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stubborn tiny lights vs. clustering darkness forever ok?

A Floyd Fan's Introduction to Godspeed You! Black Emperor

On Saturday March 22, 2003, two vans and a truck pulled into a small Oklahoma gas station. When a group of disheveled, long-haired people piled out of the vehicles and began to fuel up, the on-duty attendant froze solid. They were clearly terrorists. They looked vaguely foreign, there were no signs of brand names or logos on their clothing, and they were definitely acting in concert. God knows what they had in the vans or what they were planning. Bravely, he slipped a note to a customer as he served her, telling her to call the authorities.

The police arrived almost immediately, and the FBI soon thereafter. The nine men were escorted away for questioning, but were released after three hours of interrogation. Turns out they weren't terrorists after all--they were musicians. Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor were doing a tour of the US, and they had simply pulled into the gas station to refuel their vans which, incidentally, were just carrying their gear.

• • •

It's just one of many similar incidents the band has had to endure since 9/11. But while they may not be planning to stage a major terrorist attack anytime soon, if the US government did a little more research into the band it might still have its reasons for wanting to incarcerate them. Godspeed You! Black Emperor are a group who passionately exercise their right to free speech--in particular, the right to criticize world leaders--at a time when the US government is overtly keen on restricting such sentiments (or indeed, any form of independent opinion).

Godspeed You! Black Emperor makes political statements without a single lyric.

They're an instrumental group, but that only makes their political musings more potent. Their actual music is long, meandering, at times intense and powerful, at others reflective. Songs stretch for up to 30 minutes in length, going through several shifts in dynamics along the way. Led by guitarist Efrim Menuck, the nine-piece ensemble also features two drummers, two bassists, two additional guitarists, and two strings players. They've been compared to bands like the Dirty Three, Mogwai, and even '68-'72 Floyd, but those comparisons are probably misleading.

But how can an instrumental band possibly be political? Godspeed You! Black Emperor have no frontman; no Zach De La Rocha figure stalking the stage screaming about the evils of the state. In fact, the opposite is true. For such a provocative band Godspeed You! Black Emperor are notoriously reclusive. They appear seated on stage, they don't do photo shoots, they rarely grant interviews, they don't reveal their surnames to the press. Even when they made the cover of New Musical Express magazine in 2000, they didn't appear, opting instead for a nondescript photo of an overcast sky.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor discography

Godspeed You!F# A# Infinity (1998)
Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP (1999)
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (2000)
Yanqui U.X.O. (2002)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor use samples, soundbites, concert films, banners, and provocative album artwork to get their points across. The elements are often disparate and seemingly random--stylised drawings of businessmen cutting the hands off their clients; a notice on a payphone informing the user that their call is being monitored; the repeating tape loop that plays in a shopping mall, reassuring its customers that their business is welcome; an old man lamenting that kids don't sleep on the beach anymore at Coney Island--but combined they create an overwhelming feeling of dread, as if we're all living in some Orwellian nightmare.

• • •
Yanquis UXO (2002)

Perhaps their most provocative work to date is their most recent album Yanqui UXO. Musically, it's their least political--the soundbites, samples, and sound effects which punctuated their earlier work are all conspicuously absent, which actually manages to make their music sound even bleaker than before. But the political statements are rife everywhere else. The title is a reference to unexploded ordnance-- live landmines and bombs which are left behind after armed conflicts. The cover is a photograph of bombs being dropped over a countryside. The rear cover is a 'family tree' linking the four major music labels to the international arms trade (not a wild conspiracy theory, either; Efrim put the diagram together using infomation from the companies' own websites).

The opening track, "09-15-00", is named after the date Ariel Sharon marched into a mosque in east Jerusalem flanked by a small army, a move seen by many as igniting the violence and bloodshed in the region. In the liner notes is a footnote discouraging people from buying Godspeed You! Black Emperor albums from chain stores, to avoid giving money to 'predatory retailers'.


As you can probably tell, the band doesn't have a manifesto, their political views aren't centred around any particular area. They don't seem to have any strict ideological views, socialist or otherwise, on how things should or shouldn't be run. They simply comment on what troubles them. If anything, their views are borne out of a longing for a sense of community--and not wanting that sense of community to disappear in a plastic world of logos and reality-TV warfare.

Efrim maintains that "Ultimately, we're interested in the idea of debate--the idea of larger public conversations". In other words, Godspeed You! Black Emperor aren't as interested in pushing their own political views as in encouraging people to come up with their own. This, more than anything, explains their sometimes overtly provocative material. Was Ariel Sharon wrong to march into Jerusalem on the 15th September 2000? Do some research and draw your own conclusions.

• • •

At a gig shortly after the Oklahoma gas station incident, Efrim shared with the crowd his feelings of relief about the incident which had occurred only days before. "I just feel very lucky that we weren't Pakistani or Korean," he said. "We're just nice white kids from Canada. That's what I feel lucky about."

For inquisitive Floyd fans looking to hear what Godspeed You! Black Emperor is like, 1999's Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP is the best place to start. It's the most accessible, with the relatively upbeat "Moya" leading into the bleak "BBFIII" which is more representative of their work as a whole.

If you like what you hear, your next step should be 2000's Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, an amazing double album which pretty much encompasses everything that Godspeed represent, both musically and politically. Driving orchestral pieces appear alongside fragile piano ballads, heavy rockers, arty noise experiments and beautiful string interludes. It's one of my top ten albums of the decade so far.

Chris Hogan is a staff writer for Spare Bricks.