Review Summary: An album that taught me a lesson
1998 in itself was a year full of innovative releases, there wasn't one that went passed by without a second glance (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mezzanine, and Nightfall In Middle Earth), but there is a viscerally attractive feature in GY!BE. It's the equivalent of a naturally apocalyptic world attempting to revive itself, and turned into music, into a statement. It's living people forced to see their own hell, their apocalypse. Where the world is destroyed by themselves. It's a concept album: dealing with the destruction of the world, and the doomed humanity's attempt to revive itself. It's a journey. But it's real, and it's believable.
As the description in the lyrics to opener and glaring highlight, The Dead Flag Blues, the story is told of continual destruction to the world, an unexplained catastrophe, which eventually culminates in drugged inhabitants and a desolate landscape. It later describes humanity's attempt to resurrect itself from the spiral it left itself in. And if that sounds incredibly bleak and apocalyptic, the music that accompanies it is beyond haunting. While a very famous trademark of Godspeed You! Black Emperor has been using quiet, long ballads that are a combination of quiet post-rock and ambient textures, F#A#∞ is a slow-moving, ringing endorsement of an album, and confines itself in a sense of otherworldly darkness and suspense. It's emotions all build up.
That's what gives the album its powerful sense of awe: the emotional content. Rarely ever expressed lyrically besides a few lines here and there, the instruments speak for the album, atmospheric and building. Such as the disturbing violins in Dead Flag Blues, the constant use of sound effects (most noticeable in album centerpiece, East Hastings), and the odd silence that accompanies Providence.
Opening with Dead Flag Blues, right away you can tell you aren't in for a happy story. With a single guitar line accompanying the vocals (which do not sing, instead they state), the two verses that come describe a ruined wasteland of a world, overtaken by drugs, a corrupted government, and an isolationist society. As soon as the first verse ends, the song is suddenly overtaken by a wave of beautiful violin work over a few bass lines, thick and acidly deep. After a few minutes of this, the vocals return very briefly, and this time describing a survivor (note the first person). Eventually the sound effects of a late train roaring into the station come, roaring. Once the train stops, the instrumentals return. Light, intense music comes back, with an amazing use of harpsichord, Western bass lines, quiet yet rolling drum fills, and a distant, atmospheric guitar progression. Put simply, the way the album nature goes from fevered and distorted, to a more upbeat nature, does make it very clear that F#A#∞ will have some kind of survival, all is not lost.