with the five major labels and their subsidiaries increasingly devoted to blockbusters, pop-music listeners in search of new sounds have to follow their ears into the commercial netherworld of independent labels. godspeed you black emperor!, a nine-piece band (three electric guitarists, two double bassists, two violinists and two drummers) from montreal, is affiliated with kranky records of chicago and the equally tiny constellation records of montreal.
the band, which took its name from a japanese motorcycle gang, recently released its third recording, a two-song ep entitled 'slow riot for new zero kanada.' i first heard 'slow riot' while driving at night down an empty stretch of highway: the perfect setting for this alternately forlorn and exhilarating music.
godspeed's sound, built on a few simple, endlessly repeated chord sequences, is superficially similar to the minimalism of philip glass and the electric-guitar choirs of glenn branca. yet godspeed's anguished melodicism and hellbent abandon give its music a searing immediacy that makes it more likely to appeal to rock fans than the work of either composer.
nominally two tracks, 'slow riot' is in fact a single, 28-minute piece. it starts with a slow drone by basses and violins. the bassists bows rattle ominously. when the guitars and drums kick in, the music turns glistening, martial; taking its time, it builds to a roaring crescendo. after a hushed interlude, an anti-government crank delivers a long, disoriented rant (according to its publicity notes, godspeed avidly collects this sort of found material), followed by a second crescendo.
even slower-building than the first, it peaks in a devastating stoptime section, the whole band abruptly dropping out except for a single screaming guitar. the record's climax, this must be an overwhelming moment in concert. the maelstrom drains away, and what sounds at first like a renewal hymn, quiet violins and voices, turns eerie and creepy as if nuclear-blast survivors, stunned and infected, were wandering in a blighted landscape.
although godspeed's music incorporates improvisation, it certainly isn't jazz; although it relies largely on rock's instruments and vocabulary, it's not rock, either. it's the first music i've heard in a long time to make me feel that new, vernacular musical languages are slowly working themselves out.
victoria segal, nme, april 1999
no words = no politics - that appears to be the crux of criticisms recently levelled against mogwai. criticisms that, basically, miss the point by the space of a small continent, as testified to afresh by their montreal kin godspeed you black emperor!. for like last year's album 'f#a# infinity', 'slow riot for new zero kanada' is pure emotional documentary, replacing grainy super-8 with violin and glockenspiel, ditching facts and statistics for the rage of a man taped on a street in providence. providence,of all places. "for thus saith the lord: the whole land shall be desolate yet i will not make a full end," read the apocalyptic sleevenotes, taken from jeremiah. "to attack someone's mind is a social disorder," says blase bailey finnegan III, field recording and namesake of the second and final track on this record. For in godspeed's worldview, everyone's a marginal prophet. words, though, are beside the point - their lexicon of faith, misery, hope and tenacity is written in every glockenspiel chime, in
each intimate drone, in the build and fade and build. few words doesn't mean nothing to say, and whether the fierce stringed defiance of 'moya' or the ectoplasmic tape static of 'BBF3', they might sometimes go quiet, but they're not going anywhere gently. it's impossibly beautiful music for plain impossible times. yes, we are a long way from home. but here, in this low and lovely noise, is a place to keep you warm.
matt galloway, now magazine, march 1999
what was so remarkable initially about the debut by nine-piece montreal art-noise orchestra godspeed you black emperor! was how the record‘s delirious soundscapes seemed to come out of nowhere, taking ages to build but never really losing focus. much of that feel came from the three-year period the album was culled from. capturing that sensation again on a new recording would be nearly impossible, yet while the setting has shifted somewhat, slow riot is hardly a disappointment.
composed during a scrappy north american tour, the two lengthy tracks here add a more visceral edge to godspeed‘s languid ambience. buzzing guitars trade melodies with weeping strings, glockenspiels and xylophones, again gradually building up a remarkable dramatic tension broken only by sporadic bursts of noise and field recordings of disenchanted americans. footage of an endlessly unfolding desert highway would be a nice complement, but in the meantime, dream up your own visuals.
stephen thompson, the onion, april 1999
eps recorded between studio albums are often little more than filler-bespattered singles conceived to dupe collectors and completists into acquiring an act's every needless remix and outtake. but that doesn't mean slow riot for new zero kanada, a two-song set by the montreal band godspeed you black emperor!, isn't remarkably essential. with guitars, drums, and an assortment of strings, the instrumental group's nine members build the 11-minute "moya" and 17-minute "blaise bailey finnegan III" into diverse, shape-shifting, mood-swinging epics. opening with creeping, beautiful strings, "moya" slowly dissipates into languid quietude before swelling into a full-blown orchestral arrangement--albeit one with loud electric guitars--that recalls a more refined variation on dirty three's cataclysmic instrumental explosions. the song eventually bleeds seamlessly into "blaise bailey finnegan III," which at first seems like a bit of a throwaway: behind a dissonant soundtrack of guitars and strings, a paranoid,
anti-government conspiracy theorist rants, tells stories, talks about his guns, and reads a scary poem. the music feels secondary, even perfunctory, until about 12 minutes in, when gybe! takes over and delivers the apocalypse the narrator suggests is coming. it may be a low-priced ep, but slow riot for new zero kanada delivers more intensely beautiful moments than you'll find just about anywhere else for twice the price.
mark jenkins, washington post, september 1999
portions of godspeed you black emperor's slow riot for new zero kanada resemble (labradfords) e luxo so, although this montreal group favors harsher timbres than its richmond counterpart. beguilingly enigmatic enough to have been labeled "the last great band of the century" by britain's trend-hungry new musical express, gybe! tends to gradually amplify from its pastoral passages to epic crescendos. the first of the two long pieces on slow riot follows the slow-building strategy of scottish art-noise favorites mogwai.
the second composition, which runs almost 18 minutes, is less linear. unfortunately, it's dominated by the comments of an american malcontent the band apparently met while touring. the purpose of integrating such "narratives" into its music is to be "documentary," the band members have said, but these comments are hardly worth documenting, and definitely discourage repeated listening.