Review Summary: The original, vinyl version of Godspeed's debut effort. A unique perspective on the band's first approach to the album, and a solid listen by itself, especially in that it would have parts added, cut and rearranged for the full release.
In the early 1990's, two men with instruments and very big imaginations recorded a limited-run tape entitled "All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling"
, under the name "Godspeed You Black Emperor!". Only 33 copies were made, making it an extremely rare thing to come across these days. Over time, they gathered more and more musicians, and then finally sent off a vinyl LP to a new record label named Constellation. In their words, they were taken after the first listen. The LP consisted of two super-tracks, each one filling one side, each side starting with a minimalist theme and a voice from somewhere or another. Each track had alternating periods of movement, lifeless intensity, varied themes, and long-awaited climaxes. This was the original release of F# A# (Infinity)
, of which 500 copies were pressed - and I finally found one. The actual release date is nigh unfindable, though brainwashed.com, Godspeed's website, places it in October of 1997.
(Please note that I will be referencing the tracks and movements as named on the 1998 CD release to save myself and you some time, despite the chronological innacuracy.)
After at least a year of my Post-Rock binge, and after finding this at my local Bullmoose Music store, I knew I had to listen to it. Since Godspeed had become one of my favorite bands of recent times, I thought it would be fascinating to hear their first major release in its original form, to find out what changes were made between the vinyl release and the CD release, and to see how this band worked in 1997. Also, I had to test out some of the urban legends surrounding the LP. They are:
1. The first side starts on, or in the key of, F#.
2. The second side starts on, or in the key of, A#.
3. The LP loops at the very end, effictively continuing ad infinitum, and completeling the third requirement to justify the album's name.
4. Each LP comes with a railroad-flattened penny.
While 1 and 2 I have not verified yet, 3 and 4 are absolutely true. As I sit here, the record should have finished about twenty minutes ago, but is now repeating a final drone of strings (which would eventually be named "String Loop Manufactured" - now
it makes sense). 4 is very true - inside the packaging (one of three different covers, with the now-famous photograph glued to the middle) was a manilla envelope containing, amongst other things, a canadian penny, clearly pressed thin by a fast-moving train.
As I write this review, the LP sits on my bed next to me, spinning on a player proudly bearing the label "Fisher-Price", and through the crackles and dust, I can hear the strains of the end of the world floating to me. On that note, the review.
*Drone...* "The car's on fire, and there's no driver at the wheel..."
The LP starts (be it in F# or not) with the same opening that would herald the beginning of the end on the CD. The entire first movement is maintained, but "Slow Moving Trains" develops itself in a different, and somewhat more concise way than on the CD. "The Cowboy" stays relatively the same between the two releases - but the sameness stops there. So far, "The Dead Flag Blues" has been progressing as we expect from the CD, but after "The Cowboy" fades out, "Drugs in Tokyo", the last movement of "East Hastings" fades in. Bizzare enough, it flows, almost better than the later version. They fade out before the helicopter rotors, the strange buzzing, et. al., and instead return to "The Dead Flag Blues" as we would later know it. However, after the pleasant glockenspiel/violin/slide guitatr happy bit finishes, they end side A with a short bit of banjo work. Only GY!BE can take a banjo and turn it into such a creepy instrument - a minor-key theme is clearly present (after some initial noodling), one that rings eerily with simple, dark tones.
Again, this side starts just as we remember "East Hastings" - a street preacher and bagpipes fade in, the bagpipes playing an out-of-key rendition of the original theme, which then fades out into a wash of white-noise strings. The famous "Sad Mafioso" movement is near - only in much different from than the CD release. Instead of sitting on the string-wash and alternately fading a lone guitar in and out between odd string movement, it combines them, creating a much thicker atmosphere. The movement was subsequently that much more exciting... until, after the initial build ends, it chooses the quiet 'middle' riff to fade out on. It never climaxes. Instead, it moves straight to the middle of "Providence", with echoed, strange voices singing unrecognizable words, before giving way to the final climax of the album (bonus track aside). Ah, familiar territory again! The album builds its way to its full head of steam, drums militaristically pounding out a beat, tremolo-picked guitars rising above marching strings - the epic moment we've all been waiting for. And, for once, everything plays out as we remember it. The big push ends on a triumphant note... and the echoed voices come in again, this time repeating a snippet of "Godspell" material. The strings and tape-noises take over in a lonely, ambient ending - that never ends. The last groove is locked, and the needle is forced to repeat the final drone forever. It is eerily symbolic, and exactly what you'd expect from a band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor - making an interesting use of the medium they have to produce a sublime effect.
There is much debate as to which album is the band's magnum opus. There are supporteres of each CD out there, but if I was to assign any "required reading" in GY!BE history, F# A# (Infinity)
seems the primary candidate to start with. If you are a Godspeed fan and can find a copy of this vinyl, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. A group, known now for epic, sprawling music, in their initial stages as a band, setting the stage for what would follow, not just in next year's CD re-release, but for their career. It's also worth it to hear the differences between the two incarnations of the same album, and you get a new appreciation for "East Hastings" and "Providence", both of which were crammed into a single side. If you have no interest in this band or genre, leave it alone so that someone else who wants
to experience it can. It's an important part of Post-Rock history, as this is the recording that garnered one of its biggest names with a recording contract.