Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Yanqui U.X.O., 180G Black Vinyl 2LP
Instrumental rock is a curious beast. In the nascent rock'n'roll era it was simply a source of immediate, twangy thrills, the province of Dick Dale, Link Wray and the Shadows. During the early 1970s, however, it became synonymous with a fearful pomposity. Not having a vocalist became a kind of musical semaphore, sending out the message that, even by the standards of progressive rock - hardly a genre noted for self-deprecating chuckles - this band took itself very seriously indeed.
Songs, referred to by fans as "pieces" or "works", came heavy with allusions to jazz and classical music. Fans, referred to by the rest of the human race as ghastly, were given to looking down their noses at anyone who liked their music garnished with such meaningless fripperies as choruses and lyrics. The whole business was no fun whatsoever.
Rock music has changed and mutated many times since the early 1970s, but instrumental rock has never quite lost its snobbish taint or whiff of pretension. Its latest standard bearers are Canadian nine-piece Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who refuse to pose for photographs, call their albums things like Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven and may well have the most irksomely earnest fanbase in the history of rock.
But this time it's not just about the music. GYBE are committed anti-capitalists. Their dedication to the cause is admirable. They release their records on a tiny independent label, Constellation, while the sleeve of Yanqui UXO comes with a hand-drawn diagram linking every major record company to an arms manufacturer. This gives their followers whole new avenues of righteous self-importance to explore. At a recent gig, one audience member marked the end of a particularly noisy musical passage by crying out: "For the people of Jenin!"
If the fans are bad, then music journalists are worse. More nonsense has been written about Godspeed You! Black Emperor than any other extant band. The mere mention of their name causes rock hacks to churn out prose that combines inscrutability with a severe case of verbal dyspepsia. "In Godspeed's world view, everyone is a marginal prophet," noted one reviewer. "Their lexicon of faith, hope and tenacity is written in every glocken spiel chime." Another suggested that moving the exclamation mark in their name (up until the release of their current album, they were known as Godspeed You Black Emperor! ) was evidence of their "often hard-to-spot sense of humour". If that's true, then the long winter evenings must just fly by in the band's Montreal squat, the air regularly rent with punctuation-related chortling.
All of this could easily put the uninitiated off ever listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. As the music contained on Yanqui UXO proves, that would be a terrible oversight. Its five lengthy tracks transcend the offputting extra-curricular gibberish. The first song is named after the date on which the current Palestinian intifada began: 09-15-00. Yet its two parts do not burn with insurrectionary fervour. They simply sound achingly sad. The first builds slowly from silence into immense crescendos of guitar, thunderous military drumming and swooping violin. The second, much shorter, features echoing feedback and softly picked guitars; if anything, it is even more desperately melancholy than the first.
If Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls runs the risk of pomposity - clocking in at over 20 minutes, its final crescendo is rather too drawn-out and ponderous for its own good - it nevertheless contains some startling moments, where its hushed brass and clarinet interludes slowly grow into the kind of disorientated guitar rock that My Bloody Valentine pioneered. The closing two parts of Motherfucker Redeemer are weirdly funky. The first features something roughly analogous to a disco beat, topped off with a bassline that owes debts to the early-1970s Krautrock of Neu! and the rather more downhome sound of the polka. The second, meanwhile, offers breathtaking drumming that appears to fly off in several directions at once (GYBE feature two percussionists), and a gorgeous, impenetrable wall of guitars and strings.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor's sound is frequently aligned to the post-rock movement of the mid-1990s. As the name suggests, that genre attempted to move past the standard cliches of guitar rock, taking on board influences from techno to jazz. Unfortunately, where it moved to was rather arid and bloodless. Like a lot of instrumental music, post-rock wound up sounding like an unappealing intellectual exercise. One of the many things that is remarkable about Yanqui UXO is how unlike post-rock it seems. For the most part, the five tracks keep the listener's attention over their inordinate length because they sound human and passionate: the melodies are engaging, the band are audibly playing for their lives. In that respect, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are far less pretentious than their attendant publicity suggests. -The Guardian