In general, I try not to divide the world into halves for the sake of argument. I have a natural distrust for most any statement that starts with some form of "there are two kinds of people in the world..." The statements or arguments that generally follow those types of statements are almost always already predisposed to an interpretive slant or bias, depending on which side of the bipolar divides the speaker/writer identifies with. Pre-processed polarity is a convenience of lazy rhetoric, a means for the critic to easily dissect his supposed audience and address the theoretical "sides" rather than address the messy, in-betweens of the actual world.
I try to avoid that. I try to at least do a little of the work involved in thinking out the problem as it actually exists rather than lopping off the ugly messes and stragglers for the sake of rhetorical convenience. But with that said, I'm tempted. Certain problems make me want to start the critical process off with a self-reflexively ironic statement such as "There are two types of people in the world. People who divide the world into halves, and people who don't," and go from there. The Godspeed! problem, for example, taxes my moral resolve in this matter.
It would be so easy to just say, "You either know Godspeed! or you don't. If you do, you already have this album/disc. If you don't, you're not even remotely interested in non-traditional rock/pop music and would likely rather have your eyes boiled out with sulfuric acid than to sit through a Godspeed! release." It would just be so damned easy that way.
But it would be the cheap, lazy way out. While there is some hint of truth to that sort of dichotomy, I don't think it's helpful to write a review based thereon. So, for the sake of this review I'm going to address a third theoretical archetypical listener. I'm going to write this review for people who don't have any idea who Godspeed You Black Emperor! are, because I do think the dichotomy holds for fans. Godspeed! fans rushed out and bought this disc within a month of its release. Many of them likely have two copies already, one on CD and the other a limited edition double-vinyl release that preceded the disc by a week. So, fans need not read any further. Fans can just skip to the end and complain that they think I didn't give it enough sponges.
Similarly, non-fans can skip to the end as well. If you can't stand the pretense of post-rock, if you get shivers over the very idea of orchestration or political intent, or if you think the only decent lineup for a rock band is limited to guitar/bass/drums, just jump on out of this review altogether. I have no idea what you were thinking by linking to it in the first place.
Now, for those of you that are left, here's a brief synopsis of Godspeed!.
Firstly, yes, the exclamation point is part of the band's name. Yes, it gives my word processor's spellchecker fits every damned time I type it, but it's part of the name nonetheless. Secondly, Godspeed! are not a rock band. They're a nine-piece ensemble from Montreal which includes cello, violins, effected guitars, more percussion goofiness than you can shake a stick at, and sampled loops of random street rants or publicly broadcast radio sermons from apocalyptic bible-thumpers. Thirdly, being from Montreal, Godspeed! are Canadian. That gives them the political freedom to actually be Marxists, a feat an American band would have a hard time pulling off. Finally, Godspeed! incorporates a ton of their respective politics into their arrangements.
Oh, and Godspeed! record really long songs. Twenty, sometimes thirty minutes or more per arrangement, most of which are multi-movement affairs more resembling classical orchestration than pop production.
So, you've been forewarned.
The band has released two CD's previous to this one. The first one, F#A#Infinity was a full-length release (2 songs, 60 minutes of music). The second, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada was an EP (2 songs, 40 minutes of music). With those two releases Godspeed! set their sound rather emphatically. And it was a sound you've never heard before. Loops and drones and samples mixed into the cellos and violins, beginning inevitably with a slow, melodic guitar part with the rest of the instruments building in along and along until you hit a crescendo of immense power and substance. The crescendo will normally fade away into one of the sampled bits of speech, usually something apocalyptic and depressing regarding the state of the capitalism-oppressed world or our misguided souls. Generally speaking, the songs are dire, depressing, sad and beautiful. Exceptionally beautiful. That's what Godspeed! does. That's their sound.
Which brings us to the latest release, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, hereafter referred to as Lift.... Lift... is a double CD release, which means you get some 2-3 hours of Godspeed! music for your fifteen bucks. Man, that's making the worker's dollar go as far as it can, I tell ya. It's a big, sweeping monstrosity of a thing, and if you're general listening habits are closer to 3-minute ska-pop rather than 40-minute drone/builds, it can be rather imposing. Don't let if frighten you away. It's worth it to dig through.
