Two twenty-somethings at the end of the aisle were asleep in their seats, slunk low and leaned against each other. I looked around in the near darkness. Film-loops projected from the balcony cycled behind the band on a tall white backdrop. Amplifiers squalled thick noise. A throng of bodies at the stage swayed every few minutes as if shifting weight from one foot to another, not with the music but against it. The seventy year old theatre in the heart of the city was engulfed in resonance. Car noise from Granville Street didn’t get past security. Some people near the back tried to have a conversation, faces illuminated by an exit sign. The young man in front of me with the large camera plugged his ears between photographs. My brother-in-law, who only came because of a free ticket, left in disgust after the first forty minutes. Normally a music fan partial to Tegan & Sara, he made the mistake of telling me he had liked Austin, Texas post-rock band Explosions in the Sky. His expectations were distorted. My excitement must have let him astray. Yet with all these disinterested people around me, in that moment the only question was: Why am I here?
My love affair with Montreal nonet Godspeed You! Black Emperor (also known as GY!BE and God’s Pee) came from unlikely origins: late 2000, an article in the UK magazine Select, possibly titled “50 New Albums You Probably Missed.” I had purchased the issue because of the cover story on a then unknown band named Coldplay who were being compared to everyone from Radiohead to Peter Gabriel. In the article, Godspeed was touted as a cacophony that merged heavy metal with modern classical. Or something like that. I didn’t care much for the hyperbolic description, especially from the notoriously inflating British music press, but the album stood out anyway.
It was the cover that grabbed me: two human hands, severed at the wrist, fingers slightly bent, placed inside zigzag circles exploding behind. The hands looked to be conducting the lines of energy. I had no idea what to think. In my first years of university much of what I was reading challenged the idea of the book as entertainment. Art was beginning to show itself to me. There hadn’t been much music, up to that point, that really stirred me the way the poems of bpNichol did. I needed to hear the album.
A&B Sound had it on CD. They had everything in those days, when they were still in business, when the music buyers were still music fans, when I could still find great things there I hadn’t been looking for. The object created a strange swell of wonder. The packaging revealed nothing. No track names or pictures of the band, only one grainy black & white photo of a police helicopter on the back cover with the record’s title scrawled across it in a French-English hybrid. Inside the gatefold CD jacket were more bizarre drawings, Ben Franklin with a skull mask cutting off the hands of a weeping man and using them to make a puppet. I was dumbfounded and enthralled before I listened to one note.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven is a double album, containing only four songs, each over twenty minutes long and progressing in short movements. The tracks begin quietly and work toward blistering frenzy, each of the nine members joining the arrangement and helping the chaos along. Slowness gives way to horns, piano, violin, guitar and drums. The music rises, then falls to near quiet, only to cycle back, climbing even higher. Without vocal melody to guide the listener, the orchestral high and lows relentlessly churn. Movements are punctuated with field recordings. A disembodied voice at an Arco/AM PM gas station floats up from under reverb decay. A radio preacher rants about what it is like to die.
I now measure my life in terms of before and after Godspeed. Before them, I was shrouded, confined to a suburban reality where satisfaction was a trip to the shopping mall away. After them, the veil was pulled back and I saw the greed and selfishness that was being hidden, the barriers to human connection.
Godspeed was the whole package – sound, art, mystery – music with unflinching purpose and complete vision. They dealt in meaning, conjured emotion. They wore their confrontational politics proudly. It was inspiring to see Canadian musicians with so much intent, so much bravado. In awe, from that point on cited the band as an influence. I purchased their back catalogue by mail order from Constellation Records, in the process discovering more music that lived by the same anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalist ethos. “According to its founders Ian Ilavsky and Don Wilke, its mission is to enact a mode of cultural production that critiques the worst tendencies of the music industry, artistic commodification, and perhaps in some tiny way, the world at large.” (Wiki)
But the new love would be short lived. Within two years the band would be gone on indefinite hiatus. The Coldplay cover was the last issue Select ever printed, the death of Britpop taking with it those who had championed it most. A&B Sound got rid of their music department shortly before shuttering for good. I casually added Godspeed You! Black Emperor to the list of bands I loved but would never get to see perform.
With the house lights up I could see a tall, bearded man in a vinyl jacket on the other side of the theatre making exaggerated hand movements similar to those of a conductor. The backdrop for the film projections was actually just a large white sheet with wrinkled corners. Many faces in the crowd were illuminated by smartphone screens. A slow, undulating bass drone started about ten minutes before the band came on stage. Unnoticeable at first, the pulse got louder until it was shaking the loose bolts in the seat beside me.
