Monday, September 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor


Godspeed You! Black Emperor are one of those bands that just seems to stand out, as something distinct, separate, from other bands. Well... 'band'. They're a nonet, a 'collective', with two each of the rock trinity of guitar, bass and drums plus a violinist and a brass section. They make wholly instrumental music based around lengthy drone-type repetitive phrases, music that has little to do with anything you might hear on a radio. Seems strange to call them a 'band' or to call their output 'rock music' - well, it most certainly is not rock, though I'm not really sure where else you'd categorise them in a record store.

Ah, record store. Another one of those things that set them apart: for GYBE, vinyl is an important part of the experience: not because they didn't release material on CD, they did, but because the material tended to be really different on vinyl and on CD, and the packaging was more ornate in the former than in the latter (famously, vinyl copies of their début all came with a penny that had been crushed on a train track). The present album is an exception, in that the 2-record set and the two-CD set both came with identical musical contents, but the package is still very much set up as a vinyl listening experience.

To start with, it's made up of four discrete 'sides'. GYBE doesn't create individual 'songs' so much as lengthy suites composed of smaller parts. Technically, Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is a double-album consisting of four twenty-minute pieces. As we go trough my thought processes here, you'll see that I consider the conceit to be more than a little pretentious and at times rather artificially enforced, but still, they're the band and I respect their vision for their music.

To an extent. I've had to treat this release different to every other release I've done so far. To just say, for example, 'yes to side one, yes to side two, no to side three, no to side four' would have been pretty pointless (though if I forced myself to follow that format, that's exactly how I would have), so I'm actually cutting the suites up into their constituent movements and making my decision based on that. That's not quite as disrespectful as it seems: when GYBE perform live, they sometimes make 'new' suites by cobbling together different movements from different earlier pieces. Recombination appears to be part of the GYBE listening experience. The packaging of this album titles and illustrates the movements in a rather abstract way, but the 'official' GYBE website actually times them, and it's that that I've followed, chopping the pieces up. I've still tried to respect their ideas for flow, following their segues as much as possible. In the end, I took the first suite in toto, skipped the third one completely, and cobbled together my own 'side two' from parts of the remaining two suites. This unorthodox approach means I approach the write-up differently too, writing up each suite, not movement, in extended multi-paragraph descriptions.

So who are these professed anarchists from Montréal, who shun all conventional press and cultivate a highly arty, countercultural image while playing massive sheets of music in small venues in between a thousand side-projects? It could be said that what sets GYBE apart from most other musical acts is this: seeing as it's the main focus of most popular music lyrics, most musical acts could be said to treat the range of human emotions as their main subject matter. But in most cases, songs are 'about' feelings such as love, loneliness or wonder only to the extent that that's what they sing about. In other words, they use human incantation to invoke emotions. GYBE, on the other hand, have no need for vocals or lyrics: their stock-in-trade is to use their not-insubstantial array of musical instruments to evoke emotions, to churn those very feelings up from the deep pot they stir and leave them to wrap around, or at worst merely linger in front of, the listener. The advantage GYBE have is that this allows them a wider range of emotional responses; as they can tap into emotions that we don't quite have names for, feelings vividly felt but rarely verbalised. And throughout these ninety minutes, GYBE do this with regularity.

The experience is highly subjective. Not only is it true that some people will hear this as the most inspiring, beautiful music of their lives while some hear it as pretentious noodling, but it is also true that most individuals will experience both extremes, depending on their mood. Personally, this album drives me crazy from time to time. They have a sense of dynamics far, far richer than most popular musicians, but frustratingly revert time and time again to a GYBE cliché of starting quiet and building to a roaring climax, ten minute crescendos that occur with such regularity that the dramatic effect is rather dulled. Still, this is the kind of listening experience that really alters your perceptions of what music can be and even what it should be. The world would be a richer place if everyone let this into their lives at least once.

All of this, however, has conspired to make this one of the most difficult of my own 'Better as a Single' projects. I pine for albums where I pick and choose among sixteen discrete rock songs. But luckily, not all music is like that.

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven

Side one
  1. lift yr. skinny fists, like antennas to heaven... (6:14)
  2. gathering storm (11:09)
  3. "welcome to barco am/pm..." [l.a.x.; 5/14/00] (1:14)
  4. cancer towers on holy road hi-way (3:52)
Side two
  1. atomic clock (1:08)
  2. chart #3 (2:39)
  3. world police and friendly fire (9:47)
  4. she dreamt she was a bulldozer, she dreamt she was alone in an empty field (9:43)
Storm (details below)
  • lift yr. skinny fists, like antennas to heaven...: keep (side one, track one)
  • gathering storm (side one, track two)
  • "welcome to barco am/pm..." [l.a.x.; 5/14/00]: keep (side one, track three)
  • cancer towers on holy road hi-way: keep (side one, track four)

'Storm' starts out with guitars and brass, sounding for all the world like Spiritualized meets 1960s Miles Davis for a minute. The basic theme is played over and over, building in intensity and adding a violin, slow and compelling, for three minutes until the halfway point of the title-track opening movement, where the song crashes into screaming loudness with drums and it becomes clear that this album is beginning with an overture, a dramatic curtain-raiser. It builds in intensity all the way to the end, a simple crescendo like so much that will follow, but with a different feeling. As the piece builds, that brass starts to sound redolent of a fanfare, perhaps heralding the entrance of, well, an emperor. This is inspiring music, if not fists exactly then at least most certainly arms lifted to heaven.

