Godspeed You Black Emperor’s latest album G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! finds optimism in the darkness of our age. For James Thornhill, the Montreal post-rock legends have always soundtracked seismic shifts…
“We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine. And the machine is bleeding to death.”
Plato, in all his wisdom, allegedly proposed removing music from his concept of a Republic. He saw its connection to emotions, ideas and ideals as incendiary and potentially destabilising.
“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form,” the Ancient Greek thinker is supposed to have said.
This concept could certainly apply to the creations of Montreal “post rock” collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, more than most. This is my experience with their music, which has consistently reflected and preempted my moral thinking in a profound way, connecting directly to real-world events.
Now in 2021, as police cars burn, proposed legislation seems intent on removing democratic freedoms, the spectre of on-going violence against women and entrenched systemic racism being dismissed by the elites that benefit from it, another Godspeed release slips into the centre of turmoil once again.
The timing feels right.
this record is about all of us waiting for the end.
all current forms of governance are failed.
this record is about all of us waiting for the beginning,
and is informed by the following demands=
empty the prisons
take power from the police and give it to the neighbourhoods that they terrorise.
end the forever wars and all other forms of imperialism.
tax the rich until they’re impoverished.
– press release for forthcoming album G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
Released in the aftershocks of BLM protests and the UK’s new Policing Bill (amongst myriad political landmarks), G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is a cathartic document that only Godspeed could conjure, the perfect expression of the turmoil of these traumatic times, where hope feels to have been sold to the highest bidder intent on offering the lowest rewards.
The beginning of 20-minute plus medley opener ‘A Military Alphabet (five eyes all blind) (4521.0kHz 6730.0kHz 4109.09kHz) / Job’s Lament / First of the Last Glaciers / where we break how we shine (ROCKETS FOR MARY)’, sounds like broken promises. The promises of technology improving our world, not adding to its demise, and as the guitar chimes in, the promises of rock music being a revolutionary force. It all dissipates under the weight of Godspeed’s compositions, with their take on classic rock riffage and their usual orchestrated complexity.
It’s a call to arms!
You can imagine these sounds as a backdrop to #MeToo, BLM and the fight against fascism. Ending with ‘Our Side Must Win (for D.H.)’ with its neo-classical beauty permeated by shimmering drones it feels like an optimistic endnote. Maybe an idea that “Things can change”.
But as the work of Godspeed has always been cryptic and in no way overt, this reading could be taking it all to seriously. It has just as much power to be satirical. Regardless this music feels connected to “something” we need to address.
The glimmer of optimism through the evading dark was also present during their jaw-dropping public unveiling of the record, a free, digital screening. From an eerily empty theatre, two projectionists cut and spliced sepia-toned or black and white imagery dragging mundane things into a realm of vast significance. Like a darker version of 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, with Philip Glass’s in-awe score being replaced by crushing lows of despair and colossal highs of optimism.
Not ‘archived’ this showing was a cryptic one-off, only ever to be witnessed by the 2,000 or so souls that logged on with their Saturday night.
While a quick Google search today will uncover the members, and what they do, easily enough, back in the bands late 1990s emergence, they largely existed in the shadows, as much an entity as a band, we only got rare glimpses of their thoughts. Always collective, and often delivered as cryptic statements or tangential thoughts (via email or written statement), their rare interviews opened up more questions than they answered.
On hearing ‘The Dead Flag Blues’, my first encounter with the band in 1999, this cryptic political puzzle was as enthralling as the expansive sounds. The music forming my political outlook previously had been done with a shout and a raised fist – Rage Against The Machine’s anti-authoritarianism, Bikini Kill’s feminism, Public Enemy’s Black Power. This was something else. Is there another recording more desolate, more evocative of end times? It tapped into a growing sense of unease with how the world worked at a time, where I had started reading political theory and had donated to the Free Tibet movement after Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys’ passionate endorsement and concerts.
