reviews of f#a#oo

the declaration
now magazine
ray gun magazine
the wire

jerrod hood, the declaration, october 1998

i'm not sure what happened. i showed up for work around nine as usual and went about my business -- setting up, counting the till, stocking. i ordered dinner and went back to the basement to wait for it. there were a lot of people milling around, and on the stage, spilling over into the floor, was a small city of amps, stands, guitars, violins, and things i vaguely recognized as musical instruments. inhabited by roughly 10 people, this metropolis shifted and bled into form, annexing a significant portion of the floor in front of the stage. the doors opened slightly after the city ceased its restless movement, and i served as i was chosen to serve. my dinner hadn't come yet. as the lights dimmed, movement in the city swam back, and it began to produce sound. i served. i made change. i wondered about my dinner. motion above the city, on the wall, caught my attention. from somewhere behind the growing crowd assembled just beyond the city limits, someone had begun to project images. the city droned, it began a subtle noise that lasted for an indeterminate period. it grew. it receded. it grew again. from underneath this din came the shreds of melody. a guitar. some strings. a voice, taped, looped, worn, passed over. the melody gained, twisted, sought refuge in the strings. i turned at the tap of a hand on my shoulder, disoriented. i served. i turned back toward the city. something strange and beautiful began. it ended. i looked at my watch and thought about the hour and a half that i had just lost. my dinner had come. i hadn't noticed. it was cold. those assembled had come to see low. what had just happened? godspeed you black emperor!

maybe my flair for the dramatic has gotten the best of me -- this band inspires it. no, demands it. i must say, this is the biggest shock my system has suffered in many months. when i heard that low was to pay a visit to our fair city, i was pleased. when i heard they were bringing along label-mates godspeed you black emperor!, i thought, "godspeed you black emperor!?" no, now I know -- godspeed you black emperor! in some sense this band is what you might expect from kranky, home of labradford and jessamine: drony, ambient, epic music -- the soundtrack to the post-apocalypse. maybe that's what is going on here, but add melody, not just any melody, but that brand that reaches down your throat, grabs your colon and shakes it vigorously. standing in the basement of the tokyo rose watching the show was a lot like having someone intermittently rub your temples and run over you with a combine. that is to say, this band has learned the lesson of dynamics. scratch that; they teach the class on dynamics. unfortunately, this may be the place where i have to distinguish between the live band and the recorded material the band has produced.

okay, so let's talk about the album (as if this were a record review or something). the cd i have in my hot little hands is a remix of the original vinyl release that had a limited 500 copy pressing on constellation. the original tapes were recorded at hotel 2 tango, the nonet's (their van is huge) performance/recording space in montreal (yes, they're canadian), then mixed and sequenced for cd in toronto at chemical sound (i know you're fascinated) where two pieces were added. one can't really talk about this record in terms of songs, really; it's more like movements. the cd has three tracks, each containing three or four pieces/movements/units/whatever, and the album works fluidly, moving from bit to bit with ambient noises, strange tape loops, and voice-overs filling the void between instrumental outbursts. all i can really say about it is that it is beautiful. intense, lush, voluptuous, supple, full-bodied with good legs and oaky overtones, this album takes a little effort to listen to but pays serious dividends in terms of north-of-the-border enjoyment (i.e. don't plan on just popping it into your car stereo unless you plan on driving well past staunton).

if the album stutters at all, it only does so in relation to their live performance. you get the feeling while listening that when things get huge, they should get even huger. it seems like the music wants to break out of the confines of a compact disc, maybe transcend something, but just can't. on the other hand, maybe my stereo just sucks. then again, maybe it's just impossible to capture on tape the sound of someone's faith in the world being renewed.

fred mills, magnet, july/august 98

this instrumental montreal nine-piece with the unwieldy name unquestionably fits the post-rock bill without necessarily fitting any titular mold. in fact, godspeed breaks it. on the surface, the band's existential morricone-esque soundscapes, wrought by desolate guitar twang, echoey dobro slide, sweetly mournful violin and cello, and an astonishingly patient rhythm section (the bassist and dual percussionists apparently took grade-school lessons in "dynamic tension"), bear favorable comparison to late, great tribal rockers savage republic, the first a small good thing record (slim westerns) and recent work by labradford. yet, by incorporating sonic nuances as disparate as glockenspiel, bagpipes, vocal samples and/or snippets of recorded urban sounds (such as street-corner preacher), moments of silence and tape loops, the group chronicles epiphanies of a radically unique nature. each of these three lengthy cuts can be served up as staggering psychedelia for a headphone or surround-sound context - or as accompaniment for your daily household movements wherein textures vary remarkably as you walk down the hall, pass by an open window, etc. notice I didn't say background music. godspeed is "ambient interactive": it trails you, taps your shoulder, turns your head around (such as during a roaring, mid-song guitar/strings crescendo of "east hastings"), even darts past, daring you to catch up. f#a# infinity will not only enhance your life, it will become part of the soundtrack.

james oldham, nme, june 1998

anyone frightened by glockenspiels should turn away now. godspeed you black emperor! are a marvellous (mostly instrumental) ten-piece band from montreal, featuring twin percussionists, three guitarists, cello, violin and glockenspiel players and - inevitably - a man making strange sucking noises with a tape recorder. and some bagpipes.

stranger still, the end result of this frankly ludicrous musical setup is not an avant garde big country record in moose antlers, but an album of soothing, repetitious beauty.

