Canadian Bands You Should Know: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Since their inception in 1994, Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GY!BE) have reluctantly become one of Canada's most influential groups. Despite a disinclination for publicity (“no singer, no leader, no interviews, no press photos” was their motto according to a recent interview with the Guardian), a string of challenging releases on relatively marginal labels, and an unexplained, nearly decade-long absence, GY!BE have been embraced around the world as an example of the boundless potential of rock music. 

The band formed in Montreal and initially consisted of Efrim Menuck (guitar), Mike Moya (guitar), and Mauro Pezzente (bass). After releasing only 33 copies of their first record, All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling, membership expanded to include drums, more guitars and a small string section. Membership has been fluid since the beginning with members coming and going, the band functioning more as a collective than a conventional band. Indeed, the group has actively resisted attempts to focus on individual personalities in the group by, for example, attributing interviews to the band as a whole and performing in almost total darkness. 

Eventually the group solidified around a nine member core, including the original three members. In 1997, the band released what is generally acknowledged as their real debut, F# A# ∞ (pronounced “F-sharp, A-sharp, Infinity”, referring to the keys each side of the album begins in and to the endless loop that closes the vinyl version of the record). Immediately the group was heralded for their new sound, lengthy compositions featuring the unlikely combination of drones, found sounds (mainly in the form of cryptic, obscure vocal tracks), driving rock and transcendent fanfares. NME called the album a “genuine classic”, while Stylus, Exclaim! and many other publications published rave reviews.

The group arguably peaked over their next two releases, 1999's Slow Riot For Zero Kanada EP and 2000's full length, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.The latter was GY!BE's first of two double albums, and featured four multi-part suites. That album has been especially praised, particularly by online media with Pitchfork Media naming it the 65th best album of the 2000s, and ratings aggregator RateYourMusic (currently) ranking it as their number 56 best album of all time. Shortly after their third full length release, Yangui UXO, a more divisive record, the GY!BE announced an indefinite hiatus. During the group's hiatus, band members concentrated on side projects such as Fly Pan Am, H???A, Esmerine, Set Fire to Flames, and probably the most well known of the GY!BE offshoots, A Silver Mt. Zion (more recently known as Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra Band). 

While often cited as one of the most influential “post-rock” bands in the history of the genre, in many ways GY!BE represent a break with genre conventions as they existed at the group's inception. In the mid-90s, post-rock had centred around Chicago artists such as Tortoise and Jim O'Rourke. Their sound was exciting and forward-looking, drawing on sounds such as progressive rock, jazz and krautrock, and the otherworldly sound of late-period Talk Talk. The music was complicated and technical developing alongside related subgenres such as “math rock”. Although the music found a following, much of the early post-rock scene was too clever for many fans; the music was unquestionably innovative but lacking the heart of those who prefer their rock scruffy and raw. Drawing on influences as disparate as punk rock, music concrete and chamber music, GY!BE presented a different vision, uniting lowbrow and highbrow art and focusing on the emotional impact of the music.

Another indispensable part of the GY!BE sound is its political gravitas. It's nearly impossible to disentangle GY!BE's politics from their sound: an undercurrent of resistance and social critique runs through all the band's work. The group has stated as much, albeit rather enigmatically: “All music is political, right? You either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls. It's what music (and culture) is for, right? To distract or confront, or both at the same time?” The band's politics are difficult to pin down however. While often labelled “anarchists”, the band has never confirmed this, and it's probably fair to say that the band offers more of a political vision than any kind of defined ideology. Songs have relied heavily on samples and field recordings depicting a subtle critique of a grim consumer society in slow decline, including department store robo-calls; fiery preachers; a man reminiscing about the Coney Island of his youth, now decayed and derelict; excerpts from a dystopian science fiction film script by guitarist Efrim Menuck; and, more mysteriously, a poem composed mostly of lyrics from Iron Maiden's “Virus.” 

The band's political bonafides led many to believe that when the group announced they would be going on hiatus in 2003, they were actually finished. Yet, after a 7 year absence, GY!BE returned in 2010 to curate the renowned All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Somerset, UK, attracting a diverse slate of performers that fully demonstrated the full variety of GY!BE's influences. From the bleak sounds of doom metal progenitors Neurosis, to emerging free jazz luminary Mantana Roberts, minimalist icon Charlemagne Palestine, and the psychedelic noise of Black Dice, Emeralds and Growing, the GY!BE-curated ATP offered a glimpse into the sounds that inspired, and were inspired by, GY!BE. The festival also featured “Weird Al” Yankovic, possibly demonstrating that a sense of humour lurked somewhere behind the band's cold, stony image.

Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! – Released October 16, 2012 on Constellation Records

Following ATP, GY!BE toured for 18 months before issuing Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! in 2012. The release of “new” material (the two main compositions, “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire” were played at live shows prior to 2003, although the album included two shorter tracks, both drones composed specifically for the release) caught everyone off guard. Recorded in secret and without any announcement, the band initially made the record available to fans at a show in Boston on October 1, before officially releasing the album on October 16. The album has been praised as another important work, even if reviews have been slightly less hyperbolic than those for previous albums. Still, the release of new material has fans eager to embrace another chapter in the unpredictable story of GY!BE.

– Mike Oxman

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