end of the name in those days.
I think what drew me to it was the label ‘post-rock’. If I was done with rock music (spoiler alert: I wasn’t), then perhaps what I needed was whatever came next. I’m not sure I had any idea at this point what ‘post-rock’ actually sounded like, or if GYBE music was the kind of thing I would like, but for some reason – perhaps the genuine enthusiasm of whoever recommended it – I ordered myself a copy online. From a reputable retailer. For actual money, which looked like it might become the less popular way of acquiring music for a while there.
I trawled the internet – I was an early adopter of Google, back in the days when ‘don’t be evil’ actually meant something – but could find almost nothing on this mysterious band I’d just sent some money to. I did, I think, discover that they were Canadian, that while they may or may not have been anarchists, they didn’t seem to do things the conventional way. I was reminded of the commune-like aspects of bands as diverse as Gong and Crass, and surmised that they might fit somewhere in between those, which turned out to be a reasonable guess.
Some of the music I had been listening to in those ‘no new music’ years was what you might call ‘avant-garde’ or even experimental. There will be a whole piece about the BBC Proms next time out, but some of the Proms I’d been to in those years I had chosen because the music had a reputation for being challenging and different. I had seen Pierre Boulez conduct some of his own work, and had become mildly obsessed with the music of Messaien, and this was the mindset I brought to Lift Your Skinny Fists…’.
The CD arrived (for some reason I remember it being delivered to the office, rather than to my home address; I don’t know why, or even if that was true). It was – different.
Packaged in cardboard rather than the ubiquitous plastic jewel case (there’s a rant here about CD packaging, which, on reflection, I’ve taken back out), it retained its mystery and air of ‘otherness’ even once opened – the card gatefold featured a mysterious and unsettling illustration, a paper insert had tantalising snippets of information, some crossed out, a picture of some of the band looking nothing like I had imagined, a couple of inscrutable photographs, and on the flip side, a pictogram representation of the music.
It’s hard to explain exactly what that pictogram represents; it’s a significant amount of information about an album which is otherwise devoid of meaningful detail, but it is also vague (the timings are not exact by any means), and misses out perhaps the most important piece of detail. There are four tracks on this long double album; I now know them to be called Storm, Static, Sleep, and Antennas to Heaven, but it was years later that I discovered that – those words don’t appear on the packaging anywhere, although the names of the sub-sections (movements, I like to think of them) do.
So, I remember thinking, this is right up my street – mysterious, experimental, evasive – the kind of music which requires you to make your own mind up, and not be distracted by shiny things while you do it.
And then I listened to it and failed to get it at all.
I listened at home, and I listened in the car (as noted, never the best environment to hear new things), and while I could tell it was interesting and challenging, and all the things I was expecting, something didn’t quite work for me.
Until the day it did.
Some time early in 2001, I was driving up the M1 to our distributor in Yorkshire – we regularly had meetings up there, whether to discuss the technology which connected the two companies, or – on occasion – internal meetings with our more northern-based staff, where the distributor’s meeting room was a useful substitute for a generic hotel room.
This time, I was driving up in the early evening, presumably for an early start the next day. As I recall it, I had a room booked at Tankersley Manor (that name just popped into my head, so is likely the right one), conveniently situated for whatever it was I was doing the next morning. After a while, I decided to give this mysterious CD another go, and cranked it up as loud as I could so that as few of the details as possible were missed in the general road noise.
This time, I got it. This time, the first disc flew by as I thrashed my way north in the cold and wet. I flipped the discs over, and allowed Sleep to unfurl. There’s a point, which I’ll tell you about when I get there on my re-listen further down, where it’s not possible to do anything else but surrender to the extraordinary power of this music, and when it passed, I looked out of the windscreen to discover I was approaching the outskirts of Leeds.
It took another 20 minutes or so to retrace my journey to the junction I should have come off at, but in the most unpromising of situations, tired, probably hungry, with delightful Yorkshire spring weather battering off my car, it all suddenly clicked.
I don’t think there’s a trick to this band’s music – there just has to be a willingness to surrender to it; to recognise that it isn’t like all the other music out there. There are no catchy choruses or refrains designed to have an audience bouncing up and down or swaying in time, just a fierce determination to express itself in sound. Once I finally figured it out, it became obvious to me that this isn’t rock music (or anything like it) at all; this is modern classical music, played on (mostly) rock instruments. It’s a different idiom, and needs to be listened to that way.
Ready? Let’s take a listen…
Storm starts quietly, with guitar and quiet horns picking out what is essentially the theme of the album, listed on the plan as Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas to Heaven. It sets the tone as it gradually increases in volume, adding cello and what sound like multiple other strings before a military drumbeat – reminding me strongly of Shostakovich – introduces the full sonic palette and presumably (as I say, the timings are hard to interpret) breaks out into Gathering Storm, which does exactly what it promises, lifting the intensity and purpose of the thing without seemingly losing touch with the initial theme or the underpinning drone. The climax collapses into a more tentative contemplation, which may or may not be the sub-section entitled Il Pleut a Mourir [+Clatters Like Worry]. The continuation of the underpinning drone, barely heard during the actual storm section, now pulls the whole soundscape along into a kind of re-statement of the idea, but this time without drums, which only fade back in once the drone has established itself as the dominant tone.
