The only things their audience know about them are that they come from Montreal and that their debut album, entitled (with the flagrant disregard for commercial considerations that seems to characterise all the endeavours of this enigmatic collective) faoo (with space symbols either side of the "a", and a double helix for the "oo") is one of the year's most enthralling curiosities.
Inspired by the same tradition of Canadian radio drama which used to get Glenn Gould all hot under the collar, Godspeed You Black Emperor! have fashioned a gripping portfolio of melancholy soundscapes. Despite a prevailing mood on the doomy side of mordant (the album opens with a man who might be Ingmar Bergman's depressive uncle intoning the cheering words "The car is on fire and there is no driver at the wheel... The sewers are all muddy with a thousand lonely suicides") the album seems to bring joy to the ears of all who hear it. There is something strangely uplifting about the completeness of its desolation.
They look a jolly enough bunch in person, too, in their natty North American knitwear, and when they start to play together, the vibrancy and dynamism of their interaction more than outweighs the sombre nature of their underlying world-view. Far from the earnest instrumental endeavour that might be imagined, a Godspeed You Black Emperor! live show turns out to be a magical, unnerving, wild and, at times, downright scary affair.
Some standard-issue black-and-white film back projections of ballerinas and people standing on top of oil derricks are an unnecessary distraction from the music, which already conjures up a heady rush of visual images: the way a glass dish that wasn't heatproof would throb just before it exploded if it were mistakenly placed in a really high oven; or the last cartwheel of a tumbleweed before it is impaled on a particularly intractable cactus.
The walls of The Garage seem to stretch and then contract as the band performs, as though their breathing was pulling all the air out of it. String slashes accelerate alarmingly then flatten to a calming plateau. Rhythms sidle from pulse to flurry and back again, and then the drummer relieves the gathering tension with a burst of maniacal laughter.
If Hank Marvin of The Shadows was a cosmonaut and his lifeline broke while effecting a small external repair, this is what the music playing in his head as he plunged into the eternal abyss might sound like.
Ben ThompsonReuse content