Back in the mists of time, before Spotify and Youtube, before even file-sharing sites like Napster, when not all music was instantly accessible, buying an album was a commitment. Young music fans with little cash to spare would need to be sure we were making a good decision. This often meant treading a certain path, trodden by others before – discovering one band, then finding that led you to another similar band, and so on, gradually heading off the beaten track away from the mainstream. I’m sure this is how, at the end of the 1990s many teenagers ended up owning a CD of ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven’ – the ‘breakout’ album by revered post-rock collective, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. By following a path from chart-topping Britpop bands, to the more progressive Radiohead, then to post-rock poster boys Mogwai, and then finally, to a band with an exclamation mark in their name who recorded 20 minute long ‘suites’.
The band emerged as part of the ‘post-rock boom’ – a proliferation of like-minded groups who eschewed vocalists and the attendant ego-driven theatrics of rock’n’roll, in favour of drawn-out instrumentals that veered between extremes of loud and quiet. It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with GY!BE that, despite the intervening decades and an extended hiatus, they’ve stayed true to the approach that defined their earliest releases. This goes beyond the music alone and includes their whole philosophy – a steadfast adherence to an anarchist political ideology – which sees them refuse to participate in ‘the music biz game’. Only two official photographs of the band have been issued in their 25 year career, and the handful of interviews they’ve given in that time have been answered as a collective.
So it is that the awkwardly named, G_d’s Pee at STATES END! – their seventh studio album – follows the band’s usual formula. The record comprises two extended suites of around 20 minutes in duration and each composed of four mini-movements, plus two standalone tracks that clock in nearer the six minute mark. Although it seems even GY!BE are not immune to the influence of streaming services and have split out the tracks into bitesize chunks for Spotify. As well as the structure of the album being consistent with other GY!BE releases, the music within also sticks to their usual combination of tension, drama, release, and the occasional triumphant crescendo.
GY!BE’s music is often described as post-apocalyptic, with its deafening crescendos and extended passages of stark desolation, not to mention the recorded snippets of end-times preachers, whose voices populate the sonic wasteland. But rather than soundtracking the end of the world, the seminal standout ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists…’ instead feels to me like an epic journey across the continent of North America. With its long-form structure and panoramic sense of scale, it brings to mind old Western movies, or the early novels of Cormac McCarthy. The snatches of recording – an old man reminiscing about his childhood on Coney Island or the automated announcement at a service station – vividly evoke that feeling of being on the road and the fellow drifters you meet as you travel from place to place.
The notes that accompany G_d’s Pee at STATES END!, affirm that these tracks were recorded on the road, ‘when that was a place’. And indeed, it feels like the America depicted this time around is eerily empty – just a few lonely soles turning the knobs on their shortwave radios, trying to find somebody else out there in the bleakness. Now that the world has had something of a dress rehearsal for the apocalypse, is this a warning of what could happen in the future, or just a reflection of the empty and lost year of 2020? As always with GY!BE, their music embodies a duality, between harshness and tenderness, deafening noise and ghostly quiet. And on G_d’s Pee in particular, between despair and triumph. For while there are moments of the kind of sparse and sombre beauty that GY!BE do so well, they’re balanced by some of the most joyfully rousing music the band have ever released.
The first piece, A Military Alphabet, starts off in the manner of a radio being tuned in, searching for a signal through the noise. Over a swirl of static, there’s the eerie sound of a voice intoning letters from the phonetic alphabet, with bleeps of morse code and other ghostly noises seemingly gathered from the ether. After some minutes, a pleasingly distorted electric guitar emerges defiantly out of the mist, sounding for all the world like a roadie who’s spotted an opportunity during a soundcheck to show off his shredding skills to the gathering crowd. This segues into Job’s Lament, which hunkers down for, what in musical theory I believe is referred to as, the long slow build up. More instruments join the fray – drums, bass, multiple guitars – adding to the towering wall of sound that builds for a good ten minutes, continuing into the following track, before we’re treated to proper breakdown. And dare I say it, the sound of Godspeed You! Black Emperor ‘rocking out’. In fact, if you happened to tune in during the middle of First of the Last Glaciers, you would half expect some Robert Plant type figure to join in with some wailing vocals.
It’s a well-worn pattern but the band use it to such devastating and compelling effect. Maybe it’s a sense of righteous vindication that has GY!BE in such rousing spirits. For the last 25 years, their largely wordless musical output has been underscored by a staunchly anti-capitalist, anti-Government, anti-consumerism message; communicated via sleeve notes, press releases and the projected video images that accompany their live shows. And while you could hardly complain that rock music became ‘too political’ in the late 90s and early 00s, GY!BE’s somewhat po-faced attitude may well have deterred some listeners and served to attract a particular brand of joylessly earnest fan.
But now, with the USA recovering from four years of Trump; with a handful of billionaires holding more than 60% of the world’s wealth; with every single aspect of our lives and every interaction with our fellow humans being controlled and monitored by one of six vast tech companies; with the catastrophic effects of global warming caused by the greed of the fossil fuel industry becoming ever more apparent (I could go on)…suddenly GY!BE’s ‘radically’ anti-capitalist ideology doesn’t seem so radical. Is that the faintest whisper of ‘we told you so’ I can hear among the cacophony?
Fire at Static Valley is six minutes of almost savagely desolate beauty and is the kind of piece you can imagine being used to accompany news footage of a human rights atrocity. Ominous strings and drones build under a portentous guitar refrain, painting a vivid scene in shades of grey that gradually fades to black. The emphatically titled closing track, OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (for D.H.) is all shimmering gauzy textures: bowed strings, restrained guitar feedback and layers of drones. It sounds like a Stars of the Lid track played at 1.5x speed, as fragile and light as air, and an uplifting end to the album.
Ultimately, G_d’s Pee at STATES END! feels like both a warning and a call to action. Rather than a passive statement of hope, ‘Our side has to win’ can be read as an active threat: ‘our side has to win because the alternative is unthinkable’. And when you eventually reach the exultant climax of the album’s centrepiece, Government Came, with horns, organs, guitars, glockenspiel and even church bells joining in, it’s impossible not to feel a glimmer of hope that maybe everything is going to turn out OK.