When the drums do kick back in, it’s like a cloudburst on a sultry summer day, with all kinds of rumbling going on behind the drone, which eventually gives way to a full-throated melody pushing us to the cacophony of the actual storm, expressed not as something explosive, but as chaos and confusion – the drums rumble menacingly, there are flutes and curious noises off, but the momentum is remorseless before driving us into a more rhythmic and structured section. Which may be called Cancer Towers on Holy Road Hi-Way, but which appears to skip over a piece which is in the pictogram as “Welcome to Barco AM/PM”. I’ve never been able to hear that in the place the album art suggests, but as Storm winds down with the sound of a decelerating freight train, it appears – a field recording of an announcement in Spanish and then English, apparently recorded at Los Angeles Airport.
It’s a political statement of sorts, but an oblique one – allowing us to reflect on what prompts the announcement without commenting on it at all.
The track ends with some doom-laden piano chords playing out over an increasingly distorted recording – it follows directly from the Welcome to Barco insert, and may be the same recording heavily distorted, or may be something else entirely – part of the joy of this album is not knowing exactly what’s going on at any one time. This last piece may well be the one called Cancer Towers; which prompts me to wonder why the most obvious change of mood in the previous movement doesn’t have its own title.
And that’s just side 1 – I wondered if I’d have enough to say about it!
I’m listening to my vinyl copy of this (I still have the CD, as well as a digital download; that’s how far under my skin this eventually got), and the label on side Static is – or appears to be – a blueprint of a prison cell block. Make of that what you will.
Terrible Canyons of Static begins with looping train horns (A theme I hadn’t picked up on before now; how the gradual deceleration of Gathering Storm relates to these sounds). This is more like the avant-garde classical music I’d been listening to. It feels like an experiment in soundscapes, related to the sixties tape loops which found their way onto the Beatles’ White Album as Revolution 9, and to the work of the likes of Stockhausen and even the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. One of the things I’ve always known about this music is that it would make a terrific film score; this movement, edgy and unsettling, would fit some of David Lynch’s more out-there work. The static eventually fades into a recording of what the band calls the Atomic Clock, interleaved with someone’s religious experience / testimony of an acid trip. This appears to be called Chart #3 and throughout, the found recording does battle with a calm string and guitar-driven melody which repeats patiently, waiting for one of them to assert authority.
Ultimately, neither does, and the fading sounds are replaced by a pizzicato cello line, signalling the start of World Police and Friendly Fire. Right from the beginning, you can tell how this is going to go. Even in its first minute, as it establishes a hypnotic rhythm, you can tell it’s going to build upon itself and grow. As in several places on this album, I just stop trying to figure out what exactly is going on and just surrender to the sounds. This takes a lot of inspiration from minimalism, but there’s still a lot going on – glockenspiel and what sounds an awful lot like the musical saw from the previous post.
The build is one of intensity as much as it is volume; in fact, the volume increase is subtle and hard to detect until there’s a clear shift of gears and you realise that you’d have to shout to be heard over music which seemed to be a murmur only moments before.
I’m going to take this opportunity to marvel at the intense control over tempo this whole ensemble has. The gradual change in pace is natural and organic, but is achieved without a conductor up front giving direction. It’s easy to point to the drum track as the source of the changes, but it is so organic and ingrained that no-one seems to be leading it, it just – somehow – happens. What began as a contemplative stroll is, by the end of the movement, a full-out adrenaline-fuelled sprint, with distorted guitar and frantic drumming, eventually crashing into a feedback howl and the chance to start the process again with a movement called […The Bulidings They Are Sleeping Now]. This does begin as an opportunity to catch your breath, although the soundscape here is not exactly calming, echoing as it does industrial metalworking. This is all drone and open cymbals with the extraneous sounds filling the void rather than happening in the background. Like the best avant-garde work, it hard to call this music at all, save for the emotional effect it has – it’s gripping and powerful, filling the listener with dread and calm at the same time.
And then we come to side 3.
It’s really hard for me to be objective about this side, Sleep, but I’ll try. It begins with another field recording. According to the tracklisting, it’s a man called Murray Ostril talking about Coney Island, bewailing the fact that …they don’t sleep any more on the beach”.
And then Monheim starts, and there’s nothing to say. Ever since the day it caused me to accidentally drive to Leeds, it has been one of my favourite pieces of music in any genre or style. It lives inside me like few other things do, and the effect it has on me is unchanging – whatever I’m doing when it starts, I have to stop, and do nothing but listen.
To give you a little context, it’s a simple start, the saw we heard before is joined by some gentle electric guitar strumming, which establishes a mood. The guitar gradually picks out a motif which allows further accompaniment to come in, then everything – and I mean everything – just builds from there. Again, it starts out quietly, almost contemplative, but as more instruments join, as more volume is added, as the music begins to throw off its chains, something remarkable happens to my brain, and I have to stop and listen.
