December 6, 2002

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Explosive! Explorations

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The Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor have always been known for a kind of stubborn consistency that has been both a great strength and a target for detractors on their past three releases. The group continually mines a morbid, apocalyptic vision of the world in their mostly instrumental music, with sections of quiet despair transitioning into climactic surges which are often infused with rabid hope. In their imaginations, the world is dying, and they are its last bastions of sanity and joy.

At first glance, Yanqui U.X.O. appears to be a response to past accusations of same-ness. For one, the group’s well-known exclamation point has mysteriously migrated to the middle of their name — and perhaps more tellingly, for the first time they’ve enlisted an outside producer, recording virtuoso Steve Albini. Unsurprisingly — and thankfully — the actual music hasn’t changed much.

With each release, Godspeed has altered its sound just slightly, tweaking small elements while retaining their emotional urgency and overall aesthetic. This time around, that tweaking has resulted in some of their best, most immediate compositions yet. Noticeably absent are the ambient field recordings and spoken word rants of previous albums, and the effect is striking. Throughout the record, the music seems more concentrated, more focused, and it hits with a harder impact than ever before.

The opener, “09-15-00” is split into two parts, with the longer first section exploring a beautiful motif in several different ways before exploding it all in the anticipated climax of guitar noise. Unlike previous efforts, GSY!BE makes the listener work more for the eventual payoff; several times during this track, they build tension and then slowly let it drift away as they switch directions. The interplay between the multiple guitars and strings is, as ever, fascinating. The song’s second part provides a relatively calm coda to the chaos that preceded it.

On the 20-minute “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls,” the band lays down martial rhythms and roaring distortion in one of their most minimal compositions yet. The middle section, unexpectedly, sounds like the soundtrack to a “cowboys and Indians” film just before the climactic battle, with foreboding tribal rhythms pounding away beneath the subtle string textures.

The album’s standout moment comes with its two-part closer, split into the sections “Motherfucker” and “Redeemer.” The former is a slow-building rocker, a gorgeous 20 minute multi-guitar workout bolstered by a driving rhythm section. Coming after the almost exclusively grim first part of the album, the track closes Yanqui U.X.O. on a jubilant, near-celebratory note. The song’s second part, “Redeemer,” starts with the sound of an orchestra warming up before segueing into a rich, textured groove where the plucked bass takes a lead over cymbal crashes and repetitive guitar figures. As all the elements come together into a raucous, roaring sea of noise, every instrument careening off the others, the piece coalesces into Godspeed’s best moment to date.

Yanqui U.X.O. is not quite different enough to be considered a brand new direction for GSY!BE, but the changes they’ve made have had a strong impact. They’ve crafted their finest statement yet, brimming with raw emotion and fury. Though they’ll still get the naysayers claiming they do the same thing on every record, the truth is they’ve been steadily improving with every release, honing the intricacies of their sound and their compositional skills until they’ve arrived at the soaring beauty of this record.

Archived article by Ed Howard