Disk One of Lift... is pretty much everything you could ever expect from Godspeed!. They stick pretty damned close to the formula that got them so much (deserved) critical acclaim to start with. It's Godspeed!, and damned if it's not stunning, damned near oppressive in it's own genius. (Why continue to try to make relevant musical art when these Canadian mopes are just going to release something so far in excess of anything I could ever create?) Lift... doesn't expand much on the Godspeed! sound, at least not on Disc One, but when the sound is already so far above and beyond anything you'll hear elsewhere, that's not a terribly damning concern.
Where I find Lift... to become really interesting is Disc Two. As we've covered above, Godspeed! songs have a tendency to be rather depressive and melancholic, sometimes to a fault. The string arrangements are almost always juxtaposed just so with the loops and rants so as to generate an ambient hopelessness in the sound. The samples themselves are almost always depressively downers themselves; morbid post-beat poetry of dismay and despair, apocalyptic fire and brimstone sermonizing by radio evangelists, paranoid street rants from NYC petty criminals. The end effect is often rather demoralizing for the faint of heart.
But Disc Two of Lift... strays somewhat from that formula. To start, it opens with a completely different sort of sample. Murray Osril (whom I don't know from Adam, so don't ask) is picked up mid-remembrance memorializing his youth on Coney Island. There is a tinge of nostalgic melancholy still, in that an old man is telling fondly of his by-gone days in a golden age well past, but it's not the same sort of antagonistic musings I've come to expect from the band. The sample leads into the softer opening of Monheim, a song that they used to call Hungover Like the Queen in Maide Vale when they did it on John Peel's BBC Radio show, but for some reason renamed for the album. Monheim works it's way up into an expected Godspeed! frenzy over the next fourteen minutes or so, crashing into it's feedback-drenched apex with a certain sort of deathwatch glee. The climax holds for a few seconds before fading into the arrangement's third movement, a piece they've called Broken Windows, Locks of Love Pt. III. The movement drops all the way back down to the bottom of the audio spectrum, beginning with a plucked guitar melody of some sort and a triangle. Again we get the build/drone effect that they've perfected, only this time there's something ... other ... added into it.
Godspeed! crescendos, for me, are always these Bataille-esque self-sacrifices (okay, I'm sorry, I've referenced Georges Bataille in this review, and there's like, six people at the most in the city of Atlanta whom I know will be able to follow that reference, but I don't have the time or space here to synopsis The Accursed Share or Theory of Religion, so if you don't follow that reference, do a little research. He's in the philosophy section of your local Barnes and Nobles bookseller) where the protagonist (the music, or the band, take your pick) repeatedly thrusts itself towards the impossible, embracing assured self-destruction, rather than live complacently a life of safety and assurance at the heels of the oppressor. This crescendo is different. It took me about seven listens on the earphones to figure out how they pull it off, but this explosion has hope built into it. Sisyphus actually gets the rock up the hill. It's a stunning moment. It floors me to this day. I listen to the entire 24 minutes of the song for this 15-second bit of sound. And it's all in the trumpet.
This is, as far as I can tell, the first appearance of a brass section on a Godspeed! record. I could be wrong, of course, but I think it very well may be. And dear god did they save it for the right time. It's mixed so obscurely in the back of the wall of sound that you can hardly identify it, but it's there. A simple, single coronet or trumpet bringing up a single note from the depths of the song's underbelly, into the light of day, a ray of aural light shooting up from the earth to pierce the heart of heaven, a gauntlet challenge to the last remains of the gods, declaring finally, "If you're not going to answer, I'll find a way on my own."
Christ! It's beautiful. It hammers my double-sheen-ed edge of cynicism every time I hear it, shattering every skeptical defense shield I'd ever bothered to raise in the blink of an eye. All with a single, rising trumpet note.
The rest of Disc Two is, for me, is just filler. Not in a bad sense, but in an "I always track back and play the first song again" sense. But it is interesting filler, nonetheless. They drop a couple of shorter arrangements in there, and there's even a indie rock song out of the blue. It's almost as if they've done what they set out to accomplish with the first three discs, all collapsed into that single moment of the opening track of the fourth disc (Disc Two of Lift... would be the fourth CD, total, that Godspeed! has released) and they're now free to continue to experiment and grow.
I would buy Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven for that one track on Disc Two. That may be just me, but if you're interested enough by now to take a chance on a Godspeed! record, go ahead and pick this one up as the starting point. If you like it, you can build the catalogue back to the other two, and if you don't, you've probably got the best they've ever done in that track. I'm giving the CD 7 sponges, because that moment alone is worth giving up the vast majority of my CD collection just to hear again and again.