Godspeed You! Black Emperor
F#A#∞, 180G Black Vinyl LP
The grizzled voice could be that of God. “The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel,” he begins over a ground-shaking rumble of drone, before surveying the horrifying landscape: The government is corrupt, buildings are imploding, the skyline is ablaze while a populace hides indoors, numbed by chemicals and drowning out the screams with the radio. The voice continues as mournful strings enter, playing a theme wracked by sadness and loss, the sound of the band on the deck as the ship goes down. Do we hear hope as a fragile guitar enters and repeats those lines? I think so. And once we sense that feeling of being crushed by despair while seeing a flicker of possibility, we’re fully inside of the universe of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s 1997 debut, F♯ A♯ ∞.
The piece, which came to be called “Dead Flag Blues,” is a career-defining debut album-opener to rival Patti Smith’s “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo,” the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” and Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath.” Everything you need to know about Godspeed was foretold by the words and music of this first track, which occupies the album’s entire first side. They would eventually become one of the key bands in what we’d call post-rock. Through the first decade of the 21st century, more than a few groups would copy their soft/loud crashing orchestral style. All of their music takes place in the world described by that voice, a place where those buried by calamity are on the verge of breaking free.
The words on “Dead Flag Blues” were written by Efrim Menuck, who was born in Montreal and grew up in Toronto before returning to the city of his birth in his early 20s. They came from a script for an unfinished film called “Incomplete Movie About Jail” and were read by an unidentified friend. Menuck, like many in his circle, had grown up listening to punk and hardcore, but after moving to Montreal he started making music of his own in a very different style. In 1994, he and his friend Mauro Pezzente, who played bass, recorded a tape they called All Lights Fucked On The Hairy Amp Drooling and made 33 copies, giving them to friends. The project’s name, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, came from the title of a Japanese documentary about a motorcycle gang. (The band would relocate the exclamation point in 2002.) Twenty-five years later, All Lights remains a rumor—there have been no confirmed leaks of the music, not even a photo of the cassette. But after recording it and playing a few live shows, the band, joined by guitarist Mike Moya, began to take shape. -Pitchfork