“This band is different than that last guy right?” my brother-in-law asked.
The opening act was dreadful, thirty minutes of feedback, one chord.
“Yeah, Godspeed is twenty minute songs with different short sections of melody stitched together,” I replied.
He looked at me and adjusted his long legs, trying hopelessly to find a position where his knees wouldn’t hit the seats in front of him. My brother-in-law is very tall with little patience for tight spaces.
“That last guy was awful,” he said.
The bass drone continued as the band took the stage. Efrim Menuck, David Bryant and Mike Moya sat in a half circle of guitars and amps near the front of the stage. Violinist Sophie Trudeau stood tall over them, slowly bowing her instrument. They came out one by one to join the swelling ensemble. Thierry Amar on double bass. Mauro Pezzente on bass guitar. Aidan Girt and Tim Herzog on drums and percussion. None of the musicians said anything. Karl Lemieux started the film projections.
The set began with “Mladic”, the first track off the Polaris nominated 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! an album recorded after the band reformed in 2012, the ten year anniversary of their disbandment. I remember a press release where they attempted, for the first time in a decade, to connect the haphazard of existence into scraps of meaning, saying “between now and the live-dates, there'll be rivers of noise and distraction. and the internet is a petty tyrannical monster. please remember that really all that matters is the keep on keeping on. and all that really matters is the shows. and physical engagement in the world. and folks like us and folks like you.”
My brother-in law kept checking the clock on his phone. The nineteen minute and fifty-three second arrangement from the recorded version was being stretched. Short sections took on time, expanding into each other. Almost thirty minutes and the first movement hadn’t finished. He kept checking the time. The slow crescendo continued.
When the percussion arrived that signals the beginning of the second movement of “Mladic”, I felt a wave of relief. Release was coming. I turned and looked at my brother-in-law. He was visibly uncomfortable. I tried not to make eye contact but he caught me.
“Can I have your keys? I’m outta here man. I can’t take any more. Sorry. I’ll wait in the car until the show is done.”
I didn’t try to stop him.
How could I explain the history to him? How could I explain suspended time?
Music, for as long as I have been writing seriously, has been crucial to my process, allowing my brain to suspend other thoughts so the writing would come. I know now that lots of different music allows this same suspension but it all started with Godspeed. In my early twenties, I wrote many poems to the soundtrack of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. I used emotion in the music to project or distort words onto the page. Much of it was terrible, the product more of caffeine than of inspiration. But some of it was the beginning of my identity as a writer and an artist. I strove to create the same kind of abrasive beauty at the core of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. As my brother-in-law said, “it was a sonic assault, like I took a drug that no one’s ever done before,” and I knew just what he meant.
The music helped me fill folders of writing. One of the poems from this period was my first published in a Canadian literary journal, and because of this, even now I feel an intimate historical bond with the band. I wrote late into the night with headphones and Godspeed. We seemed to be on a journey together, and I was happy to let it lead sometimes. I foolishly believed that it could bring me anything I needed forever.
I spent many years sure I would never see Godspeed perform, never experience their visceral energy live. When the concert was announced, I couldn’t contain my excitement and bought tickets immediately, never thinking about who would possibly want to come with me. Not many, as it turned out, my brother-in-law deciding to come only with the offer of a free ticket.
That night, in the center of the chaos, I felt that I was clinging to time, to the incredible feeling of newness and inspiration that the band had initially brought me. I was completely removed from what was happening around me. The crowd wasn’t into it, many loitering in the lobby near the bar. One of the only moments of pure unity that night was when a creaky New York accent washed over the crowd, the voice of Murray Ostril broadcast by a high gain amplifier. The field recording made by the band while on tour in the United States opens the second album of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. Ostril talks at length about Coney Island, how it was when he was child, how he once got lost there, how people used to sleep on the beach there. He recognizes the effect of time as the thoughts seem to make him sad, his voice wavering slightly. “They don't do it anymore, things changed. They don't sleep anymore on the beach,” he says.
The voice is like a trigger for the band. One guitar enters and another cries, with distorted violin, up from underneath the sea of time.
Nostalgia is the drug we take to get up tomorrow, present and moving forward. Maybe that’s why the band reunited in the first place, they wanted back a time when they could speak with freedom in new abrasive forms.
The two hour thirty minute set list that night was simple: the newest album 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! in its entirety. But even Godspeed You! Black Emperor can succumb to nostalgia. Sandwiched in the middle was “Murray Ostril/Monheim”, the closest thing the band ever had to a hit single, as if to say to everyone listening, let’s just stave off death a little longer please, together.