It crashes into nothing as the second movement, which will last eleven minutes, begins. Never has a GYBE piece been more descriptively named than 'gathering storm', but it's pretty clear skies as the piece begins, slow and haunting. The 'storm' starts to begin about four minutes in, again when the percussion occurs, when the piece gets louder if not faster - the instruments start to scream, and the effect is unnerving and calming at the same time. GYBE instruments scream a lot, but it's not always as psychedelica-influenced at this particular 'storm' is. Until, that is, about the six minute point at which the clouds turn decidedly black and the piece becomes a noise-piece, the sort of freeform stuff I might have excised had it been a track all by itself. Here it's just some 'gathering', though, until about seven and a half minutes in when it's drums again that signal a shift, as the pounding simulates the rainfall beginning, I guess. The guitars are like monotonous drones here - not peals of thunder but sheets of rolling thunder I suppose, and it's time to hunch over and make it through till it subsides without getting too drenched.

And subside it does - to complete silence, giving a lie to the structure of this disc as four integrated pieces of music. A minute of found sounds from a supermarket introduces the highly evocative and nightmare-soundtracking 'cancer roads'. Like 'Providence' from Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, this is piano, noise and distorted speech. The whole thing feels like a post-meltdown stroll through a destroyed nuclear power station without a protective suit on. It's scary as hell, but possessed of an eerie beauty. 'Haunting' is what they call stuff like this. Hell, it's enough to make me believe in ghosts.

I'm not sure the extent to which 'Storm' succeeds as a single twenty-minute piece. But each of the three main parts of it is beautiful in its own way and entirely worth of inclusion. And seeing as how I want to include all twenty minutes of this (well, I could skip the shop announcement), I think it makes sense to refer to the band's own vision for how the movements are stitched together. So the real side one of this album is, note-for-note, my own side one too. Radical? No. But I guess it means noise-music art collectives front-load their doubles as much as anyone.

Static (details below)
  • terrible canyons of static: lose
  • atomic clock: keep (side two, track one)
  • chart #3: keep (side two, track two)
  • world police and friendly fire: keep (side two, track three)
  • [...+the buildings they are sleeping now]: lose
The second suite, and second side of the album, starts off with 'terrible canyons of static', which is a lie: this particular soundscape has plenty of noises, including feedback and the chopping sound of a helicopter, which rise and fall like, I suppose, a journey from one canyon to the next. But there's no static: this is clean as a brand-new kitchen. Evocative, yeah, but not really worth more than one listen.

The static comes next, during a track pointlessly given over to an electronic clock which leads to the reliably creepy sound of a radio preacher, whose queerly taunting voice is laid across a truly beautiful, quiet and (by these standards) remarkably brief piece for guitar and violin. Beautiful, but so terrifyingly chilling that you know no single member of GYBE could be a believer themselves.

It leads into 'world police and friendly fire', at ten minutes the heart of the 'Static' suite. As the music starts quietly but starts to build in intensity, repeated lines buried below roaring sustained notes, you start to know what to expect. But at two and a half minutes it surprises, leading into haunting lines for violin and then glockenspiel that shift sideways instead of merely rising or falling. The mood is tension, though, because you know the boom is still coming, and at four minutes it comes, sounding much like any other GYBE roar but perhaps more melodic than normal. At just shy of six minutes, the song changes shape, still roaring but sounding as much like a 'conventional' rock band as they'll sound these ninety minutes. If it weren't for that persistent violin that won't go away, I should add. By the final minute of the track, the band are rocking hard, earning that 'heaviest album' accolade, and it's terribly exciting, even as the track concludes with half a minute of screaming feedback. What's great about this piece is how it builds in intensity not merely by pumping up the volume but by introducing more an more intense emotions.

Until they're spent. The last five and a half minutes are entitled '(the buildings they are sleeping now)', and while this soundscape does indeed sound like buildings, it doesn't much sound like sleep. The metallic sheets of noise that arrive, scream and leave are beautiful, but they don't sound very much like music, and they're ultimately disposable at half the length. Side two begins and ends with a combined nine minutes of noise, featuring little in the way of 'static' but too much atmosphere and too little content.

What I've done here is, to be honest, shaved off the droning noise bits at the beginning and the end and kept the more musical bits in the centre. Which might not seem all that enlightened, I suppose. And yet my job is to distill doubles into more concentrated, and hopefully more enjoyable, listening experiences, and the drone pieces aren't exactly GYBE's peak of overall listening enjoyment. So the second, third and fourth movements become the first, second and third parts of my side two.

Sleep (details below)
  • murray ostril: "...they don't sleep anymore on the beach...": lose
  • monheim: lose
  • broken windows, locks of love pt. III / 3rd part: lose
GYBE might well be insomniacs, because whatever the title 'Sleep' connotes to you, I doubt it can be heard much on the highly distracting twenty-three minutes of side three. An old man reminiscing about Coney Island is far more moving than it has any right to be, and it's the briefest of introductions to the first of the two lengthy pieces that make up the entirety of 'Sleep'.

