Godspeed you black emperor!
Back in the day, kids, there used to be this shaggy musical wildebeest called the triple album. Great bloody sprawling affairs were these, six sides of the ultimate exercise in artistic hubris, implying that there was more utter wonderfulness to this particular artist's contemporary output than even a double album would fairly represent.
In practice, however, tri-platter sets are usually awe-inducing as much for their wildly unbalanced overall quality as for the best of the songs therein offered. Think Sandinista! or All Things Must Pass or Songs in the Key of Life -- technically a double album with a bonus EP, but you get the point. At best you get maybe one album's worth of great songs, some pretty good songs and a few bewildering and occasionally outright God-awful songs. But props must be given to an artist who opens up him- or herself to the inevitable criticisms of overindulgence and ego-tripping by releasing one of these behemoths. (Side note: The dual pronoun in the preceding sentence is by way of gender-inclusive journalistic habit, but upon reflection, no two-album-plus releases by women artists come to mind, with the single exception of Laurie Anderson's United States I-IV. Five U.S. dollars of this writer's own personal cash money go to the first reader who names another, and offers proof. Make us proud.)
The '90s' counterpart to the triple album, the double CD, is no less wobbly a prospect, and like its bygone vinyl forerunner is open to all the same attacks: too weird (Kramer's The Guilt Trip), too uneven (GNR's Use Your Illusion I and II, admittedly an arguable inclusion, but I submit that releasing them as two separate albums didn't fool anybody) or just too pretentious and boring (Smashing Pumpkins' Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and save the letters, let's have no embarrassing public arguments about this).
But see, the problem is that one listener's filler is another listener's Exciting and Risky New Direction in Contemporary Rök Muzik, and who's to judge? What I find expansive and challenging about Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage, you might find overblown and unlistenable, which is why debates about the quality of albums with Elephantiasis of the Track Listing are even more doomed than debates over standard-length releases. There's simply too much room for individual fetishes and personal hatreds for us to come to terms.
On whether this double CD by godspeed you black emperor! is a "good" album or not, your opinion is worth as much as mine. If you dig soundscape experimentation that's more melodic than Einstürzende Neubauten, but less melodic than Wire, you'll go for it. If you enjoy spoken word, sound collage, trinkly piano and atmospheric guitar work and you're not too concerned about each track corresponding to a "song" per se, you'll fall all over this set, for the most part. Whether you think it's too long, or too indulgent, or too uneven in its overall quality, I have no way of predicting. However, I do predict you won't hear a more eclectic album this year, I don't care what you're spinning these days. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven ain't nowhichway like anything this listener's heard since early Residents albums, which is saying a weird mouthful.
Noises that seem to come from nowhere rise up on Lift Your Skinny . . . like toothy monsters in a moonlit cornfield, somehow of the landscape but imbuing it with a sinister overtone that wasn't there a second ago. A paranoiac rant delivered in an eerily androgynous voice, concerning how looking into the face of God can drive one insane, runs over and under a bowed-string melody that slowly becomes a minimalist minor-key dirge. A full-on guitar-and-drum workout gets layered with a high-octave keyboard playing parallel lines, and there's not a muddy moment in the mix. Most of Lift Your Skinny . . . is the soundtrack to driving all night on two-lane blacktop, stoked on gas-station coffee, with only a map light and a waning gibbous moon to direct your wheels. David Lynch should only have chosen such music for Lost Highway.
The record is full of titles like abstract paintings: "The Buildings They Are Sleeping Now," "She Dreamt She Was a Bulldozer. She Dreamt She Was Alone in an Empty Field," "Cancer Towers on the Holy Road Hi-Way," and so on. There are no lyrics. Every title segues; there are only two actual tracks on each disc. This is an album, in sum, meant to be ingested in great big chunks, with zero "personality" to get in the way or color your perception of the sound. It's the closest thing to sheer noise you'll hear this season, it's an aggressive and ambitious step for a band that up to now has released only EPs, and its combination of eerie atmospherics, multiple sound layers and numerous dynamic shifts rewards -- in fact, requires -- numerous listenings.
Also, godspeed you black emperor! is from Montreal.
Now, there's been a great deal of smoke in this rag lately about the quality of Canadian entertainers, concerning which this reviewer has kept his hands scrupulously clean. So let me do my part to promote international goodwill by saying that Lift Your Skinny . . . whips the derrière off Moxy Fruvous, another Canadian band you've never heard of (and how I envy you, existing as you do in that idyllic state). There's some hellacious musical work going on up north, of which godspeed you black emperor! is inarguable, eloquent proof. And though they're not strictly responsible for Jim Carrey or Pamela Anderson, they're damn near enough to make one forgive both those atrocities, which in these ugly days is no less than a public service.
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