Formed in: 1994, Montréal, Canada
Key Albums: F#A#∞ (1997), Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000), Yanqui U.X.O. (2002)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor (originally punctuated Godspeed You Black Emperor!) are a Canadian collective whose epic, apocalyptic orchestral music —which utilizes two drummers, two bassists, overdriven electric guitars, and cello/violin to create towering crescendos— has become the defining sound of post-rock; categorized by long pieces that undertake huge dynamic shifts from quiet to loud.
Recording for Constellation Records and running a recording/performance space named Hotel2Tango, Godspeed were at the center of a local scene in Montréal that, eventually, inspired bands like the Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade.
The band is renowned for their evocative artwork, which is often used to convey the thematic notions of their songs (“because obviously we don’t verbalize making instrumental music,” says Menuck). These themes are often explicitly political, as in "09-15-00," a suite on their Yanqui U.X.O. LP, which is supposedly a soundtrack to "Ariel Sharon surrounded by 1,000 Israeli Soldiers marching on Al-Haram Ash-Sharif and provoking another intifada."
"I don't feel comfortable sitting in a room, plunking out pretty little melodies, and putting out these abstracted-soundscapes without there being some sort of political backbone to it," guitarist David Bryant told me in 2001.
Menuck, however, says: "This word ‘political’ gets thrown around a bit easily. It’s very easy for people to get labeled political, all you have to do is open your mouth a bit."
Godspeed You! Black Emperor began as the tape-recording project of Menuck. He made the 1994 cassette All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling not as beginning, but as end; the final work for an artist fed up with playing in "go-nowhere punk bands."
Three years later, Menuck was invited to open a show in Montréal, and recruited bassist Mauro Pezzente and guitarist Mike Moya to be a new band. "The only founding idea that we had was that we didn’t want to waste our time trying to learn songs that were verse/chorus/verse," Menuck would recount. "The idea was to play one note for an hour, and that was Godspeed You Black Emperor! for about a year."
Though first conceived as Menuck's solo recordings, the reborn GYBE! picked up members at a great rate. "As more people got involved in Godspeed!, it became a bit more interesting," Efrim told The Wire.
A fluid line-up eventually firmed into a nine-piece band: Menuck, Bryant, and Roger-Tellier Craig on guitar, Pezzente and Thierry Amar on bass, violinist Sophie Trudeau, cellist Norsola Johnson, and percussionists Aidan Girt and Bruce Cawdron.
The band's first album, F#A#∞, was first issued on hand-made vinyl by Constellation in 1997, before being widely released on CD by Kranky Records in 1998. Godspeed! immediately gained a reputation for mystery, as the record was sent out without press-releases and band photos, and its members gave only a handful of interviews.
"Years ago, when we were younger, the bands we liked weren't written about in glossy magazines," explained Bryant, to the The Wire, in '98. "The only information available was contained on record sleeves and inserts. Every band seemed to have a mystique then."
Despite —or, perhaps, because of— the lack of a press 'presence,' F#A#∞ gathered an intense cult following by word-of-mouth. At the time, Godspeed! were a "live band first and foremost," and they won over audiences in tiny and unsympathetic venues via the power of nine people playing simple, emotive music at grand volume. "Swells and infinite repeats feel good when you play them loud," Bryant said The Wire.
In March 1999, GYBE! released a grandstanding 28-minute EP, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. "People ask us all the time what that means," Menuck later laughed. "I couldn't tell you. I just know it makes sense to us."
The 'crossover' moment for Godspeed!'s groundswell of support came in July 1999, when they were on the cover of the NME; the absence of band photo filed with a quote from the monologue that opens F#A#∞: "The car's on fire and there's no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows."
The band's profile in England sky-rocketed, and soon they were selling out concert halls. Much to their own dismay. "The more we go along, the more we compromise," Bryant said. "I think the glory days are over."
In 2000, Godspeed! released an album that refuted Bryant's claims. Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, an ambitious 87 minute double-album, felt for all the world like a magnum opus, and found near-unanimous critical acclaim.
It was followed by 2002's Yanqui U.X.O., an LP Menuck described as "like a hunk of meat under a fluorescent light." Forsaking field recordings and notions of prettiness, the set was recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini, and was the band's most blatantly political work. "We recorded the record in America, right after September 11th, with all the crazy flag-waving and the rest of it," Menuck explained.
In 2003, such hysteria hit home when, at a gas station in Ardmore, Oklahoma, they were detained by police, then questioned by the FBI under suspicion that the band were terrorists.
Shortly after the incident, Godspeed You! Black Emperor went on permanent hiatus. As the years went by, fans began to suspect they were broken up; a thought Menuck seemed to affirm when he said, to Drowned in Sound in 2008: "On a personal level I now find [Godspeed You! Black Emperor] to be inappropriate."
Things changed in 2010, when Godspeed! announced they'd be reforming to curate an All Tomorrow's Parties Nightmare Before Christmas festival.
"After a decade's retreat, God's Pee has decided to roll again," they wrote, in a statement. "We are, as always, stoked, stubborn and petrified."
In 2012, the reunion-tour quality of the reactivated band shift to something more permanent when they released their fifth full-length, and first new music in a full decade. It was called, with typical Godspeedian elan, 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, and was hailed as a powerful document of the band's defiant return.