Godspeed You Black Emperor! – ‘F# A# ∞’: Round 97 – Rob’s choice

godspeed

First things first. I drew 1998 from Tom’s lucky bag of wonder and, after more deliberation that I normally afford these choices, landed happily on Godspeed’s first widely distributed record, my only hesitation over which had been to do with possible dispute over the release date (I am a stickler for them rules). The Montreal ensemble released ‘F# A# ∞’ twice. The first incarnation, in 1997, ran to only 500 handmade copies and featured just two long tracks, although the tracks are built around the same sounds and templates as the more widely known version, released the following year. I own both versions and whilst the 1997 release contains my favourite ever album insert – an envelope containing a penny that has been run over by a train – it’s safe to say that the 1998 version is the one that everyone knows.

So, that’s 1998 sorted. How about 2016?

It just so happened that we were meeting on Tuesday 8 November, as the USA went to the polls. In this context, it was amusing to stare into the middle distance and imagine that the opening stanza of ‘Dead Flag Blues’ was a description of a world destroyed by a fascist megalomaniac President. We knew that by the next day, that possibility would have faded away, leaving a trace memory, like a game we had shared and then walked away from.

It didn’t turn out that way.

It doesn’t seem so amusing now.

Yet, for all that it seems ripe for self-parody, the none-more-black first movement of the first of the three extended pieces on this album is still one of the most spine-tingling things you’ll ever hear. If you don’t know it, switch off the lights, crank up the volume, and listen to it now.

What follows is no less remarkable, no less powerful. To some, Godspeed have seemed a near parody of themselves at times over the last twenty years, but that’s highly uncharitable. With ‘F# A# ∞’ they created a crushing breakthrough, a breach between styles, that no-one else was able to follow to any significant extent, leaving them exposed, alone, doing that Godspeed thing.

Nevertheless, the record has lost none of its impact over the years. Slipping between bleak poetry, blood-drenched chamber music, field recordings, chugging slab rock and delicate folk-whimsy, it never loses its grip. I’m shying away from trying to describe it here, not because I think I might be dissecting a frog, this music is irreducible, but because it just sounds so improbable. Sticking with ‘Dead Flag Blues’, you get dying orchestras, an extended passage of train noises, slide guitars, a post-rock shuffle then a twinkly music box waltz to close the whole thing down, before street preachers and bagpipes kick off the next track. It makes no sense, but it makes perfect sense.

I had a bunch of things to say about it, one of which was to try to describe how this stately yet wild music by this steadfastly exploratory ensemble, still seems amongst the best soundtracks for our spiraling times. Unfortunately, since I played it for record club, things have got a little worse, the record sounds a little more prescient, and I just don’t want to go into it.

“We woke up one morning and fell a little further down…”

Tom listened: Rob lent me a Godspeed album once, it might have been this one…I’m not sure I played it, I certainly couldn’t say for sure that I did. Whatever, I recall not feeling overly inclined to play it as I imagined it would require too much patience, the shifts in movements would come around too slowly (a la Ladradford) or it would be a bit dull (Tortoise) or the structures would be too predictable (Do Say Make Think). And there’s always been something inhuman and mechanistic about post-rock that puts me off, repels me even.

However, on the basis of this album at least, it seems as though Godspeed manage to walk the post-rock tightrope expertly, the tracks evolving more naturally than I was expecting and tended to not have the quiet, quieter, LOUD thing mapped out from the off in the way lesser similar bands in this genre tend to. That said, I still found this a cold listen – impressive certainly, but still a bit too impenetrable for my liking.

Nick listened: Moody. Not good for having sex to.

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1 thought on “Godspeed You Black Emperor! – ‘F# A# ∞’: Round 97 – Rob’s choice”

  1. -Rant alert-
    During my teens, I was captivated by this middle-brow doom fest. However, after gorging myself on the outer reaches of free improvisation, krautrock, and electronica, I started to realize how trite the album (and most of the post-rock movement) really was. Evocative, sure. But so is Enya…

    Check out Fred Frith’s “Guitar Solos” or This Heat’s “Deceit” for a more compelling take on dystopian decay (the former sounds like the wellspring that F# A# drowned in).

    In 1974, one man managed to achieve the glacial, gloomy grandeur that largely eluded Godspeed’s 20 musicians (he even mastered the damn thing!).

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