A BUILD-UP – LOOKING AT THE HISTORY OF THE BAND
Post-rock is currently an incredibly flexible term comprising bands from all walks of life – rock, jazz, metal or even electronic. Today we have a one-of-a-kind opportunity to realize the vastness and diversity of the genre. It is commonly believed that it all began with Bark Psychosis, Slint, Tortoise and bands of this sort – the so-called first wave of post-rock. It may have begun even earlier with avant-garde music, free jazz, and krautrock. Everything can be traced back to its origins, forming an endless spiral, or maybe rather a timeline of dependencies. But in every timeline, there are some milestones, some points of reference, single monuments of greatness to look up to. One of these milestones is an album by Canadian music collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. On October 9th, the band celebrated the 16th anniversary of this masterpiece’s release. I think it’s the perfect time to ask – what is a masterpiece? How does one create it? What constitutes a masterpiece?
Surprisingly, if you’d like to track down the origins of GY!BE, you’d be unsuccessful searching for it in jazz, post-rock’s first wave or avant-garde music. According to the biography of Efrim Menuck, the fan-proclaimed leader of the band (he himself dodges such titles), GYBE’s origins are more likely to be found in Montreal’s punk rock scene and among anarchist collectives. Menuck, who founded the band around 1994-1995 had a life full of hardships, school drop-outs, drugs and rebellion, which all made him feel resentful of the establishment. The music industry, corporations, governments – all of them were based on lies and deceit.
The initial lineup of GY!BE consisted of Efrim Menuck, Mike Moya, and Mauro Pezzente. The trio recorded and released a cassette, All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling, which was limited to 33 copies. This very first recording of the band is currently an object surrounded by a particular cult among Godspeed fans, as no one found or heard the tape (despite some hoax uploads on Reddit).
The band grew as the trio invited more and more Montreal-based musicians to collaborate – at some point the collective consisted of 16 people! This is also when they started using their signature film projections, displayed on the wall behind the musicians during their live performances. During this period, they formulated their own musical style based on orchestrated walls of noise and long, slowly developing musical themes. This style, I believe shouldn’t be attributed to the already developing worldwide post-rock scene, but rather to the very character of the band. Because of the unusually huge number of musicians involved, the band was simply capable of such experimentations. Moreover, given their DIY, anarchist and punk backgrounds, it shouldn’t be surprising that GY!BE became a platform for creating a music that was “anti”. It was supposed to make listeners feel uncomfortable and was supposed to bear a subtle message of rebellion hidden somewhere in their complex noise.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor wanted to be political, but not in a direct, in-your-face way. Their riot was poetic. Rather than screaming “Screw the government!” on the top of their lungs, they preferred to use delicate hints which uncovered the darkest corners of human nature – greed, violence, and lies.
That is what became the essence of their full-length debut album – F♯ A♯ ∞ released in 1997 by Constellation Records and then in 1998 by Kranky. After settling on a permanent lineup, the band recorded the album in Hotel2Tango, a studio/living space/alternative music and art venue, created by Mauro Pezzente and Efrim Menuck.
It is now widely believed that the general theme of F♯ A♯ ∞ is the apocalypse – it is directly hinted with the opening monologue in “The Dead Flag Blues” with a low manly voice slowly reciting “the car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel…“. Initial thoughts – oh yeah, the end of the world, fire, death and stuff – seen it all in the movies… But as you go deeper into the album, you start realizing that GY!BE’s apocalypse will come from within us, from these darkest corners of our nature which will slowly, but surely devour humanity.
Despite its beauty, F♯ A♯ ∞ was raw. It was like a slab of rotting meat taken out of unicorn’s neck – still beautiful, yet disturbing. The band’s next release, the 1998 EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada brought about a more polished sound inspired by what they did on their debut, but it was their sophomore LP Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven that had the biggest impact and set incredibly high standards in the world of experimental music.
