Review: Godspeed You Black Emperor! – “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven”

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, a hybrid of intense emotional catharsis and passionate but precise composition. Songs that grow from somber interludes into explosive crescendos: electric guitars that weave and wail, cello and violin that weep, field recordings that cast shadows and other-worldly tones, drums like furious trains punching through the walls of dawn.

Godspeed You Black Emperor! are nothing if not fiercely original, perfecting a trademark sound that borders on transcendence. With the breathtaking “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!,” their highly anticipated new release, they shatter any preconceived notions of caving into their own formulas.

Far from sounding exhausted, contrived or void of new ideas, “Antennas To Heaven” is the Montreal ensemble’s most brilliant to date, making some of even the best moments of 1999’s “Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada E.P.” and their 1998 debut, “F#A#∞,” sound like works in progress.

Trying to list all of the two-record set’s brilliant moments, however, is much like trying to remember the names of every person you’ve ever known: just as one comes to mind, a dozen more appear.

Simply put, the record, whose four tracks span an epic 87 minutes, is not so much a collection of songs as it is a series of interlaced and interlocking movements.  The sounds aren’t heard as much as they’re experienced. The band, composed of nine to 15 members, isn’t performing for the listener as much as it’s consuming them.

“Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” and “Gathering Storm” open the record, each slowly building themselves from subtle murmurs – the reverb of an electric guitar, the whisper and whistle of horns – into sweeping and majestic soundscapes.

Godspeed! do more than make the massive shifts flow instinctively and the gradual integration of a myriad of sounds appear natural, though. They make each note a purposeful part of an emotional whole.

The distant sound of trains and moans from cello in the first movement of the record’s second track bleed into the lush textures of “Chart #3.” Even in their silence, nothing is lost or wasted. After a recording of a preacher speaking passionately about God among the darkness, Godspeed! move effortlessly into the mysterious and menacing “World Police and Friendly Fire,” which leads to the tautness (and, in the end, thunderous fury) of “… The Buildings They Are Sleeping Now.”

The record’s third track sets a reflective tone by beginning with a monologue on the golden years of Coney Island (“They don’t sleep anymore on the beach,” recalls Murray Ostril) and then unfurls into “Monheim,” one of the record’s strongest indicators of how Godspeed has grown since the days of “F#A#∞.”

Where the band’s earlier recordings quaked with an unspoken dread – the fear that the melody was on the brink of imploding and falling apart at any moment – “Antennas To Heaven” seems more self-assured.  Somehow, while sounding more confident, though, the band still comes off as incredibly human and vulnerable.

The latter half of “Broken Windows, Locks of Love Pt. III” – all strings, soft whispers of guitar, and a perfectly understated shuffle of drums – is so tender and fragile that it brings tears to your eyes. Godspeed! gives it room to breathe and expand. The result is almost sublime.

The unsettling, record-closing movement “Antennas To Heaven” is possibly as close as any ensemble has come to the sound of humanity at endgame, an observation of the last breaths of a dying civilization.  The group, who write in the record’s liner notes (in enigmatic but characteristic fashion) about fallen worlds, fading lights, empty streets and freedom, might take pride in that.

While those drawn to Godspeed You Black Emperor! only as conversation piece might be overwhelmed by their intense and grandiose shifting from reflective dirges to cataclysmic expressions of emotion on “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven,” this is clearly their most passionate, intense and finely crafted release to date.

For an ensemble like Godspeed You Black Emperor!, such statements are not meant to be taken lightly. – The Montclarion, Dec. 14, 2000

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