1. Obligatory note: I’m reviewing the CD edition because duh doy! – infinity is a long time.
2. The oft-talked about opening monologue of “The Dead Flag Blues” is emblematic of this album / band / genre’s strengths and weaknesses. It can be evocative when it wants to be:
- “The government is corrupt / And we’re on so many drugs” suggests that the apocalypse that Godspeed You! Black Emperor paint for the entire album is happeningin the now;
- “The skyline was beautiful on fire / All twisted metal stretching upwards / Everything washed in a thin orange haze” is wonderful imagery that I wish the monologue had more of;
- Though “I said ‘Kiss me, you’re beautiful / These are truly the last days’” reminds me a little too much of David Bowie’s similar line in “Five Years” (I kiss you, you’re beautiful”) – a song that’s also about an apocalypse, atmosphere and crescendo – it’s a good couplet all the same.
But it can be excessive when it wants to be:
- The car’s on fire” – the first line – nicely sets the stage, but “and there’s no driver at the wheel” makes me wonder why I should care;
- The italicized bit of “The flags are all dead at the top of their poles” didn’t need said;
- “I open up my wallet / And it’s full of blood” makes me wonder why the monologue didn’t end with “You grabbed my hand and we fell into it / Like a daydream or a fever,” which was a much more effective parting line.
3. Anyway, key musical moments to watch out for in “The Dead Flag Blues (Intro)”:
- The 1:42 mark, where strings come in under the “It went like this” command and paint the picture where the words might fail;
- The 4:17 mark onwards where quick bows of strings sound like too-close-for-comfort missiles;
- And the 5:04 mark where trilled strings sound like helicopters flying overhead who could give a shit about you because you’re just one person and you don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
4. The evocative sections of the album are truly – undeniably – evocative. These sections include:
- “The Cowboy …” (starting around the 10:10 mark of “The Dead Flag Blues” and ending at the 14:27 mark);
- “The Sad Mafioso” (starting around the 1:35 mark of “East Hastings” and ending at the 12:19 mark), which is easily one of the most effective climaxes in post-rock;
- Once the riff materializes in “Dead Metheny …” (starting at the 6:07 mark of “Providence”) and it’s quite cool how the same riff can evoke different emotions depending on what instrument they’re played on (which obviously owes a little to what range said instrument inhabits, but it’s mostly about the tone of that instrument);
- The first two minutes of “Kicking Horse on Brokenhill”, picking up where “Dead Metheny …” left off
- The last few minutes of “Kicking Horse on Brokenhill” after the singing and bird chirping ends (starting at the 12:03 mark and ending at the 16:38 mark);
- The first few minutes of “String Loop Manufactured During Downpour…” where a voice repeatedly asks “Where are you going?”
5. On the other hand, the excessive sections of the album are truly – undeniably – excessive. These sections include:
- “Slow Moving Trains” (starting around the 6:37 mark of “The Dead Flag Blues” and lasting around 4 minutes) which rivals Snakes on a Train for the “Title that gives everything away” award (I also have the same problem with “East Hasting”’s “Black Helicopter” but that one employed effective vocal samples to distract);
- Though it’s certainly pretty and easily the most positive section of the album, I have no idea what “The Dead Flag Blues (Outro)” is doing other than entirely undercutting the bleak atmosphere that the album worked so hard to establish (apparently, the apocalypse is over and so someone breaks out a fiddle for a country hootenanny and everyone dances to celebrate);
- The same goes for the aforementioned singing and bird chirping section smack dab in the middle of “Kicking Horse on Brokenhill” that does nothing other than bridge two crescendos awkwardly;
- The first 2 minutes of “East Hastings” (“…Nothing’s Alrite in Our Life… / The Dead Flag Blues (Reprise)”) where you’re treated to 2 minutes of a preacher babbling (because it’s a requisite for every dystopian universe to have at least one religious fanatic) and bagpipes (because it’s not a requisite for every dystopian universe to have at least one bagpipe, and here, Godspeed You! Black Emperor demonstrate why) (The dialogue of “Divorce and Fever” that opens “Providence” does everything here and more in less time).
6. A lot of the band / album / genre’s devotees – of which I am aware there are a lot – will probably be upset by the systematic approach in which I’ve reviewed it (most reviews I’ve seen vie for a more abstract one).
“The sum is more than its parts,” they’ll say. Except, frankly, that’s not true here. A lot of classical music compositions, were, as they are here, broken down into movements, but those movements related with one another that it made sense to listen to them as one piece. The ones here don’t, and you wanna know how I know? Because there are full seconds of silence separating all of them such that I have no idea why they weren’t separated into their own tracks except for for that hip factor. Hell, I’ve never heard the vinyl version but it gives me great trepidation that, according to the tracklist, sections from songs are spliced after sections from other songs as if the individual sections can be played on shuffle and it wouldn’t matter to the structural integrity of the composition. Hate the word or not, this band is the first in mind when the word “pretentious” is used (Don’t believe me? Check out their antics off-album).
“The end justifies the means,” they’ll say. Except, frankly, that’s not true here. If you start “East Hastings” at the 6:16 mark where the drums finally come in as I often do, you’ll be there just in time to witness a good thirty seconds of better buildup than the preceding 4 minutes did and you’ll avoid 2 minutes of preachers and bagpipes. And before you tell me that Godspeed You! Black Emperor is barely concerned with climaxes (there’s a putdown somewhere there) – “it’s about the atmosphere, man” – I’ll just defer you to the near-4 minutes’ worth of “Slow Moving Trains” and tell you that I’ve heard enough trains to last me a fucking lifetime.