For many, Montréal's Constellation Records will always be the label that post-rock built. Effectively having their wagon hitched to Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s rising star in the late-'90s, the label earned its reputation by issuing orchestral, instrumental, fiercely political records in eternally tasteful packaging. Championing the Montréal scene years before the Arcade Fire would roll around, Constellation created a sense of community that still lingers to this day, even as the kind of bands they've been releasing has broadened both stylistically and geographically. Here's ten killer platters from CST thus far.
The breakout album for orchestral rock-terror instrumentalists Godspeed You Black Emperor! put Constellation on the map, crystalized the post-rock movement, and laid the foundations for a whole new generation of Montréal bands. Aching with fin de siècle melancholy and riddled with pre-millennial tension, Godspeed!'s apocalyptic, cinematic music spoke through its massive, shifting movements. Building up from eerie ambience to feverish, agitato crescendos, the many-membered ensemble specialized in intensity; overdriven guitars and screeching violins adding up to a ferocious cacophony that sought to soundtrack a troubled world. F#A#∞ was so mighty a debut that everything Constellation did in its early years was related back to this record.
Perhaps the world's first viola/drums rock'n'roll duo, Hangedup were the respective work of Genevieve Heistek and Eric Craven, normally members of psych-rock stragglers Sackville. Instantly sounding more vital than their main band, this side-project cranked out a locomotive sound from string squalls and junkyard percussion, forever rattling forward through the howling wind with a rhythmic chug. Their debut, self-titled set's most notable number is “New Blue Order” (alternately titled “New Blue Monday”), in which they take the familiar melodies and modalities of New Order's monstrous dancefloor hit and turn it into a stark, rattling, post-classical study in attack and decay. In such, Hangedup walk a wonky line between playful and painful.
Toronto instrumentalists Do Make Say think —whose members were pretty much all later absorbed into Broken Social Scene— started out life as a run-of-the-mill post-rock combo, with quiet/loud contrasts, long song titles, etc. But with their third album, & Yet & Yet, you could start to hear the music bleeding over its stylistic edges, pushing past prior boundaries whilst effectively readying the band for the grand departure of You, You're a History in Rust five years later. The songs herein don't play out as laggard jams, but precise, complex compositions. With both energy and discipline, DMST wrung out six minute studies of repeated phrases in which the production fades and phases different movements and textures in and out of focus.
Silver Mt. Zion —who record under an ever-changing handle that, at its longest, has read Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir— is the side-project of Godspeed! leader Efrim Menuck, born out of a desire to sing. By their fourth LP, Efrim and his SMZ crew were belting it out. Horses in the Sky features plenty of plaintive caterwauling, communal choruses lamenting the fate of the human carbine in throaty, hearty, sobbing wails. Menuck's crowning symphony-of-decay —perhaps his best ever album— touches on familiar themes —love, love of animals, dead pets, the military-industrial complex, gentrification, community, mercy, hope— as it touches some sort of God in the space b'tween its (many) members.
Elizabeth Anka Vajagic's Godspeed!-aided debut LP, Stand with the Stillness of this Day, introduced a Patti Smith-influenced songsmith staggering through the disused amusement parks, rundown industrial zones, and abandoned trainyards that litter Godspeed!'s bleak Montréal topography. Her follow-up work, '05's Nostalgia/Pain, was even better; three long songs reveling in the darkness of her shadowy new-millennial blues, forging further into the abyss as the fast-strumming, delay-draped guitars built towards fever pitch. Across these epic compositions, Vajagic's deep, doleful, hoarse-throat'd vocals are drawn from deep in her guts, erupting as guttural wails and throaty caterwauls that reverberate throughout her barren musical environs.
The least 'Constellation-like' thing to come out on Constellation, the debut for this Do Make Say Think-related outfit ditches tasteful instrumentalism and skittering post-rock percussion in favor of a ragged, raw, rock'n'soul revue that blares at constantly in-the-red levels. There's even album credits for “screaming.” Nominally a duo, Lullabye Arkestra are, as their name suggests, a rag-tag orchestra, roping in folk from Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene as they dress their bluesy bluster in brass, organs, and communal vocals. Yet, boiled down, they chart the to/fro between Katia Taylor (fuzzed out bass) and Justin Small (metal-esque percussion), whose wails and screams have all the tension and theatrics of a mating ritual.
A collaboration between Polmo Polpo boss Sandro Perri and his live drummer Craig Dunsmuir, Glissandro 70 have nothing glissando about them; the band favor semi-ridiculous jams built around mischievous percussion, insectile scratchings, flanged guitar licks, and vocal mantras. A strictly studio-based concern, there's a definite interest in West African guitar music and its peculiar, complex polyrhythms; “End West” is, essentially, a 13-minute exploration of such, with interstellar drones and random daubs of flute sprinkled over the central, concentric groove. Though the album barely registered outside of the Constellation cognoscenti, it was both: A) really good; and: B) a definite stepping stone for Perri towards his wondrous solo work.
Perhaps no artist symbolized Constellation's move from instrumental soundscapes to fully-voiced pop more than Sandro Perri. The Toronto native had been making ambient process music as Polmo Polpo for years until, in 2006, emboldened by his work in Glissandro 70, he made a solo EP called Sandro Perri Sings Polmo Polpo, in which he reinterpreted once-instrumental works as sweetly-sung pop-songs. He followed that up with the regal Tiny Mirrors, an album evoking classic/tragic jazz-folk singer-songwriters Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley. Showcasing Perri's honeyed voice, lyrical charms, wooded instrumentation, and glowing arrangements, it's an album steeped in the melancholy haze of reminiscences; flickering grainy and ghostly like old home movies.
After a quarter-century of ragged, red-raw music, Carla Bozulich's ever-shifting musical career can be charted not as ebbs and flows, but grand, tidal, heaving shifts. Though Bozulich's more 'together' records —like the Geraldine Fibbers' 1995 rock-opera Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, or her conceptual Willie Nelson reimagining, Red Headed Stranger, in 2003— have been her most acclaimed, to me Carla B. seems most vital when she's at her most unhinged. A decade after Scarnella's free-form funereal séance delved deep into the shadows, Bozulich's first Evangelista set fearlessly ventures back to that spectral, lunatic fringe. Made in league with Godspeed! humans, Hello, Voyager is an album utterly unafraid of its own darkness.
The debut disc from Alden Penner's post-Unicorns project looks like it could be a landmark record for the new, post-Godspeed! Constellation era. The collaborative union of Penner and former Arcade Fire hand Brendan Reed, Clues is a dense, dark, distorted disc of shadowy, tangled-up, labyrinthine songs, recorded with a mugginess that evokes the '90s. More reminiscent of Blonde Redhead or late-period Fugazi than tasteful post-rock, Clues seem out-of-place in this blog-music era; forsaking the instantly-accessible for the distant and confusing. Instead of catering to immediate gratification, it rewards persistence and patience, revealing its varied charms only to those who return for repeat listens. Which might be its most '90s quality of all.