Raise Yr Skinny Fists To Heaven
by Rob Wickings of The Ugly Truth
Godspeed You Black Emperor are over. It was not a sudden thing. They’d been struggling with their place in the world for a while, and had reached the point where, as their founder Efrin Menuck put it, they had succumbed to “an existential freakout” over the war in Iraq. They had found it increasingly difficult to communicate with their audience in a meaningful fashion. “Maybe,” he continued, “what they needed was some clumsy words, a presentation that was a little more human.”
Godspeed You Black Emperor are - were - one of the formative, and most influential of post rock bands. Post rock has been described as the point where rock and classical music intersect. Personally, that description always makes me think of Bohemian Rhapsody, so let’s not go there. Typical rock instrumentation - drums, guitars, keyboards - are used in forms that do not mirror the typical rock song structure. The music is largely instrumental, and heavily weighted away from the verse/chorus/verse form. Mood, and a building dynamic that could at a stretch be described as quiet/loud/quiet are all-important. It takes on influences from the looseness and experimentation of free jazz and the avant garde scene, and the tight, repetitive structure of krautrock. The term itself is commonly believed to have been coined by British journalist Simon Reynolds while reviewing Bark Pyschosis’ Hex in 1994. He admitted in his blog in 2005 that in fact the term had been floating around since the mid-70s, first popping up in a 1975 James Wolcott article about Todd Rundgren.
So far, so Wikipedia. I’m here to talk about what post-rock means to me. Let’s start with that horrible catch-all term. It’s used to describe a fairly broad swathe of music, and bands that have roots in everything from noise and extreme death metal to jazz and classical. The general concensus seems to be that if it’s long, vocal-free, and has song and album titles that seem either obscure, absurdist or just plain odd, then it’s post rock. Which takes in everyone from Stereolab to The Mars Volta to my mind. It’s an easy label. It’s a lazy definition. I prefer to think of the practitioners of this kind of music as post-song.
Common knowledge considers that the first true post-rock albums were Slint’s Spiderland, and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. I’d go back further than that. My first experience of the music was the Cocteau Twins 1985 EP Aikea-Guinea. Songs that were all chorus, absurdist song titles. And Elisabeth Fraser, whose vocals didn’t sound like anything else. They were barely vocals at all. It sounded as if the Cocteaus had caged a songbird, and persuaded it into liquid accompaniment. A trilling, wordless glossolalia. It was like another instrument, and I fell in love with it instantly. I played the EP to smoothness, and still own it. It smells, very faintly now, of peonies.
I’ve always loved drama in music. The semi-symphonic stories Bruce Springsteen told on The Wild, The Innocent... and Born To Run. The fevered mating calls and Greek ululations of loss and despair coming out of the 60’s girl group scene, and the guttering torch songs of Dusty Springfield and Scott Walker. I never wore eyeliner, but I was a New Romantic. I had a widescreen head, and I needed music for soundtracks.
I came to the sound through the backroads. Through the roaring whirr of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Through the blurry fuzz of shoegaze, bands like Slowdive and Ride, whose Vapour Trails I fully intend to have played at my funeral. I’ll even go out on a limb and mix my gothic tendencies into the snarl I’m twisting together here. Early Sisters Of Mercy, particularly the first album, First And Last And Always and, more pertinently, Fields Of The Nephilim. Music for an unmade dark western, thrumming through my head on innumerable rain-beaten train trips to see friends in Myrthyr Tydfil, the black heart of Wales. Opening my mind, and my eyes. Letting in wonders through the fog and the storm.
If I mentioned Sigur Ros to the average punter, the response would at best be a blank look. But mention the music for the BBC natural history show Blue Planet, and chances are that punter would be thinking of Hoppipolla, from their 2006 album Takk. They are eminently soundtrackable. Their recent film documernt Heima, that tracked a tour of their native Iceland, is the finest example of how their music fits into a narrative-free structure. There is no story, little dialogue. It succeeds purely because of the extraordinary interplay of the music and the landscape.
Their music comes from a place that is at once alien and disturbingly familiar. The vocals, until recently, were sung in a made-up language called Hopelandic. For Takk, widely regarded as Sigur Ros’ breakthough to mainstream success, the band wisely decided to make themselves a little more approachable. The lyrics were recorded in their native language. Icelandic.
The downplay of lyrical content, and the change of the role of the singer to a carrier of melody rather than of explicit meaning is a typical meme in post-rock. Take a guest vocalist on Mogwai’s 1998 album Rock Action. Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals did a sterling job, but sang his part in Welsh. Granted, he does a lot of that anyway. SFA have released Welsh-language records throughout their career. But the choice of guest seemed especially appropriate on Rock Action, which was the first Mogwai album to feature vocals on more than a couple of tracks. On another track, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk was well-known for slurring his vocal line to near incomprehensibility. The lyrics to Laughing Stock were printed on the sleeve. It still famously remains difficult to figure out the words even with this guide. Without, Hollis may as well be gargling. (Unkind critics who are not a fan of his singular vocal style have suggested cruelly that this was exactly what he was doing.) All this means that the listener can easily attach his own interpretation, her own thoughtscape onto the music. Post-rock seems designed to be listened to on headphones, while gazing out of a train window. Feeling the world slide past you, slipping through your fingers in a rush of acceleration.
This makes it sound like aural wallpaper, which is deeply unfair. At it’s best, the music can inspire an absurdly overplayed emotional reaction. I’ve frequently found myself in tears during moments in Sigur Ros’ (), an album filled with songs without titles, sung in a language I don’t understand. Proper, sloppy, chest-hurting man crying. And I couldn’t tell you why.
It’s this languageless, primal connection to the music that makes it so effective, and at the same time so limiting. Let’s look back at Godspeed You Black Emperor, and the frustrations that led them to split. The rapport they had with their audience was legendary. A long discussion thread on the Whitechapel message board raised up a 2002 gig at the Que Club in Birmingham, and I have recordings of a concert from October 2000 where the tension between group and audience was oozing out of the speakers. The slow, dramatic build of the music gives way to a release that is almost transcendent. The first time I heard it was on headphones on my work commute into London, on a cold sharp morning when the sun was burnishing the sky with copper and scarlet. I felt like someone else that morning. Like the train could take off and fly into that sunrise. Like I could do anything.
And yet, still Efrim and the rest of the band felt that they could no longer communicate with their audience in the way they wanted. They felt they had to ground the music in something real, something of substance, and suddenly realised that it refused to be bound in that way. It was like rallying smoke, like trying to hold on to a note for too long. Announcements from the stage, post-gig discussion groups felt like bolt ons. For the first time, Godspeed You Black Emperor could not mesh the medium with the message, and their anger at the carnage in Iraq could no longer be articulated in the way they wanted.
We should not mourn Godspeed You Black Emperor. The album from which this piece takes its name, Raise Yr Skinny Fists Like Antenna To Heaven, is a regular visitor to the top ten lists of best post-rock albums of all time. Most of the original member, including Efrim Menuck, now play in A Silver Mt. Zion, a band that happily embrace vocal, and even choral forms in their music. The scene, as ever, moves on, refuses to be bound to a single interpretation, a locked-off viewpoint. Untied to any formal classification, blurring past our vision like the speed-smeared landscape framed in a train window.