Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

To my most alas, I know nothing about Godspeed You! Black Emperor because I have always taken band names such as this one as a good clue that I should probably steer clear. I also know very little about the social and political situation in 90s North America and its capacity to inspire apocalyptic-sounding soundtracks but I do find that this does not significantly detract from the experience of delving into F♯ A♯ ∞ (and after all, the end of time has been an universal concern since at least the time of the Gospels and especially so in the 20th century), so let’s dive right in.

The CD edition of this album is structured into three “movements” that each contain 3-5 sections with mostly appropriately minimalist sound, and it opens with the movement titled “The Dead Flag Blues”. A beautiful string arrangement is shortly complemented by some nihilistic voiceover about lonely suicides, corrupt governments, people on drugs and an admirable graphic depiction of life inside a machine that is breaking down – if you are a fan of that kind of lyrical exploration you might find it beautifully poignant. But even if you aren’t (and I most certainly am not) you can still appreciate the high quality of lyrical detail that might well surpass many other versions on this general theme by the cohesive picture it paints and the amount of actual information it delivers. Also notable here is that musical dynamic is used very competently and to a great effect, thus giving some spatial depth to the sound.

This first section of the movement segues into a claustrophobic and suffocating sounding sequence that is immediately preceded by a train rolling away from a station (maybe it took all remaining hope away) around the 8th minute and comes back with a beautiful mournful tune that evokes to me the image of Pink Floyd doing one of Mark Knopfler’s western-themed compositions, and is resolved with a bright waltzy rendering of the first section theme with some folky violin.

The second movement – titled East Hastings – opens with some traffic noises and a prominent street preacher voice but then transits into something else altogether – the winds of the hopeless black desert of abandoned nothingness that awaits Earth after a nuclear war, most probably. But wait, it is not completely void, there is a solitary voice here. The gentle voice of a mournful guitar in the distance. It gradually gathers confidence to deliver an uninterrupted phrase. Yes, this is our solitary hero whose steady steps through the desert we shall now follow. He feels like the hero of a tragedy who marches forth to meet his destiny with grim resolution because now even the desert wind chorus is backing him much like the chorus of a classical greek drama would. And when the rhythm section joins in we can conclude that he is now the leader of a whole marching ragged group of desert heroes who even add in their own voices at some point (via a lovely string arrangement). This epic pilgrimage through the desert possibly in Biblical times arrives at a similarly epic conclusion around minute 12, and after a short radio transmission sample the desert winds take over once again, stronger this time in the aftermath of the epic culmination. You know, maybe we can even agree that East Hastings refers to some city way in the East and the opening traffic and preaching took place on a busy marketplace instead of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver after which this movement is titled.

Providence, the third and final movement of this record, opens with a conversation in a bar on a busy street possibly, which possibly discusses what the preacher of the previous movement has said. You know, it is ordinary people losing faith now. In fact, I may well label this movement the personal introspection one because of the wonderful external-internal contrast that the beeping machinery samples of cruel objective reality vs the string arrangements of mournful internal monologue create. The subdued entrance of the strings may remind you of the way films are scored; however, the faint beeping sound still doesn’t vanish altogether and therefore it reminds you that outside of the internal strings monologue there is still the silence of the external world. This sound later develops into a more full one as some percussions and guitar join and the tempo increases, before coming to a stop around minute 11. There are some more sonically interesting solutions for the remainder of the track including some wistful chanting at the side of a waterfall or possibly on a very rainy day in the second half of the track but eventually it peters out into some actual silence before the arrival of the outro that is named after John Lee Hooker and includes some very intense metal bashing.

So bearing in mind that this record gets labelled as post-rock, experimental rock and instrumental rock, is it actually pretentious? Yeah, somewhat probably. But not really. After all, it is a record concerned with apocalypsis and it is concerned with it in a very humane way – taking into account the people living inside a machine, the street preacher in East Hastings, and perhaps even the internal monologue of one of the people conversing at the beginning of the third movement. I get the feeling that it was made mostly because of those people and those are the heroes that make their pilgrimage through the black desert of oblivion.

It also reminds me of something I once heard in Art History class – that 20th century art developed the position that art does not have to be beautiful, and that it decided to concentrate instead on the eternal suffering of the human soul. Now, the concept of the bleak beauty of human frailty is not something nowadays unheard of, and maybe this may prompt you to label the sound of F♯ A♯ ∞ beautiful. I will personally abstain from making such a statement but I am certainly glad that I got to experience the sonic richness of it during my pilgrimage through this album, even if probably no amount of coaxing will convince me to ever do it again.

Probably the only question that remains for me is what the title F♯ A♯ ∞ actually means but since apparently the vinyl edition of the album has a technically infinite running time due to the locked groove of the final track, I am going to assume that F sharp and A sharp are also some kind of clever reference to the music on the album.

Author: tomymostalas


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