DISSECTING THE GENRE-DEFINING ALBUM
F♯ A♯ ∞ and Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada introduced the persona of Blaise Bailey Finnegan III. On both albums, he is introduced as a poet or a preacher man, discontented with the US government. He considers it to be unjust, deceitful and devoid of all good and beauty, heading for destruction. Listeners get to know him through recorded snippets of him talking to a MOTS interviewer. The key to understanding his character lies in the cover art of the EP – the Hebrew symbols which read “Tohu va bohu” – “formless and empty”. The inside of the cover contains an excerpt from the Book of Jeremiah, 4:23-27. It tells about the landscape after the end of the world, which had been ruled out by God.
The persona of Jeremiah is a key to understanding the importance of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. In the Bible, Jeremiah is the prophet who predicts the destruction of Jerusalem. It is due to occur because of lack of faith in God among the city inhabitants and their tendency to worship other gods. He was the only prophet at the time who was pessimistic about the direction in which the world is heading (for which he’d been persecuted). He is also often referred to as a lamenting prophet. Blaise Bailey Finnegan III is, therefore, Jeremiah’s angry version.
On their first two releases, GY!BE took the Blaise Bailey Finnegan III approach filled with anger and a sense of incoming danger. But Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is where they embrace the character of Jeremiah – it is their music of lamentation created in a post-Cold War optimistic world. It is a fearful and uncertain step into the new millennium, a cry for the world long gone. The band’s disillusionment is however never directly stated and the listener needs to really dig deep into the tiniest symbols and cryptic messages to get the meaning of the music. In this sense, GY!BE’s first three releases are a showcase for their ability to merge every bit of the album – not only music but also the cover arts, inside sleeves and booklets as well as live performances – in order to create a single, meaningful and coherent narrative. But Godspeed You! Black Emperor never state anything explicitly and it takes a lot of overthinking – all they provide are little hints hidden in layers of noise.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is a final part of a trilogy, the ending chapter of a story in which the humankind fails because of our focus on the easy, even if the easy equals morally wrong or destructive in a long run. Their sophomore album is where GY!BE reveal a world gone wrong. This is why we can hear a looped recording of a shop greeting near the end of the opening track “Storm”. The greeting in a cheery female voice informs customers not to get in contact with “any individual who offers to pump gas, wash windows or solicit products”. It is clear that these individuals are the poorest members of the society, the unfortunate. Or perhaps they are no longer in a society since they are being so abruptly separated from the fortunate in cars who can afford to shop in a market instead of begging for change doing degrading jobs. GY!BE probably wanted to emphasize the divisions among the people, based simply on the amount of wealth one possesses. According to this criterium, the rich are the good, the desired members of the community and the poor are the unwanted, the outcasts. These are not some abstract concepts, though! Looking at the various analyses, one can find many pieces on how the architecture rids the city of the homeless. Looking at headlines in the newspapers you will find instances of McDonald’s employees refusing to serve homeless people or even refusing to sell food to the people willing to give it to the poor.
The second significant voiceover we can hear is the rant of an unknown preacher. He talks about the God and his relation to the man. The most significant lines are however:Oh yes there’s many a man or woman
Oh yes there’s many a man or woman
That’s been put in the insane asylum
When this has happened to them
And they’re sitting there today,
people think they’re insane
But they saw something that’s real
And they see it when they’re on drugs
Does it mean that we live in a godless world, where people who allegedly experienced a revelation are deemed insane? Well, perhaps. But when speaking about the godless world, one needs to bear in mind that when Nietzsche said his famous “God is dead”, he did not mean the physical act of death. He meant the decay of values which upheld the societies. But that was the end of 19th century. GY!BE released Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven in 2000 and it seems that the values decayed so much by that point that the people who still uphold them are considered mentally ill. That would fit well into Jeremiah’s narrative about God’s plans to destroy the unfaithful Jerusalem filled with people worshipping values not originating from God. In Godspeed’s world, however, there is no God and this is us who destroy ourselves.
