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Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Listening to Montreal nine-piece Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a bit like opening up the face of a clock and trying to make sense of its works. They're fascinating in their shiny metallic complexity, beautiful in their technical sophistication, yet ultimately unknowable for a mere layman, representing a prototype for a strange world with a different physics more than a functional machine. In other words, true understanding takes work and effort, but true understanding with respect to GY!BE, unlike a clock, is always a matter of subjective interpretation.

What GY!BE actually presents its listeners are dense, epic instrumental compositions, which tend to start small and stark and build inexorably towards intense climaxes, swaying and bending as they go under the weight of so much accumulated instrumentation. Strings, in varying shapes, sizes, and degrees of distress, are their pieces' most dominant element. These include guitars which rarely sound like guitars -- some bathed in layers of feedback and fuzz, some prepared and painful sounding, almost all broodingly dolorous -- as well as achingly pretty cello, viola, and violin parts which often sound almost as if they'd been plucked from some forgotten backwoods folk tune. Complementing all this stringed noise are brassy waterfalls of French horn, repetitive organ and synth parts, heavily processed machine noise, found sounds, and a lot more. As the pieces build from delicate sound poetry to frenzied eruptions, martial percussion rhythms -- often featuring glockenspiel, chimes, and nontraditional percussive instruments in addition to the drum kit -- emerge, underpinning the rest of the instrumental mix. It all adds up to varying degrees of incredibly nuanced, repetitious hum, the sound of an alien life force, its heartbeat and breathing, expressed through music.

Left out of that description are the snippets of narrative plucked from sources ranging from a street corner prophet's cynical rantings to clips from corporate recorded messages. The group weaves this postmodern found poetry throughout its music, offering oblique hints at what the instrumental anguish is all about: the decay of a bloated capitalist culture, a world's spiritual crisis, a planet in precipitous decline.

This music is by turns harrowing, mordant, violent, indulgent, delicate, and unspeakably beautiful. Though GY!BE clearly owes allegiance to a handful of great innovators -- Lamonte Young, John Cale, Glenn Branca, and Sonic Youth among them -- there's never been anything quite like their ambient orchestral dirges. The group, an amorphous, enigmatic entity of uncertain, fluctuating membership, never even intended to seek success as a rock ensemble, forming in 1994 as a multimedia film and music ensemble and self-releasing a limited 33-cassette release of their first recording, All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling. Three years later they released F#A# Infinity on the Canadian Constellation Records label. A year after that it was picked up and re-released by Kranky. Meanwhile interest in the band was growing rapidly, thanks to college radio, the band's memorable live performances, considerable critical praise, and a recording session with John Peel. In 1999, the Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP came out simultaneously on Constellation and Kranky, and in 2000, the eagerly awaited double LP Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven followed.

The featured selections, "Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven" and "The Buildings They Are Sleeping Now" are taken from larger movements found on the first disc of that double LP, respectively titled Storm and Static.