Review Summary: Pretense and songwriting collide.
Pretense is quite a large part of music these days. Things that are over-the-top, dramatic, and theatrical in scope seem to be the new "in" thing (or were always, if we count dear KISS as pretentious). In various music scenes, pretentious music has started to become critically acclaimed; the era of three chord rock and grunge is over, and the indie scene is starting to embrace more expansive music again. Out of the indie tradition flows a genre that is however, very much based around pretense; this pretense is now termed "post-rock". And around the turn of the century, it had started to dominate the landscape of music.
One of the defining bands of the genre is and has always been Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Coming from the Constellation records label, they ushered in a scene that features sideprojects of members from this band, and also other bands that played in similar manner using similar techniques. However, Godspeed are one of the most acclaimed of them all; not in the least this album, which has been hailed as one of the defining moments of post-rock.
Well, it IS a defining post-rock album, and let me get that out of the way first. Everything on this album is pure and true to that nature. There are the immense crescendos, the playing with volumes, the use of samples, the refusal to indulge in technical noodling and to present melodical themes that ebb and flow, there is not even such a thing as vocals on this record; everything that makes this genre what it is is present in spades. In fact, there is too much of it; the album contains a mere four tracks, but is actually a double-LP with a runtime of (gasp) eighty-seven minutes and twenty-one seconds. Three tracks clock in over 22 minutes and one nearly hits 19. There is so much music on this album it cannot even hope to be digestable in one sitting; this definitely slides under the category "grower".
However, once you give this record some time, it does unfold prettily. Suddenly melodic themes become apparent. The ending climax of "Storm", with the lone piano tinkering, is of an inhumanly beautiful nature. "Antennas to Heaven" features some wonderful themes and as soon as you think you have gazed into its depths, the noise dies away and slowly lets you drift on a haze towards another melodic theme. Some people might compare it unfavourably to a light switch flipping on and off; other people will just call it a beautiful laser show. The truth is that the second is probably closer to the truth, because most of the actually used melodic themes are very interesting and remain hypnotic till the very end.
The only problem is some people might not endure the ambient moments or the sampling, when nothing really exists and it is like the blank scenes of a movie (the bits where things fade out and stars appear and galaxies start swirling). There are definitely moments on "Sleep" which could have been cut without losing an ounce of the impact of the record; 87 minutes could have been less and the album would still have remained as brilliant as it is to this day. With pretense usually comes this bloated approach, so it is of course, a part of the territory; but to the experienced listener this may be a turn off.
The truth is that it is not pretense that drives this record to its soaring climaxes. It is not merely the will to create a work of art that at times seems jumbled and fragmented, so as to appear incoherent; yet upon observing the shards of the glass mosaic, one sees a prettier reflection of themselves in the mirror. It is truly the mirror that reflects beauty and purity, and even anger and sadness, or perhaps even mediocrity; that is really the quality of this album. It may sound, at the risk of being redundant, pretentious, but often post-rock is a mirror of the world and a companion to people walking it; and those that walk in the companionship of this album should definitely not find themselves depressed. Because as overblown as it is, it is and remains an excellent record; and a worthy check for anyone into the genre.