Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ‘Yanqui U.X.O.’ (Constellation)
Godspeed’s 1997 debut CD, f#a#?, began with words so eerily prescient that it’s a wonder the Montreal band aren’t currently being held at Guantánamo Bay. (“The buildings toppled in on themselves,” intoned a shredded male voice. “Mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble / These are truly the last days.”) Using strings, percussion, and massed electric guitars, these slow-mo instrumental rockers draw stunningly apocalyptic visions of capitalism in its death throes. Now, with their first post-9/11 release, our geopolitical reality might finally exceed their worst nightmares–and that’s saying something. If ever a band was handed its Moment, Godspeed’s is now.
More than ever, Godspeed wear their politics on their sleeve, literally: The cover of Yanqui U.X.O. depicts bombs plummeting toward green fields, while the back features a Mother Jones-worthy flowchart detailing the links between major record labels and corporate arms manufacturers. The title abbreviation refers to “unexploded ordnance” (land mines, etc.). And if you were wondering about the significance of the funereal tempo and air-raid-siren cello on “09-15-00,” the lowercase liner notes explain that the track “is ariel sharon surrounded by 1000 Israeli soldiers marching on al-haram ash-sharif & provoking another intifada.” Next question?
Verbal sound bites (a robotic warning from a Los Angeles gas pump, a field recording of a raving gun nut) once provided subtext for Godspeed’s cinematic symphonies. But on Yanqui, those voices have fallen silent, and there’s too much barren drift. On the epic “Motherfucker = Redeemer,” tremolo-ed guitar figures befitting an Ennio Morricone score (picture Clint Eastwood riding through the killing fields) frame Sonic Youth-ful sustain-and-release jams, and the balance is just right. That’s good, because the track takes up nearly half the record. But more often, it feels as if Godspeed are frozen by the enormity of recent events, worrying their minor chords like prayer beads in a cold chapel. Maybe they could take a cue from onetime tourmates Sigur Rós, whose wordless vocals lend warmth and optimism to their otherwise chilly music. Or from the artwork on their CD’s inner sleeve–a hammer bearing the word hope. Next time, brothers and sisters, bang that sucker a little louder.