“We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.”
So says the voiceover early in F# A# ∞, as “Dead Flag Blues” gets going with that haunting, gravelly voice. It’s the kind of voice Norman Mailer must hear when he writes. Not what he sounds like but what he wants so terribly to sound like. But look, for a huge, expansive, brilliant but above all subtle record, the opening speech on F# A# ∞ isn’t terribly subtle. There’s lots of fire. Cars without drivers burn. Whole city skylines burn. Babies are coated in mud. There are countless “lonely suicides.” It’s a bleak picture.
It’s also most of the reason we’ve spent the past 15 years talking about how brilliant a post-apocalyptic record it is. In contrast, 2012 has brought us something new to talk about, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first new record in ten years. Entitled ‘ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND!, it gives us yet another gargantuan, mysterious chapter in the Canadian outfit’s history. As important, though, it might be time to rethink our ideas about F# A# ∞.
Because it just isn’t about the apocalypse, at least not in the scraped out way we’ve been saying for 15 years. It’s bleak but not broken. It’s noot even about what we’ve lost. It’s about what we can build. If there’s a stark center to this record, it’s stark and scary because it’s not the nothing left after loss, it’s the nothing you start with when you build something new and, hopefully, something true. It’s the blank canvas, the empty sheet of paper. That gruff voice definitely establishes a mood, there’s no doubt, and it’s a dark record through and through. But that darkness is only because this is the sound of constructing a light.
Aside from all the carnage and decay, there is something pretty important that opening monologue tells us. Go back to that machine, with it’s belly and it’s blood. In it, we’re given an image of incongruous parts. The machine is presented to us as a body, as something that either approximates life perfectly or has been around so long it has grown into its own organism. That the machine is predatory is telling — if not wholly surprising — but that here’s it’s described as a body, as a stand-in that becomes the thing it’s stood in for. This is much closer to what F# A# ∞ is getting at.
As an album, it seeks to do what all great art does. It looks not only to transmogrify the gravel and steel and rebar of physical life into something ethereal, but to do so in the service of a murky truth, to create a symbol every bit as complex and, to some extent, unknowable as the symbolized. This album feels alive though it’s not, it has cycles and rhythms that are recognizable but indefinable.
It also has atmosphere. The strings that come in behind that voice haunt you at the start of “Dead Flag Blues”, but the twanging guitar and keening riffs and spacious, syncopated drums all rumble with something that isn’t at all elegiac or downtrodden or melancholy. It’s steady, even reserved, but it’s also smoldering. It even gets downright playful in the circus spin and fall of its closing.
Throughout the album’s three movements — “Dead Flag Blues,” “East Hastings,” and “Providence” — there are gaps of silence. This lets us know two things: that these are not songs and that, well, Godspeed You! Black Emperor doesn’t care much for our expectations. It’ also creates a new tension, one that has us anticipating the next movement, the next noise. And as it moves between found-sound tape loops and live band instrumentation, that tension amps up as the real gets pit again the aural representation of that real. You can find juxtaposition in the found sounds themselves, from the street preacher at the start of “East Hastings” and the man on the street in “Providence” denoucing what “the preacherman” says about the end of time. The better juxtaposition, though, is in “East Hastings” between the frenetic bleat of the preachers words and the defiant patience of the music that follows, with its shadowy riffs and humming strings. It does eventually get to its own tumultuous freak out, but this seems less about staving off ruin or charging towards saving and more about the perception of time. We start with a quotidian slowness — the feeling of one day at work, let’s say — and build to the quick circuits of working everyday in the same place for ten years. It shows not our end, but how we orchestrate the path to it. On top of that, at the close of the song we have the band mimicking the sound of the actual train we heard on “Dead Flag Blues.” Here we see the band creating their own sonic escape to take the place of the real-life escape we imagine in travel. Their version of a train whistle sounds rough, alien, and yet somehow inviting.
“Providence” is a wide-open half hour of music, one with many moves and shifts. It’s a group of sounds that is tough to pin down. We move from distant chimes and up-front strings to the fiery rumble of drums and guitar. Here, more than anywhere, Godspeed plays in the two poles of their sound, pitting neo-classical elements against straight-up rock heft. The movement builds to a big, military-steady crescendo (the moment in the record most identifyable as “post-rock”) but not before it gets interrupted by layers of treated, ghostly vocals. The voices come back in again, interrupting under a scratched-record crackle. “Where are you going?” they insist over and over again.
The music that follows — full of airy synths and pianos — feels for all the word like a non-answer. Or, rather, like the answer is confusion. We don’t know where we’re going, we’ve become untethered. But then the last two minutes are the most intense of the record. The guitars grind, the drums sound like they’re being hit with tree trunks, and the band flat-out speeds with intention and inertia, like all the patience and space has built to this. It is as steady a moment as this rock band gives us. It’s not a direction, but an arrival. It’s fuzzed-out and messy, but it’s also fully formed and leaves no room for negative space, no room for dark. The smoldering embers that have glowed through out F# A# ∞ burst into full high flames in the end.
These aren’t flames to burn it all down. They’re to keep the hands warm, to tell stories around, to give us light to work by as we keep putting together these structures in the dark. F# A# ∞ is a brilliant album, a tone poem in every sense of the term and that tone is hardly an easily approachable one. It does not scream optimism. But it is also not a story of the carnage that will come. It’s not a cautionary tale. Instead, in their first true record, Godspeed You! Black Emperor gave us something huge and expansive and genius but also difficult. They gave us, despite all its labyrithine twists, a genesis story. It’s the start of something we’re not sure of yet. The start that comes out of reshaping the world into sound, even if that sound is unruly and at some level unknowable. It’s still beautiful.
‘ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND! is out Oct. 16 on Constellation.