Progressive rock bands have always tried to up the seriousness of rock `n’ roll with its heavy-handed and silly attempts to blend classical with rock. Montreal-based godspeed you black emperor! is the first prog-rock group to get it right. Over the course of just two albums – a full length and an EP – godspeed has merged the grandiosity and epic sound of classical music with all the power and rage of rock `n’ roll to amazing effect.
Now, on its second full-length album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (Kranky) – one of the best titles for an album seen in a long time – the group proves itself again. In 74 minutes stretched across two CDs, godspeed creates mini-symphonies of music with a gigantic sound. The suites merge guitars, drums, pianos, strings, tape recordings and a wide assortment of other instruments and sounds together in some of the most beautiful, interesting and powerful music released in a long time.
The first CD has the suites Storm and Static. Storm does not sound as violent as its name would suggest. It opens with a soft piano playing slowly while horns gently blow on top of it in sustained notes. The band keeps up this gentle tempo as the song grows in volume and intensity. A sound similar to a helicopter rotor provides a back beat that pulsates out of the speakers. Three minutes into the song, sounds combine, crash together and erupt. It is no less powerful and grandiose and bombastic than a Wagner symphony.
It is easier to describe godspeed’s music more in terms of the emotions it evokes than the sound of the instruments themselves. When Storm reaches this peak, it is an explosion of joy. It is an epic, huge sound that keeps throwing more and more instruments into the mix to build up the intensity as much as possible. But it is a mark of godspeed’s skill that a listener can pick out each individual part of the overall sound and follow it. After the explosion of sound that lasts five minutes or more, the song gently dies down again into warm washes of feedback.
The second suite, Static, creates a much darker, sinister feel. It opens with the sounds of what could be train horns mixed with feedback. The music is much lower and softer and the bass intros are like a cloud seeping into the room. Feedback adds to the shadowy feel. Three and a half minutes into the suite, static kicks in, evoking a sound like someone trying to tune in a far-away AM radio station. One of the few vocals on the album comes in as the static fades away: a recording of a Christian fundamentalist preacher reading from the Bible. A mournful violin plays over the preaching. While the recording talks about the joys of Christ, the music itself is sad and slow. This is music for the dark, for late at night, for staring up at the ceiling or gazing at stars. Eight minutes into the song, the mood changes with menacing sounds. The violin plays shaky while background feedback from a guitar is barely detectable. The song alternates from the sad sound heard earlier and the sinister beats. The track then merges into crashing waves of pure noise, reminiscent of the sound of groups such as Mogwai. The feedback builds to a fever pitch while booming drums anchor the sound, building everything up to a point where it all lets go and fades to the sound of train horns disappearing in the distance.
The second CD has the suites Sleep and Antennas to Heaven. Sleep is a short track about four minutes long. It opens with an elderly man recounting days spent at Coney Island. He talks about a time he got lost as a child on the beach and when people used to sleep on the beach at Coney Island. It’s a soft melody that has the same slow, mournful tone as parts of Static. But there’s something more uplifting about the sound this time – it is music of nostalgia and people remembering happy times. With its sweep of strings and rumble of kettle drums, the song could almost be the final song played as a backdrop to the credits of a movie about a bittersweet romance or old lovers meeting again.
Antennas To Heaven is a piece that slowly morphs and changes sounds as it progresses. It’s like watching something unfold layer by layer. It starts with what sounds like an old folk or bluegrass song. This melts into the drone and hum of machines combined with the sheen tone of bells mixed with the sound of a cloud of locusts in the air. This fades into the happy sounds of a tinkling piano, wind chimes and a toy xylophone. This childlike sound turns into the real thing when the music drifts off to the sound of children playing and talking in a foreign language. Next comes a sadder section as one string note slowly comes out, is held, and then fades away until the next one. It creates a reflective and somber mood. All of the sudden, this abruptly switches into a driving rock `n’ roll sound with feedback shaped into melody ala Sonic Youth. The change is sudden and shocking, like the band was tired of the old sound and decided to just let it all out, but the listener gets so caught up in it that there is hardly time to notice before this too fades away. There are three minutes or so of wind blowing, soft feedback and static that sound like someone standing in an empty field that has been harvested. Last comes waves of all types of different sounds that create a hypnotic effect, which ends the song and the album.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven is the kind of album that the word difficult was created to describe. It is an album that demands you sit down and listen and be willing to be drawn into the worlds godspeed you black emperor! creates. It is not just something you can throw on your stereo for background noise or for a quick burst of music. For those willing to do so, though, the music will take you to its worlds, on journeys and evoke a wide range of emotions. It is definitely worth the time and patience.