There’s a part where – just as you think it can’t get any more intense or engaging – the bass breaks into double time, and the whole thing becomes transcendental
Told you I wouldn’t be able to be objective.
Approximately ten minutes later, you rejoin me enjoying the comedown of Broken Windows, Locks of Love Part III. I don’t know exactly where I’ve been in the interim, but I’m glad I went. The end of Monheim is insane, but entirely fitting; it kind of disintegrates in its attempt to reach escape velocity, leaving us sifting through the wreckage, picking up the pieces and trying to remember what normal is.
Broken Windows doesn’t hurry, just wandering quietly through the assorted pieces. The band gradually return to us, summoned by a tiny bell. If this is a film score it’s one of those scenes where nothing is resolved, and you’re left to make your own mind up about what you’ve just seen. Eventually, it, too cannot resist one more gathering of breath and one more sprint for the finishing line, perhaps having decided on a direction. It recapitulates the movement which brought Monheim to such a spectacular close, but is more controlled in its execution, pulling up short of the line and breaking into something remarkably close to a straightforward rock instrumental, albeit mainly played on strings.
I’ll need a bit of a lie down after that, as usual.
I know it’s unlikely you’ll have read this far if you don’t already know this music, but if that’s you, please go and listen to Sleep; it’s quite the experience.
Side four, in some ways the title track, is… different.
I mean, it’s all been different, but this one starts with former member Carlos Moya singing “Baby-O”, which crossfades into an indistinct wall of noise called Edgyswingsetacid, itself usurped by a field recording of an unidentified pair of musicians playing a glockenspiel duet on a campsite in Rhinebeck, NY.
Then there’s another random field recording, this time of some young children speaking and singing in French (I suspect Quebec French, but I’m not particularly good at picking out accents in French)
Once we get past the slightly shambolic (and deliberately so, of course) opening, She Dreamt She Was a Bulldozer, She Dreamt She Was Alone in an Empty Field returns us to the established patterns of this album, but this time rather than patiently building up to an intense climax, the climax gets in first, exploding into the calm and positively rocking along for about a minute before falling back to a windswept landscape.
Bulldozer (I’m calling it that; I’m not writing all that out again) plays by its own rules – it’s still fixed in the idiom of a song on this album, but it plays more with structure, and is more open and expressive in its melody than we’ve been used to so far. There’s time to reflect on the journey, and time – if you’re someone like me – to try and identify where the influences in this are. Hearing it so soon after OK Computer, I do hear little bits of what Radiohead were and what they became, but there’s so much more in there; little echoes of sounds I recognise from those early Cure and Banshees albums; I’ve already referred back to the White Album, but I hear Can in here; I hear the outer edges of King Crimson, but mostly I hear a soundscape unlike any I had heard before.
Bulldozer gives way to Deathkamp Drone and prompts me to tie together the drawings on the labels (side 4 looks like a top-down drawing of a Panopticon), the faintest hints in the music, and a line in the sleevenotes which reads “we dedicate it to every prisoner in the world”. If there’s a theme here, it’s escaping from captivity, whatever that may look like, and this remarkable, awkward and spiky music does exactly that over and over again, even if the captivity is a drone of the band’s own making.
Eventually, like all good things, we are returned to whence we came with the final movement, Antennas to Heaven. Echoing if not exactly restating the opening theme, it brings us safely home, wiser and more enlightened.
As the sleevenotes suggest, these tracks are “…more awkward pirouettes in the general direction of hope and joy”, and who am I to disagree?
This album changed something about what I listen to and listen for in music; in a strange way, it led me back to the Prog music of my youth, although I was by now a little more demanding about the music I sought out. It also pushed me to listen harder to the 20th century classical music I had been toying with, and to look further into the Godspeed universe, for which, see below.
I have but one regret – 22 years after this music came into and changed my life, I had the opportunity to take my boys to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor play live. Then I booked a flight back to Scotland, and standing around in a crowded room listening to music mere hours before my flight didn’t seem that sensible, in the time of COVID, so they went.
They said it was fantastic, which reassures me on two fronts: that I did a reasonable job opening their ears to all this strange music over the years, and that when I do eventually get the chance, seeing this band live won’t disappoint.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
I have favourites, particularly Yanqui U.X.O. with the recently released G_d’s Pee at State’s End! probably the closest in style and impact to this, but try any of it – the style changes in the 2010s, but remains captivating and intriguing.
Compilations to consider?
They’re really not that kind of band. Really, really not.
Likewise, although ‘field recordings’ of GY!BE shows are not discouraged, so there are some out there, if you know where to look.
Anything else? Well, there’s the whole “the members of this band are also members of any number of other, loosely affiliated bands” thing. Special mention should go to the various Silver Mt. Zion bands, my favourite incarnation of which – mainly for the name, to be honest – is (deep breath) “The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band with Choir”. Their music is different, but related, and might even be a way in to Godspeed if this all seems a little daunting.