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15 February 2016

Godspeed You Black Emperor! ‎– 'F♯ A♯ ∞' (Constellation)

I heard about this band from the Internet; the exalted droneon list, the archives of which I still dream of (and will continue to mention on here until someone unearths them). Some rumours were coming in about this really wild large ensemble band from Montreal who were doing massive soundscapes with a full string section and they had this crazy name and projected films while they played. I was intrigued and I saw them! It was on my first-ever trip to New York City, to catch a cool show at the Cooler headlined by Tower Recordings (who I don't think we even stayed to see), Sandy Bull (who was fucking great and I suspect I already told this story back when I covered his record), Roy Montgomery (the reason we went), and then the opening band, Godspeed You Black Emperor!. What a fucking delight; they were crammed onto a small stage, falling off it (probably a cellist or someone had to be on the floor) and they made this slowly crawling drone which built into a real racket and they really played, you know - really poured their hearts into it, all melodramatic and epic and swinging for the fences and whatever. My mind was blown. I bought this LP, an ornately packaged limited pressing on the fledgling Constellation label (later reissued on CD by Kranky with an extra 20 minutes, and you know I have that too so if we ever make it to the CDs again I can listen to it again) and it had all these neat photos and cryptic Xeroxes and drawing and artwork inside and a crushed penny! (crushed by a train, supposedly, so I can't tell if it's a Canadian or American penny and it's so cool anyway that I overlooked the fact Wimp Factor 14 already did that on a 7" years before) and the music, oh the music, well it's everything my little heart could have dreamed of. I was 17 years old. And I played the fuck out of this record, all the time, until the CD came out, but then I sorta played the record still cause the CD mixed things up and it wasn't quite the same - and looking now, while brushing dust off it, I can see that I scratched the hell of of it - it's really taken a beating over the years, even though I haven't probably played this at all in the past ten.We got song titles on the CD ('The Dead Flag Blues') but I just knew this as 'nervous, sad, poor' cause that's what scrawled into the runout groove, and side B as 'bleak, uncertain, beautiful'. This has Ennio Morricone draped all over it, but then this voice that sounds like Sam Elliott starts talking about his wallet being full of blood, and it's really cinematic, and then the second piece starts which is just a bunch of shimmery drone strings - electric guitars which sound like glass, an echo into a sunset, and some sliding tonalities. For as much as I now think about this band as being all about films and violins, there's so much guitar and bass that you could really mistake them for a rock band, and it's so soundtracky that it's nice to cover this right after Goblin, though it's all subdued and mellow, just making a groove. When the drums come in about halfway through side 1, all ride cymbal gallops, it sounds what I always imagined Calexico to sound like (but I've never listened to Calexico). This blew my mind almost twenty years ago and now it sounds good, but rather incomplete - it just rolls along, never quite fulfilling the promise of the spoken intro which is all mysterious and malevolent - it turns into another semi-ambient, delay-pedal driven haze, which is not unlike those interstitial segments on early Deerhunter records, and then a sorta jaunty, carnivalesque coda (where some jingling bells counterpoint a chord progression and a passionate violin lick). It's a good bummer trip all around though maybe it just coasts a bit on mood. Things stop, a voice says "I don't know what to do", someone fucks around on a banjo for a bit, and then the side is over. And then the flip; it opens with bagpipes! More voices, an organ drone, and the heretofore unheard-of-at-least-in-my-1997-record collection instrument of bagpipes (cause I didn't yet have that great Pierre Bensusan album 2 - check the archives!). It's all little sound vignettes here - some more soundtracky Morricone stuff, then a little interlude of processed vocals which could be right off an 80s 4AD record, and then another clean channel guitar post-rock piece. This melody builds and builds, the strings kick in, the drummer starts rocking out, and eventually it's a wall of sound that keeps crescendoing and crescendoing. It ends with a locked groove, cause, F sharp A sharp INFINITY, dig? You know, around the same time as this, Mogwai were doing these wall of sound instrumental pieces that all the kids were going wild about, but I never got much from them - to me, their music was always too cold, too distant. GYBE! were all about their emotions, wearing their wet romantic visions on their sleeves even if (let's be honest) they're somewhat entry-level art-school moves. I'm not knocking this band at all - this is as lush and inviting to listen to now as it was in 1997, and I'm regretting how much I kinda turned on them (more about that later) - but hindsight shows me now that even as sophisticated as this sounded to my teenage ears (because a string section = instant sophistication, dig? as well as the abstractions of instrumental music and cryptic packaging), the music, at least on this record, is really a series of short sketches (probably mostly improvisational) woven cryptically into something which appears superficially greater as opposed to the grand vision I thought they had. And the aesthetic feels somewhat in line with this perception I have of the Montreal avant-garde (I have never been there, of course) - not necessarily that different from, say, the first Lewis Furey record or even Leonard Cohen in his most hedonistic days. That's not to discount anything about this band - they are/were great (they are still around!) but their true greatness was really yet to come and I realised it later.

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