Instead of a post-apocalyptic world infested with packs of brain-munching zombies, Godspeed You Black Emperor's debut album envisages a landscape accompanied with glorious symphonic rock music. After a speaker intones a wrenchingly poetic description of the world's decaying remnants at the beginning of "Dead Flag Blues", it's impossible to listen to these cinematic instrumentals without pictures of scorched earth and deserted cities in the imagination. With the basic rock band augmented by violin, cello and trumpet, their sound painting draws on elements of psychedelic, ambient and full, crunching rock. The focus is always on building atmospheres from layers of sound, dynamics and repetition, with as few unnecessary notes as possible.
The first track is in two episodes, linked by some impressionistic sound effects. Some intertwined, keening violin and cello, joined by jangly reverb-heavy guitars, evokes a surviving folk group's dirge in their underground bunker. The sound of a train takes us on an ambient journey through other seared landscapes and destroyed towns. Our destination is a more conventional blues-tempo section with the kind of bassline and country twang that you might find on a David Lynch movie.
Stubborn subtlety guides the first few minutes of "East Hastings". A guitar picks out, with one finger, a simple baby-steps theme, with distant chimes and hissing psychedelic cymbals in response. There's hints of that "Dies Irae" plainchant that a lot of classical composers (Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Liszt) liked to nick when they wanted to evoke a bit of doom and despair. It builds up in mechanistic stages to a full-band rock climax, with a final burst of drum-fuelled acceleration. In the end it drifts on despondently through a chilling but pretty curtain of delayed guitar pings.
Just in case we hadn't already got the point, "Providence" starts with an interviewer asking "Do you think the end of the world is coming?" Well, you don't say! In the fragmentary first few minutes, we hear violin, cello and numerous forms of effected guitars ruminating away in several contrasting chunks of atmosphere. Only when a savage drum beat kicks in seven minutes through does the tension really start to build up. This is the sound that Godspeed have claimed as their own, big crescendos based on just one repeated note stepping up and down. But oddly they seem to chicken out of this crescendo, and start a more deliberated one fresh one minutes later with a passage that has hints of Pink Floyd's "Echoes". Finally, after some foggy ambient soundscaping they insert a section of reverb-heavy rock after four minutes of silence. Maybe there was some descriptive reason for this, but final tracks with "surprise endings" never fail to irritate me. I know, I'm not in touch with the true meaning of silence.
On the whole "F# A# ∞" is difficult to get into by casual listening, it's necessary to get absorbed in it. The atmospheres are the attraction here, but I believe they would hit their peak with "Lift Yr. Skinny Fists", where the compositional strength matched the sound. Even so, if we meet our final doom to music as atmospheric as this then I'll go down smiling.
August 31, 2005