Another part of GY!BE’s narrative is the famous Murray Ostril monologue, the “They don’t sleep anymore on the beach” part. This phrase expresses a longing for the world which is forever lost, a world which had been filled with spontaneity and appreciation of small moments. Probably also a world seen by the mentally ill people in their revelations. The world changed and the values shifted. This was however not a positive change, rather an extremely negative one. Murray Ostril is an old man who remembers the “old times”, but the new generation, the people who shape the world, have no memory of it. These are probably the same people who listen to the greeting message in their market and don’t let any non-affiliated person clean their car.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is a mourning album. However, if you don’t listen closely and with attention to detail, not a single tear would be shed. It’s as if GY!BE designed this record to make one dig deep to find its meaning so that it can leave you anxious and depressed upon finding. The anxiety, however, does not only originate from the cryptic messages and hidden meanings. It is the music which is the main carrier of band’s message. GY!BE’s sophomore album is a much more coherent and more polished effort. Musicians are interlocking with each other perfectly. In the frequent moments of droney noise, you are simply not able to distinguish particular instruments, as everything is perfectly blended in a destructive mix. The music itself is a complex expressive statement, that on the first glance seems overwhelming. On the thousandth glance, though, you will have a certainty that Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is overwhelming. It stems from the very way in which the album is constructed – four massive tracks, each extended over around twenty minutes. It also stems from the very compositions – the songs, themes and the instrumentations are heavy, full of noise and sadness. In long instrumental passages, Godspeed You! Black Emperor really reveal their mastery of working as a band. They are able to turn a single whistle into a ravaging thunder.
They add a track after a track after a track, then twisting them, making them louder and quieter. On Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven GY!BE fully exploit their numbers – nine musicians simply allow for such massive build ups. In this way, band’s sophomore album made a massive contribution to defining the post-rock of the future. And it’s not about the delays, reverbs, and forcefully emotional arpeggios. It is about a real feeling brought to the music. It’s about every member of the band working as a part of a clock mechanism, while still managing to express the “self” through music. And finally, it’s about merging the band into a single entity.
But most of all, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (and their earlier works as well) redefined the punk approach to politics. As I mentioned before, GY!BE never state their message or their views directly – in order to realize what they are trying to say with a particular track or the entire album, one needs to dig deep only to find a couple of sources, not relating to a huge extent with each other. Then one needs to filter them out and find some sort of essence or the main theme. It’s no longer the trashy sound of Sex Pistols shouting words like “fascist regime” or “God save the Queen”. GY!BE are a much more complex riot – the one that does not start in the streets, but in your head, as you start to discover that the world is unfair and bound to self-destruct.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is a loud and beautiful manifesto of helplessness and hopelessness and a desperate attempt to find any sense in a world gone astray.
Music is for GY!BE the platform with which they share their message. However, it is crucial to state that without their sublime critique in form of field recordings, cover arts, and voice samples, the music on its own would not be able to allude to the issues Godspeed talk about. If one would remove all the Murray Ostrils and BBF3s from GY!BE’s music, we would still receive a revolutionary band, capable of redefining the music. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven would still be a masterpiece. But the political aspect puts the entire album in a context, turns it into the most beautiful and sophisticated punk record of all time and immortalizes it. There will always be rebellious people wanting more of music than punky screams (punk is fine though!). And in such cases, people of the future will play GY!BE – a complex music for difficult times – to search for understanding and to find people as confused as themselves.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven is a first step into the 21st century. It is a cry for the world which will never come back and an expression of discontent for the contemporary times ruled by greed and lies – the fanatic outcome of Western victory in the Cold War. As the first two releases by GY!BE were expressing the anger over the world order, the second album is a sad, yet powerful sigh of resignation. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven however show that even in an evil world there is still enough place for beauty and love.
Looking at Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven one can say that a masterpiece is a creation of immaculate beauty, which transcends many platforms and most importantly – stays relevant despite the passing time. The album is still praised after sixteen years from the release, and will be praised in the future. It’s going to stay fresh in many years to come, as the issues it raises are likely to be still actual or even more serious. Also musically, GY!BE achieved a level of artistry sufficient enough to make them an inspiration for bands of the future, not only in the post-rock field. I think that all these factors are what makes Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven a real masterpiece of modern music.
Words by Jedrzej Jedraszyk originally appearing on Arctic Drones.
Republished with permission.