anyway, godpseed's debut album is a genuine classic, which will remind you of either mogwai soundtracking spaghetti westerns or the dirty three in a freezer factory. in the space of three tracks stretched over 60 minutes, we're treated to an ever-shifting collage of spiralling violins, echoing guitars, air-raid sirens, a brass section, distressed wasps, an occasional glockenspiel solo and some wilfully apocalyptic samples along the lines of, "the car's on fire and there's no driver at the wheel". well, quite.

the album closes with 'providence', a 29-minute instrumental epic that's part the good, the bad and the ugly and part spiritualized drone freakout. obviously, it's brilliant. and it's not every day you get to say that about instrumental music from canada. still, that's godspeed you black emperor! for you. crazy name, er, crazy guys.

matt galloway, now magazine, august 1998

cram 10 headstrong, unhinged musicians in the same tiny room for any significant length of time and you'll either set off a civil war or emerge with something completely out of the ordinary.

montreal's sprawling instrumental art-rock combo godspeed you black emperor! managed to achieve the latter, but with a lineup that includes a cellist, two violinists, glockenspiel, tape loops and projections, in addition to the usual guitar/bass/drums, anything less would have been a disappointment.

last year's stunning f#a# infinity sessions - released on vinyl by montreal indie constellation and recently pressed up on cd with extra material by chicago imprint kranky - seemed to come out of nowhere. sounding more like an old-time radio play than a conventional album, the disc interspersed dreamy dust bowl soundscapes and gradually unfolding prog epics with disconcerting lee marvin voice-overs and field recordings of chugging steam trains. and while it all works as one continuous 60-minute program, putting the noise to tape apparently wasn't as easy as it sounds.

getting the 10 members of godspeed in the same room to talk is impossible enough - they communicate collaboratively by e-mail. the scene in the studio is apparently outrageous.

"the writing process in this band is like trying to shit 50-pound bowling balls," guitarist efrim eloquently explains. "generally, it works likes this - someone comes up with a simple riff and starts playing it, and then everybody starts playing along at the highest volume imaginable until the original riff is completely lost.

"then we stop playing and nobody talks for a while. then someone loses their temper and disappears into the corner. someone will earnestly try to suggest a structure or game plan, but everyone is too busy smoking cigarettes and sighing to listen or care. then we'll all start playing again, just as loudly and stupidly. then someone else has a tantrum. then practice is over.

"eventually, we book a tour or make recording plans, proceed to ignore the impending deadline as best we can, and then, at the last minute, hammer out shit in a spiralling panic and compliment each other on our savvy and flair."

comedic chaos aside, godspeed do manage to get their shit together to perform the occasional revelatory show. american and european tours are scheduled for this winter. an appearance friday (august 14) at club shanghai with montreal's intriguing guitar/oud/tabla/tape-loop driven shalabi effect will be followed by a late-night session at the gas station studio. the results of that meltdown see the light this fall as an ep on kranky.

"we're more of a real regular band than a lot of bands out there," efrim insists. "touring is still where most of our stuff gets written, though. the live stuff is always a bit more chaotic and ramshackle, while the studio stuff seems a bit more timid and restrained.

"someday we will hit the nail on the head and sleep good for a change."

matt hanks, ray gun, september 1998

two years ago, the olivia tremor control released dusk at cubist castle, music for an "unrealized film script." though they make no claims as such, canada's godspeed you black emperor! have taken a similar line of creative precocity one step further, offering music and script for an unrealized armageddon.

f#a#oo is an epic, three-act narrative on the boundlessness and inertia of a world (or perhaps, just a band) stripped of context; a telling limited only by its single-cd format, and the listener's imagination. the album commences with an apocalyptic, "day after"-esque dialogue describing mass suicide and dead flags, toppled buildings and burning skylines. pretty gloomy stuff for certain, but this intro articulately foretells the hour of music that lies ahead. in that hour the nine-piece gybe! slither through lilting string melodies, barely-there electronic drones, and full-bore guitar onslaughts. but their movements are always linear and plot-driven, with no single section sounding remotely like its preecessor.

in a live setting, gybe! utilize twin film projectors to flesh out their script, but if your audio-visual synapses are up for a good stoking and your attention span is of hearty stock, f#a#oo can be an exceptionally rewarding album on its own. it's an enhanced cd of an entirely different sort.

david keenan, the wire, july 1998

if you're after a soundtrack for your own personal apocalypse, you'd do better to chase down the debut cd from montréal ten-piece godspeed you black emperor!, whose obliquely titled f#a# infinity (is a stunning evocation of kerouac's "end of the land sadness/end of the world gladness").

the album's sardonic fatalism is articulated at the outset by a world-weary lee marvin voice calling down the last days: "we're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death". the mood thus primed, the mostly instrumental godspeed... bury it even deeper with orchestral sweeps of melancholic violin and cello. with three guitar players sliding blues damaged sustain in and out of the mix, godspeed create some of the most emotionally charged music this side of the dirty three.

at times their orchestral parts evoke the beautiful, doomed youth sensibility of music for egon schiele, by the string ensemble rachel's. at others, their way of raising powerful, blasting forces out of the nothingness into which they just as quickly recede echoes parts of the first cul de sac album. ultimately though, godspeed are out there somewhere, heading for some dark place that is theirs alone.

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