When T.S. Eliot wrote, “Mankind cannot bear much reality,” he inadvertently (“post-rock” hadn’t reached Oxford yet) described Montreal-based Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s bombastic sound.
Most people have a reluctance to express radical ideas. When faced with unpleasant realities, humans find ways to avoid facing their problems. The consternation towards primal, irrational fears stays consistent throughout their work. The tension in their music often evokes a number of transcendent moments, yet, beneath this sweeping aura, conflict looms. The conflict is static; there’s no escape. The music is overtly political. It confronts human suffering with merciless precision. It is the sound of despair.
The band’s music is classically structured and is often lumped into a genre called “post-rock,” though the band dismisses this as a pretentious term. “Post-rock” is used to describe instrumental groups that include the traditional rock n’ roll instrumentation -- guitar, drums, bass -- but breaks from pop song structures. Instead, post-rock draws from a diverse array of influences, most evidently jazz and classical music. The detached, introspective sound of many “post-rock” bands is nonexistent in Godspeed’s music.
Listening to music is a passive activity. The patience, time and devotion that audiophiles put towards their hobby is just another form of entertainment. Despite its escapist nature, music still has the ability to convey messages to the listener in ways that other art forms cannot.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor has no problem telling the listener what’s on their minds; their work is confrontational. Music historian Simon Reynolds observed in Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, the dilemma involving political messages in popular music: “How to make ‘politics in pop’ work without lapsing into preaching to the converted or dour earnestness was always one of post-punk’s primary quandaries. Today most ‘cool’ bands deal with the problem by avoiding it altogether.”
It would be a stretch to call Godspeed’s music “pop,” but many of their fans undoubtedly listen to other independent artists who fit into the general category of pop music. While most “rock” bands or “indie” bands no longer tackle politics, political activism in popular music traditionally tackles current events. Godspeed digs much deeper.
If listening to U2 is like watching MSNBC, Godspeed would be like reading Howard Zinn. The band may not be comfortable with the categorization, but their music is intellectual. I doubt many people have listened to them at the beach. They avoid the mistake of establishing rigid, dogmatic beliefs and forcing them down the listener’s throat. Beyond the overt, left-leaning political messages, there are universal feelings of nostalgia, despair, powerlessness, perseverance and duty. Ominous, brooding Kafkaesque passages of catharsis often precede climatic moments that feel encouraging rather than defeating.
Despite its classical arrangements and intellectual implications, the music itself is not inaccessible. It takes patience, but it differs from classical music and other highbrow genres. The listener does not have to be well-versed in highbrow music to enjoy it.
Their samples solidify accessibility, inviting the listener to contemplate the problems the band has on their mind, no matter how vague they are. The band utilizes the loud/quiet dynamic well, and, although there are many expansive, lush orchestral arrangements and movements, the music’s visceral anxiety gives it a much wider appeal. Danny Boyle recognized this when he used Godspeed’s (they’re known for being ardent about where their music is used) track “East Hastings” in his 2001 film 28 Days Later. The “apocalyptic” sound many listeners associate the band with is demonstrated well in the movie.
While the band may be thinking in large scale terms, the music’s accessibility is also inevitable. The connection between our geopolitical concerns and our personal problems will always be present. No matter how much we fret over the plausibility of nuclear war, climate change, or economic inequality, we still have to wake up every morning and face the world. The track titled “Sleep” off of the album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven begins with a sample of a man describing the changes he sees in the world through a short anecdote about Coney Island. He finishes with “they don’t sleep anymore on the beach.” In short, the tale conveys alienation that comes with the shift from a visceral world to a virtual one. But in this shift is that some fear of the other.
Their unpredictable, risk-taking live show embody the band’s ethos, that is, a call for change. Music this powerful is more than escapism. Godspeed You! Black Emperor played their first show in seven years last year. They have announced that they are working on new material and will play several dates this fall.
John McGovern is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: Justin Lynham, Flickr; Michael Z., Flickr (Creative Commons).