GY!BE: post-rock, protest, and apocalypse

“You are going to go to college next year. You’ll get into Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the fucking Shins, and you’ll blow a bunch of dudes and become a lesbian.” So says Seth Rogen’s character to his girlfriend in the dire 2008 stoner comedy, Pineapple Express. This pop culture reference, and an unapproved sound snippet featured on Top Gear, is as close as the band have come to the mainstream.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor have always escaped widespread popular acclaim. They craft twenty minute long instrumental works, intentionally repetitive and insular, with eschatological vocal samples. It’s no surprise. Critically however, the group are incredibly well respected, and they possess a very committed fan-base, demonstrated by the back-to-back sell out concerts the band recently performed to almost 5,000 fans at The Forum in Kentish Town. On Rate Your Music, a site popular with music aficionados, their 1999 EP Slow Riot For New Zerø Kanada is rated as the greatest EP ever, ahead of The Beatles, David Bowie, and The Beach Boys.

The group have spearheaded and innovated the post-rock genre since their first release in 1994, the same year that Mojo critic Simon Reynolds coined the term in a review of Bark Psychosis’ album Hex. He explained the expression as, “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.” Taking its influences from the late 80s art-rock of Talk Talk, the minimalism of Steve Reich, and The Velvet Underground’s dronology, it produced something altogether unique, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s sophomore release, F#A#∞, is certainly the highlight of the genre, alongside Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Mogwai’s Young Team, and Sigur Ros’ Ágætis byrjun.

Despite tough competition, it’s fair to say that Godspeed You! Black Emperor! have written the most exciting, imaginative, and aurally-challenging albums within the genre, and they continue to do so. After a ten-year hiatus, the sprawling collective quietly returned in October with, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, to overwhelming critical acclaim. Five-stars from The Guardian and The Skinny, a 9.3 from Pitchfork, and nine out of ten from Spin. Not to mention a highly coveted spot on The Oxford Student’s albums of the year list coming out in 7th week. Watch this space.

I saw them at the beautiful old converted theatre that is The Forum, in what was certainly my live highlight of the year. The band performed five ‘songs’ in total, a couple of which were pieces in their entirety, and the others were movements from longer tracks. It’s quite unclear when the set actually began. ‘Hope (Drone)’, essentially thirty minutes of feedback, begins about twenty minutes before the band take to the stage. A hand-scrawled image that reads ‘Hope’ flickers on a backdrop screen as the band emerge, and throughout the set, 8mm and 16mm film projections set an eerie and apocalyptic mood which enhances the appreciation. A wall of sound gradually builds into ‘Mladic’, the opening track from the new album, slowly channeling the distortion into a piece eclipsed by its visceral guitar riff and rhythmic drumming. ‘Behemoth’ is the longest composition, clocking in at forty-five minutes, but the passing of time becomes an irrelevance. It’s only for curiosity after each of the five pieces that I check my watch. The projected images are so arresting, and the music so engaging, despite their remarkably composed presence on stage, that you become entirely lost in the sensory experience. On record they’re great, but live they’re something else.

The band are very politically-minded, setting themselves apart from their contemporaries. The samples on F#A#∞ concern the impending collapse of a corrupt system, the sleeve of Yanqui U.X.O. linked major record labels to arms manufacturers, and the ‘Hope’ projection seems to mock Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan. Images of plummeting share prices and anti-war protest form the backdrop to their performance. In a recent Guardian interview, a very rare event for the band, they explained, “Every day it gets a little harder to pretend that everything’s OK. The rich keep getting more and we keep getting less. Post-9/11, post-7/7, there’s a police state that tightens more every day, and in our day-to-days, we’re all witnesses to the demeaning outcomes of debauched governance – random traffic stops, collapsing infrastructure, corrupt bureaucrats and milk-fed police with their petty intrusions.”

After a ten year absence, their return in 2012 is very apt. With student demonstrations breaking out earlier this year in their native Montreal, the Occupy Movement at the end of last year, and ongoing protest in Spain, their music provides a suitable backdrop to recent activism. For all their politics however, Godspeed You! Black Emperor make music for music’s sake. “We play to the kids in the front row because we used to be the kids in the front row.”

PHOTO / Godspeed You! Black Emperor