Key Acts: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Silver Mt. Zion, Do Make Say Think, Sandro Perri, Clues
With their immaculately-packaged, incredibly tasteful, hand-made, recycled-cardboard covers and staunch, anti-chainstore political beliefs, Constellation is a label known for its defined ideologies and strict independence.
"We have always been determined to spend the minimum amount of time possible on the phone promoting and marketing our records, and the maximum amount of time actually making albums with love, care, attention to detail, and artisanal labour," says co-founder Don Wilkie, as if delivering a mission statement.
Born in Montréal
The roots of Constellation go back to 1994, when Wilkie met Ian Ilavsky, a member of local Montréal soundscapists Sofa. After becoming fast friends, the pair soon dreamt of opening "a small-scale, artist friendly performance space, and eventually have some kind of record label grow out of that."
After spending over a year trying to get the performance space off the ground, Ilavsky and Wilkie ended up getting the label off the ground first. Fortuitously, their third-ever release was Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s F#A#∞. Achieving almost an immediate cult following with its apocalyptic images of urban decay and societal collapse, the record became a definitive album in the then-burgeoning post-rock climate.
The instrumentalist nature of many of their early acts —Sofa, Godspeed!, Exhaust, Do Make Say Think, Fly Pan Am— and the tasteful recycled-cardboard packaging of the label gave Constellation a united aesthetic front that made it the defining post-rock label.
Even as Constellation began to branch out releasing different records, they found it hard to escape that genre's persistent stickering.
"I came out of punk-rock,” Godspeed! leader Efrim Menuck lamented, to me, in 2003, "and as the years have gone by, and punk-rock turned into something else, and then it turned into something that some idiot named ‘indie-rock’, and then it turned into something that some idiot named ‘post-rock.'"
With Godspeed!'s instrumentalism garnering increased acclaim and success —with 1999's fireball of an EP, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada and 2000's epic double-album Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven— they drew Constellation to an ever-widening audience, but inevitably overshadowed the label's other outfits.
"It took a long time for many Constellation bands (including Godspeed!'s direct descendants) to emerge from the large shadow cast by Godspeed!," Wilkie lamented, in a 2009 interview with Foxy Digitalis. "No matter what we released for many years, reviews were prefaced with an irrelevant paragraph (or five) about Godspeed! and/or 'post-rock.'"
A big shift away from the specter of post-rock came from Godspeed! members themselves. Menuck, Sophie Trudeau, and Thierry Amar formed Silver Mt. Zion, and released their debut album, He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… in 2000; an LP notable for the inclusion of singing. By 2003's "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing,, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir had almost become an exercise in communal caterwauling, leading this side-project well away from the parent group.
Godspeed! members also began collaborating with more 'singer-songwriter' types, beginning with Elizabeth Anka Vajagic's 2003 LP Stand with the Stillness of This Day, then in collaborations with non-Montréal, veteran-artist types Carla Bozulich (2006's Evangelista) and Vic Chenutt (2007's North Star Deserter).
In 2008, Constellation continued to branch out, releasing records by Nottingham, England's long-running moodists Tindersticks and flamboyant Seattle orchestral-rock outfit The Dead Science. Yet, in 2009, they returned to the Montréal scene with a vengeance, introducing the world to three local projects —post-Unicorns dark-rockers Clues, poly-ethnic brittle-pop trio Elfin Saddle, and Sam Shalabi's 30-man collective Land of Kush— theretofore unknown outside the local scene.