'Monheim' starts out gorgeous, slow and stately, evocative and calming. Indeed, music for 'sleep'. The music slowly becomes more sinister, but there's nothing wrong with that - quiet and calming can turn sinister at any given time. Doesn't make the music any less wonderful to listen to. It's at about five and a half minutes in, though, that things start to go a bit wrong, as you realise that once again GYBE is going to go quiet-to-loud, and indeed by six and a half minutes in the neighbours are starting to wake up and bang on your walls. It's not that it becomes ugly, not yet anyway, it's just that there's a pointlessness to the spell-shattering crescendo this time out, as if they get loud not because they want to but because they feel that, as GYBE, they're obliged to, on any movement that exceeds five minutes in length. Still, there's a left-turn into a galloping rhythm at eight-odd minutes that intrigues and wills you to give the piece the benefit of the doubt. But as the minutes go by, it doesn't really go anywhere. It's merely committed itself to being as loud and screaming as possible, and as the moment concludes in mere feedback and detuned guitars, whatever spell it had woven all those minutes ago has long since dissipated.

And so it is for the ten-minute other movement on side three. It does take its time, quietly plodding on for a while, so that the first big whoosh, just shy of three minutes in, is welcome. This is loud but dramatic, with a decent rhythmic groove, though the absolute stand-still of the instrumentation does make you selfishly wish for just one tiny strand of melody... ah, but this is GYBE, and melodies are for capitalists. Still, that groove gets better and better, the drums being the only thing keeping this from being an overlong and uneventful waste of time. But at seven and a half minutes in comes the whooshes of noise, embarrassingly predictable by now. It's not that I have anything against music being loud, or getting loud through gradual crescendo. It's just that on side three the first crescendo bulldozes whatever emotions had been built, constructing none in their place, and the second crescendo comes along with a complete absence of any emotion whatsoever, a group bored, screaming into the dry ice, because they feel that that's what people pay them to do. Sad.

It is my disappointment with how the two movements on this side ultimately pan out that has me skipping both of them.

Antennas to Heaven (details below)
  • moya sings "baby-o"...: lose
  • edgyswingsetacid: lose
  • [glockenspiel duet recorded on a campsite in rhinebeck, n.y.]: lose
  • "attention...mon ami...fa-lala-lala-la-la..." [55-St.Laurent]: lose
  • she dreamt she was a bulldozer, she dreamt she was alone in an empty field: keep (side two, track four)
  • deathkamp drone: lose
  • [antennas to heaven...]: lose
Shorter than the first three pieces but consisting of more movements than any of them, 'Antennas to Heaven' is a schizophrenic piece that frankly feels like an outtake reel stitched together to fill up a fourth side. Even the one movement of substance feels like little bits hobbled together, as lovely as it is to behold.

The piece begins with what the tracklisting categorises as four separate movements lasting a minute apiece, but are really little bits of nonsense: an improvised nonsense on guitar-and-vocals, a little chunk of moody noise, some improvised glockenspiel, kids chanting on a playground. Found sounds, but nothing to write home about, and nothing coherent that can be called a 'piece'.

The rather lovely 'she dreamt she was a bulldozer...' starts with a few waves of feedback. A minute and a half in, out of nowhere comes some screaming loudness. I should be banging my head in despair now, but I'm willing to go with it. Oddly enough, after less than a minute, it stops as suddenly as it began, going back into calming stillness. Weird? Certainly. It's more atmospherics until about six minutes in, when suddenly it starts to feel something like a jam band, of all things, the Grateful Dead strolling into the middle of an empty farmer's field, or maybe a deadhead sitting in a vacant flied suddenly experiencing a flashback. It gets louder, because it does... but it doesn't bother me, because it's evoked something. Not sure what, but something. Flashback ends eight minutes in, and after soft and loud and soft and loud, it's back to soft. And spacey, and humming. I guess she dreams that she's a bulldozer repeatedly, little spurts of eye-moving dream-state in the midst of a good night's sleep.

So how do you follow the two minutes of evocative, quiet noise that concludes 'bulldozer'? Why with three minutes of noise followed by a further two minutes of noise to end the entire double record. Judging by their names, 'deathkamp drone' should be stark and depressing while '(antennas to heaven...)' should be uplifting and celestial. But I'm afraid I don't really get that from them. After ninety minutes of contrasting moods or at least contrasting volumes, I'm in no mood to consider what a noise piece 'evokes'. I'm merely looking for my keys and hoping to beat the crowds.

This final movement frustrates me more than the others because it feels so thrown-together, though I suppose ultimately the other three sides aren't really much more cohesive than this side. At least they pretend, though. Still, the main 'centrepiece' of side four, 'she dreamt she was a bulldozer...' is quite lovely and worthy of inclusion. So I remove it from all the little-bits before and after and let it conclude my side two, and my listening experience as a whole. With two minutes of quiet noise. Why, that's barely any time at all, by GYBE standards.

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