“And the flags were all dead, at the top of their poles”, stated a stark line from the track’s gruff narrator that for me symbolised a kickback against the violent illusions of nationalism (borders and flags) and a devastating swipe at the planet-destroying nature of end-stage Capitalism. These were ideas I was adopting myself whilst also reading about displaced people’s from Tibet and Palestine etc.
The buoyant political optimism of New Labour’s ascent in the UK, didn’t sit right with what the world was presenting. The media-hyped Britpop knees up didn’t speak too much at all. Godspeed’s debut F♯ A♯ ∞ (amongst bands like Mogwai, Spiritualized and Radiohead) changed that for me in the years between 1997 and starting at university in 2000.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To The Sky was the backdrop to reading Naomi Klein’s No Logo or any number of Chomsky texts. It made reading Ayn Rand all the more apocalyptic. Its collapsing jazz motifs and colossal highs fed the ideas of anti-capitalist philosophy and questioning of systems that I was discovering.
But even though I was thinking about the dark underbelly of our world, things still seemed largely positive! Then, after a morning that I had been listening to Godspeed while on holiday in sunny Greece, two planes were flown into the Twin Towers in New York. Days later I was in an airport with increased security and a blanket sense of fear. The world had changed.
I listened again on the bus down to the anti-war march before the invasion of Iraq, where a million voices shouted but were ignored. 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O, with its deep static, mainlined into this sense of achieving nothing through democratic means.
And I wasn’t feeling this alone! In 2008, Godspeed founder Efrin Menuck declared that the band had become untenable because of an ‘existential freakout’ relating to the Iraq war.
He told DrownedinSound, “The last American tour that Godspeed did was in the run-up to the current war in Iraq. For what Godspeed did, it was very difficult for us to work out a way to communicate directly with the audience about what was going on.”
He continued: “We could talk to people after the shows, or we could make announcements from the stage, but so much what Godspeed was, was one-way communication, and I had an existential freakout about that, that those tactics aren’t valid anymore.
“People didn’t need a rock band pointing in the direction of (how the world was at that point). Maybe what they needed is some clumsy words, a presentation that was a little more human.”
If Godspeed felt their voice “inappropriate” it almost made my/our feelings of political inadequacy feel justified. A band as sonically powerful as Godspeed recognising the limitations of their work spoke volumes. We all needed a break and some perspective.
I took stock and got on with life. Godspeed re-emerged with 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! arriving to again unlock something bigger, outside of simply living life.
Living in London in 2011, I’d witnessed the carnage and burning buildings of the London riots on my doorstep and walked home daily via St Paul’s and the Occupy London protests between late 2011 and early 2012. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! sonically explained the feeling that something was happening, both anger and action, it arriving for a first listen on my way to talk to protesters outside St Paul’s.
2015’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress fell into a period where I finally witnessed Godspeed live, many times. Starting in 2011 at the Portishead curated ATP event I’ll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace, and converging on a special moment at Pitchfork Paris in the confines of the Grande Halle de La Villette in 2015. Asunder’s closing track ‘Piss Crowns Are Trebled’ had connected as a new all-time favourite and in the ornate interior of the Grande Halle it became a transcendent experience, one of pure positive emotion, a starting point for personal positive change.
Within a year (and over the next few), I’d left London, then a job, moved to the Midlands and started a family. Started again. 2017’s Luciferian Towers album largely passed me by. Maybe, I didn’t need a Godspeed album at that time! Their albums always needed to fuel something else happening – political, personal or both. There was no room for Godspeed’s creations in this self-improvement period.
So what has changed now? With a pandemic upheaving everything about our social and economic existence, raging debates about identity and racism, violent misogyny under the microscope and a Brexit failure, there are again issues too large to ignore. My politics are again becoming more radical.
G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, as Godspeed always seem to do, has been delivered as if answering a call, the soundtrack to this change. Returning almost full circle to first discovering the band, the circumstances are similar but my connection to them now has history, a story that means so much to me but nothing to the band. This album, at this moment, is the most important new album going and the best Godspeed have done (like every one at its time of release).
Let’s hope that Plato was correct and music can indeed be the “essence of order” leading to “all that is good, just and beautiful.” G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, certainly suggests that is possible.