It's a lone voice, deep and sonorous, equal parts paranoia and prophecy: "The car is on fire and there is no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides. A dark wind blows. The government is corrupt and we are all so many drunks with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death ."
So begins Dead Flag Blues, the first track on f#a#oo, the debut album by Godspeed You Black Emperor! (if you don't count the release of 33 copies of a demo tape, all lights f****d up on the hairy amp drooling, as an album).
It is a thing of wonder and brutal beauty, f#a#00, a coarse and caustic instrumental examination of everything that's wrong with the society that surrounds us. Ennio Morricone textures battle with angle-grinding guitars and church bells, folky mandolins strum behind the teeth-grinding screech of a steam train threatening to go off the rails. Tape loops and even bagpipes are used to eerie, inventive effect. In between swooning slide-guitar melodies and minor-key cellos, there's an underlying sense of fear, an implicit despair that's as easy to succumb to as it is beautiful to listen to.
After forming seven years ago in Montreal, with "two guitars, a bass and a tape loop", Godspeed have expanded from two founder members - guitarist Efrim and bassist Mauro (no surnames) - into a quasi-orchestral band that numbers anything from nine to 15 members. The Morricone-goes-apocalyptic stylings of f#a#° were followed by last year's Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP. Ostensibly comprising two tracks, it weighs in at nearly half an hour; its intricate, hypnotic demeanour a logical progression from f#a#°'s frazzled anger. There's just as much noise here, but it's executed with the kind of subtlety, poise and restraint that Philip Glass and Michael Nyman strive towards. The rambling voice of one Blaise Bailey Finnegan the Third appears from out of the ether on Slow Riot's second track, BBF3; he's a street preacher taped by a member of the band, and his scabrous, paranoid opinions create a thread on which the music is hung.
There's political commentary in here, but it's in the crescendo of guitars and drums and the predatory swoops of the violins. Finnegan seems to be the political antithesis of the band, a ranting conservative spouting kneejerk, reactionary solutions to infinitely complex problems.
Everything, here, takes on meaning.
"I think that everything is coloured by politics," says guitarist Efrim over a crackly transatlantic phone line. "I don't know if the music we produce is political as such, you know? I think that we do the best we can. It isn't apolitical, I don't think that there is such a thing as an apolitical lifestyle, but ." A ruminative pause. ". I think the best thing we can do is talk about what we think, about what we consider to be the politics of making music."
"That's a little vague, I know, but you'd need to give me a more specific question to answer on that," he responds. He's reticent, but firm, attacking what he sees as a culture of ephemera. Here, the politics of making music are not so much related to the music itself, but to how it is perceived and interpreted; how it's presented.
Eschewing the standard biographical information and styled photos that constitute most bands' sleeves, Godspeed instead deliver screen prints and twisted, incoherent notes about where they are and what they do; f#a#oo came with a hand-made sleeve and a copper coin alleged to have been "flattened by passing trains". No band photos. No surnames. No details other than those which are strictly necessary. "It's a conscious decision," Efrim says. "Who wants to look at photos of the people who made the music? What does that have to do with anything? Right from the start, we knew we didn't want to do that. We didn't really see the point in doing interviews where we talked about our favourite bands or anything." So that's one to stroke off the list of questions.
"There's so much bullshit written," he emphatically states, fired up now. "So many unnecessary words said." Thus: everything said ought to have a point, a function and a purpose? "Idealistically, yes," he agrees. "But that's never going to happen, not on a large scale. I mean, ideally we'd like to start a dialogue about a lot of things other than music, placing music in the context of larger issues."
And the larger issues here are the political ones; it's impossible to live in a vacuum and confine yourself to having tunnel vision, he contends. Music here is only part of a far larger, and far blacker canvas.
"I think that there's some sort of ." begins Efrim. He stops again, searching for the right words. "I think we're all f****d," he suggests. "I'm not talking about any sort of Generation X bullshit or any of that. What I mean is that there's a large group of people who have realised that things are really bad, and who realise that we're all working the same shitty jobs with the same bleak f***ing future. I think that there's got to be a way to address that and I think that music is just one of the ways to address it."
This is what's political, Efrim argues. Music as a means of escape and as a means of comment. "That's what we strive for," he muses. "I mean, we make a lot of mistakes, but there's a lot of things we didn't count on happening. All we want to do is to try and contribute to a meaningful dialogue. Ideally, there would be dialogues happening all over, about how people cope, about what we're doing with ourselves."
To caricature Godspeed You Black Emperor! as "the last great band of the 20th century" (as one magazine did last year) is to miss the point, says Efrim. "All that bombast - that wasn't what we wanted to say. I think that all we can do right now is try and set up an honest conversation about the fact that people don't know what the f*** is going on."
It's inevitable, however, if you place yourselves in the public eye, if you release records and tour them, and if you consent to interviews, that somewhere along the line, some people are going to happily grasp the wrong end of the stick. It's a difficult situation to be stuck in.
Attempt, as Godspeed have done, to adopt an anonymous persona and let the music speak for itself, and charges of deliberate enigmatism and creating a cult of invisibility will be thrown around with abandon. Conversely, saturate the media with images and words and there's every risk that those same words will be twisted into well-aimed arrows, slung right back in your face.
"That's the way it is," says a resigned Efrim. "I don't know how to do a better job of avoiding that. Other than talking less."
He's half-joking, but there's a point here. If you're going to make music that's as powerful, as beautiful, as expressive as this, then you've got to let it speak.
(huge thanks to stuart low for sending me this article).
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