“The car’s on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel…“
The first words on Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s debut album aren’t an introduction, they’re an elegy. A city lies in ruins, buildings crumbled, flames scorching the horizon, fear and grief the only resource that seems to still exist in abundance. From the moment the Montreal collective offer any semblance of context whatsoever, they give little indication or promise of hope of any kind. This isn’t entertainment, it’s the sound of a dying world.
It’s a hell of a way to introduce an artistic project to the world, at that. F# A# ∞ isn’t Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first recorded set of music, but it’s the first that anyone heard outside of a handful of people, their first cassette release, at least in name, only this year officially surfacing online. For 25 years, however, F# A# ∞ was the genesis, the point from which the collective’s increasingly ambitious conceptual instrumental, experimental rock (or “post-rock”) projects flowed. But at the time of its release, it was enigmatic and oblique, offering more questions than answers, with only a beautiful and deeply unsettling path of melody and fragments of sound to follow.
Initially self-released through live performances, the vinyl version of F# A# ∞ feels like a curious, anonymous recorded artifact left behind and lost to time, or perhaps the inadvertent participation in a scavenger hunt where the hidden treasure is a cursed document with few clues about how it got here. Its homemade cover alternately depicts a black-and-white highway photo or a closeup of a train’s wheels, or a water tower, and the contents of the LP sleeve—held within a small manila envelope—were just as curious: a show flyer, a crushed penny, and a drawing of the “faulty schematics of the ruined machine.” Shuffled in with the lot of strange paper files is an actual list of credits and instruments used in the recording, though its flipside only muddies the water further, with phrases like “mixed in one awful night by black helicopter” and “SO we bide our time, waiting for a purer kick to bloom.” Which I suppose is bandleader Efrim Menuck’s colorful way of saying the band was just getting started with their grand, haunted visions.
Nowhere on the sleeve or within its dossier is there any mention of track titles, though etched into the vinyl are two similarly enigmatic phrases: “Nervous, Sad, Poor…” and “Bleak, Uncertain, Beautiful…”. A year later, when the album was reissued on CD via Kranky, its tracks—presented in significantly altered, edited form—were titled “Dead Flag Blues” and “East Hastings,” respectively. But the etched inner groove contents have the added benefit of serving as brief summaries of the listening experience—”bleak, uncertain, beautiful” is, in essence, Godspeed You! Black Emeperor’s chosen art form.
The narration that opens the record on “Dead Flag Blues” (or “Nervous, Sad, Poor…”) is part of a screenplay that Menuck wrote but was never filmed, one of only a few fleeting moments on the entire record (at least the first issue) with discernible words of any kind. It’s an observation of decay and a tangible feeling of dread and terror: “We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine.” The melody that emerges compounds the bleak atmosphere, but grows overwhelming, depicting a hopeless world in cinematic grandeur. Over the course of its sixteen minutes it moves from spoken word to melody to sound collage and musique concrête, sounds of trains and noise, eventually back to another sequence of graceful and wrenching melody. Side A ends in a solo banjo folk performance, with occasional spoken-word bits (“what’s my motivation?”), eventually booming into reverb-laden widescreen. By contrast, the CD version ends with a different section of the piece, “The Dead Flag Blues (Outro)” whose sweeping and gorgeous Morricone-isms almost give the sense of a happy ending, rebirth after the destruction, the promise of something new and beautiful.
By contrast, Side B feels like the prologue to its counterpart, charged with doomed energy and ominous motifs. It’s not a proper narration but a field recording of a street preacher warning of the end of the world, which gives way to a bagpipe reprisal of “Dead Flag Blues” and eventually the most powerful section of music on the record, “The Sad Mafioso.” It’s less sad than menacing, with its slow and atmospheric minor-key guitars presenting nothing less than a primal sense of fear. Titled “East Hastings” on the CD version, the piece is named after the East Hastings area of Vancouver, a district with a large unhoused population for whom the local government has made matters worse by actively working to displace them. The hopelessness is ever-present in the music, though its pop cultural connections have changed the context somewhat, whether through the zombie apocalypse arc of 28 Days Later, or the eerie video of an abandoned amusement park in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
F# A# ∞ concludes in a locked groove, veering between two droning tones, F# and A#, which when left spinning will continue forever. There’s a similar closing drone a from a decade earlier on Sonic Youth’s EVOL, only a half-step off (F# and A), complete with Thurston Moore’s hand-scrawled infinity symbol on the lyric sheet. The connection seems too close to be coincidental, but the effect is something entirely different. Where the loop that follows “Expressway to Yr Skull” is the dust that never quite settles after an eruption of chaos, the end of “East Hastings,” or “Bleak, Uncertain, Beautiful…”, feels like a toxic breeze blowing through the embers.
Each side of F# A# ∞ is a self-contained piece, carrying its own sense of mood and slowly unfolding drama, but as two extensive musical odysseys that act as much as a score as they do a sound collage, they’re essential and complementary halves of a comprehensive whole. There aren’t “songs” here as we typically understand them, but lengthy and labyrinthine performances that contain moments both subtle and expressive, all of which are inextricable from the larger product. But the unforgettable moments are innumerable, whether the sound of a tense guitar riff escalating toward an unseen showdown or the orphaned found sound and dialogue that lends added mystery to a disquieting masterpiece. It’s less a template than a persistent, driving mood that’s proven fertile for their music to follow, whether through the triumphant epics of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, the abrasive instrumentals of Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, or the defiantly melancholy G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
The vinyl release of the album is considerably different than the 1998 CD reissue, the latter nearly twice the length of its analog counterpart in large part thanks to the addition of a third track, “Providence.” Which, as bonus tracks go, is a pretty hefty one. They’re not wholly separate, but the listening experiences are different enough, and the members of the band didn’t particularly care for the physical product of the CD, and I don’t necessarily blame them—their breathtaking endtimes symphony, for how cold and uncompromising a piece of work, still feels personal and intimate in its presentation.
The music itself still provides a chill that little else can, projecting an image of a bleak future that feels more palpable with time, whether through a pandemic, creeping fascism or an environment that’s literally burning. But it’s more poignant because it’s beautiful. Though less overtly so than the band’s later releases, on F# A# ∞ Godspeed You! Black Emperor made a protest record, one about our indifference to suffering, our inability to steer ourselves away from a path of self-destruction, of the humanity that continues to slip away. There’s no call to action here, just a dire and incredible warning of how high the stakes really are.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.