July 19 — “Storm” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

If you only listen to one song today, make it “Storm” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor (2000, from the album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven).

Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a post-rock octet from Montréal. They’ve released three proper albums and one EP since their formation in the early 1990s. Their first album was self-released on cassette and was limited to 33 copies. I won’t count that as a “proper” album.

I’ll present today’s song so you can read while the epic song plays. Yes, it’s 22 and a half minutes long. Yes, it’s in four parts. You can be annoyed with me now, but you’ll thank me later.

“Storm” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

They’re one of the pioneers of the Montréal post-rock scene. Relly, they’re one of the pioneers of the genre, regardless of location. Their label, Constellation Records, is a giant in the field. However, like just about anyone making or selling post-rock music, they hate the “post-rock” tag. It’s too bad, because their roster is loaded with post-rock all-stars. Many of them are, in some way, related to Godspeed. Do Make Say Think, A. Silver Mt. Zion (aka Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra), 1 Speed Bike, Fly Pan-Am, Exhaust. The list of projects that the many band members have participated in is almost endless. Some of them even played on the last two Vic Chesnutt albums. Most, but not all of the side projects, are on Constellation. Most, but not all, are post-rock.

Originally, the Godspeed You! Black Emperor name was written out as Godspeed You Black Emperor!. They took their name from a Japanese documentary film about motorcycle gangs. I’m not sure why they punctuated it the way they did, and I have no idea why they changed the position of the exclamation. Either way, most people simply refer to them as Godspeed.

I first got into Godspeed sort of by mistake. Although there’s no doubt that I would have eventually found them anyway, my very first exposure to them was when I went to one of their shows simply because it was my birthday and there was a band playing at the Cat’s Cradle. It could have been any band. Even a reggae band. I just wanted to go to a show on my birthday. I was gobsmacked and Godspeed ended up becoming one of my favorite bands. That show is still among my top five concert experiences ever, out of hundreds. Okay… Maybe top eight. Oddly, it’s just barely my favorite birthday show ever. Neko Case, on the Blacklisted tour, is a very close second out of the shows that I’ve seen on my birthday.

If you want some details about that Godspeed birthday show, you can read this old blog post. Then, just so you know the story, you can follow up with part II of that two-part post here. That second part gets into the second time that I saw Godspeed play. That story is a little more interesting, a little more cinematic, and a little more personal.

I became a huge fan of the mysterious band who doesn’t like to be photographed and doesn’t like to give interviews. Even to this day, I don’t know much about them. They’re anti-capitalist, anti-government, anti-photography, anti-interview. Oddly, though, they allow and even encourage people to make audio recordings of their shows.

The only interesting tidbit I know is that they were once detained in Oklahoma on suspicion of terrorism, and let go with no explanation. Read about that here. Surprisingly, they weren’t outraged by the incident.

We’re just lucky we’re nice white kids from Canada

Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that Lift Your Skinny Fists… is my favorite album of theirs. It’s an epic 87 minute album with four sprawling movements. Each movement has distinct parts, but it’s not really appropriate to let those parts stand on their own.

My favorite movement is the first one: “Storm”, which consists of the following parts:

  1. Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
  2. Gathering Storm/II Pleut à Mourir [+Clatters Like Worry]
  3. Welcome to Arco AM/PM [LAX 5/14/00]
  4. Cancer Towers on Holy Road Hi-Way

Like many of their songs, this one includes some “field recordings”. While the field recordings are usually of some street person ranting and raving about the end of the world, the one in this song is from a gas station’s public address system.

Undoubtedly, the beef of the song is in the first two parts. In a way, I wish that they’d left the other two parts on the cutting room floor.

Like a lot of post-rock, this requires a lot of patience and persistence. There are certainly some lulls, but they’re more than made up for by the high points. It’s hard to outline all of the high points, but they usually involve a rapid tempo change, violins yielding the right-of-way to thunderous drums, some drums crashing in out of nowhere, some searing guitar bit coming in out of nowhere. There’s several bits where everything but the drums drop out. There are bits where everything drops back in. It’s a very big song, highlighted by the second part.

If you’re not patient, or if you need your songs to be less than 22 minutes, or if you need your songs to stay in the same time signature, or if you need your songs to have vocals, this won’t be for you. It might not be for you anyway, and that’s okay. I sure do love it, though. I hope you do, too.

Although there’s not a new album in the works (at least not one that I’m aware of), Godspeed will embark on a quick US tour in October. They just played the Pitchfork Music Festival, and they’ll play as part of the NYC All Tommorrow’s Parties festival in late September. After that, they’ll play a 12-city, 13-show tour in the first 14 days of October.

As luck has it, they’ll be playing the Cat’s Cradle on that tour, which means that I’ll be seeing them on the day after my birthday. Thirteen years after the first time that I saw (or even laid ears on) them.

Unfortunately, the Constellation Records web store only carries the 2xLP format of this album. You can buy CD copies (much to the anti-Capitalist label’s chagrin) from Amazon, or you can get a digital download from your favorite legal downloading place. Trust me, though. You want a physical copy. The packaging is really cool on all Constellation releases. Handmade cardboard sleeves. Nifty artwork, usually done by the band or by some Montréal artist. Good stuff.

If you live in or near Boston, Philly, Baltimore, Chapel Hill, Atlanta, Birmingham Alabama, New Orleans, Austin, Dallas, Nashville, Louisville, or Detroit, you need to buy a ticket to their October show. You won’t regret it. If you go to the Chapel Hill show, you can drink a beer with me.

I hope that I end up with another story worth telling. Even if there’s no crazy story, the show promises to be outstanding. I’m very much looking forward to it.

About dlee

North Carolina born and bred. I'm a restaurant guy who spends free time listening to music, watching hockey and playing Scrabble. I have a bachelor's degree in political science and I will most likely never put it to use. View all posts by dlee

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