Just to prove that not everything I write about here has to sound edgy and inaccessible, and that I am just as happy to write about music where the innovation is more in the edginess and inaccessibility of where it takes you, I thought today that I would write about Godspeed You Black Emperor! - a group of Montreal musicians who I discovered only a few days ago, thanks to the response of one of my musical mentors, Lucas, to my plea for something to listen to in times when the world, and its politics, seem to be falling apart.
Apocalyptic music can be immensely powerful if it is done well and GYBE! - with their long, sprawling tracks, built out of bricks of dark, tragic harmonies and melodies - do it very well indeed. Their music is characterised by massive, bleak landscapes of sound that open out before you in long, measured crescendos, until they are staring you in the face with their intense, dead eyes, before moving back into the distance again to the forlorn, lonely place from which they came.
The music itself is played on a blend of instruments that works perfectly to give the music its haunted, unsettled colour - strings that slide down from one note, from one octave even, to another; ghostly keyboards, like marimbas and harpsichords; and long, sustained electric guitars that play single notes that wobble and quiver and hang in the darkness. Sometimes the music is embellished with a vocal narrative, like the evocation of a derelict, dead city under the rule of a corrupt government, at the start of 'The Dead Flag Blues' on their debut album F#A#∞; or the ramblings of disconent on 'Blaise Bailey Finnegan III', underscored by long, desolate harmonies on Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada. But, more often than not, the music speaks for itself, or even not at all, as in the three and a half minutes of silence towards the end of 'Providence', also on F#A#∞.
The sense of a apocalypse of these first two albums blends in with one of melancholy, sometimes quiet, sometimes passionate, on the third, double, album, Lift yr. skinny fists like antennas to heaven!, such as in its majestic opener, 'Storm', where the music's pulsating strings and drums swell as much within you as around you, and the shifts from darkness to light, from harmony to sustained dissonance, and back again make you feel that all are there together, in the same place. It is like you are being confronted with a world in ruins, and every now and then being reminded of the things that once made it beautiful.
That sense of loss and desolation for a fragile, vulnerable world is perhaps strongest of all in the fourth, and so far latest, album Yanqui U.X.O. ( a name derived from the Spanish word for 'Yankee' and the acronym for an unexploded ordnance, or landmine). Here the shifting sounds and tensions and dynamics seem even more extreme than the earlier recordings: cello and violin blending with a phalanx of electric guitars and drums, to devastating effect, where you really do feel the horror and terror of a world tottering on the edge, like in the slow, fightening build up of what could well be the planet's funeral march in 'Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls'.
Sometimes some music's power, especially experimental music, lies in its courage to trust its strengths and stick to them - to resist the tempation to put too many ideas into the mix. In some of the music I've been discussing here on Bent Music over the past few days, that has been a readiness to rely on unique sounds, and let an entire album be built purely on that. For GYBE! the reliance is on the power of strong, measured arrangements of a few simple elements to create a sustained and incredibly potent emotional space - one that is able to rest where it is, rather than feel the need to take you from one place to another, because it knows it paints its landscapes so well, that you don't want to look away anyway. It's rather like a post-rock incarnation of the music of 20th century classical composers such as Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, who built both emotional and musical richness out of just a handful of notes.
The easy harmonies of much of this music, and the simplicity of its melodies, which are given their character by the way the build and colour themselves, will inevitably draw comparisons with film music - and, while that can often be a disparaging, trivialising way to talk about music, in this case it's quite the opposite. GYBE! produce music that evokes its pictures - crying out, almost, for a film to accompany it, rather than the other way around. Here it is the music that creates the images, gives them life, dark as it is, and then ultimately lets them go.
This is powerful, hypnotic, unrelenting music - sonically accessible, yet still musically inventive and always emotionally confronting, draining even. It is grief writ large; grief made cosmic.