Review Summary: The template for crescendo-rock, LYSFLAtH may be considered a standard-bearer, but its mythos exceeds its quality.
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with post-rock knows Godspeed You! Black Emperor. To those entrenched in the genre, they're the godfathers of the sound, the monolithic titans who occasionally rise from the ocean to remind the mere mortals how it's done. Any list of greatest post-rock albums begins with either Lift Your Skinny Fists... or F#A#. To detractors, they're the poster children of emperor's new clothes artsiness for its own sake, from the needless punctuation in the middle of their name to the over-the-top album titles and the gigantic songs, everything that people like to hate about post-rock can be readily found in a GY!BE album.
My personal journey into the world of post-rock was stopped before it began thanks to my complete inability to get into the band. Several times, without fail, I attempted to listen to either of the aforementioned albums and found myself bored to tears after five minutes, and so I wrote off the whole genre. I stumbled across Jakob a few months ago, enjoyed what they played, and began to bounce all around in the post-rock biosphere, gobbling up any and every album I could find. My Spotify collection is now littered with post-rock albums, all the while with memories of disliking GY!BE looming overhead. Now, armed with a fresh perspective and some flagship headphones, I was ready to sink into the most celebrated band post-rock has produced. So I sat down and said "today is the day I will appreciate this band, and in particular, this album."
The result, after a few spins? A rather loud ehhh.
Here's the thing about Lift Your Skinny Fists... (and this applies also to F#A# and Yanqui, as I have not heard Allelujah), it is an incredibly slow album with a harder focus on slow builds and texture than melody. It's not slow in tempo, but slow in development. The first six and a half minutes of opener "Storm" are a single marching crescendo that builds upon itself before suddenly vanishing into silence, which it then does a second time in a different fashion.
Therein lies the primary problem with Lift (as I will be referring to it from now on). These songs do have movements to them, but they are very, very large movements and the majority of the time is spent making nuanced additions to a single sound rather than expanding the melody. Volume will gradually increase, drums will go from simple patterns to more bombastic ones, strings will crescendo, there will be a big climax that repeats and shifts subtly for a while before the next movement begins with an almost audible screech of the tires as the album changes directions.
I've heard this album and its brethren referred to as "soundtrack rock". Proponents of this viewpoint say it to mean that GY!BE doesn't simply create albums, they make grand epics that convey something larger than a mere set of songs, and the liberal use of long vocal samples certainly do help leave the album feeling as though there are people inside it. However, to others, the end result is an album that sounds like it should be in the background of something else. The slow passages are simply too slow, too long, and too barren of substance to make listening to them by themselves an enjoyable experience.
All of this could be excused if Lift were an album that felt like a single work comprised of four distinct movements, however this is not the case. The four tracks are completely separate from one another right down to following the same general pattern. A good classical album would have movements that weave and dance about, some starting with a burst of energy that fades to a hush before exploding again, some marching proudly and others creeping upward. On Lift, every single track starts quietly with ambient noise or a vocal sample and subtle instrumentation, spends a minimum of five and a half minutes building (indeed, "Static" waits until the 11:20 mark before its climax hits), repeats that for a while, then fades. More than once I found myself thinking "okay, I've experienced all this part has to offer, let's move on" during a build-up or fade-out.
Without question, "Sleep" is the strongest track on the album. If Lift were an EP made up of solely this track, there's a good chance I'd be singing its praises like others. It ebbs and flows nicely, its middle portion is far and away the most heart-pumping section, and even its "second climax" hits nearly as strong as the first. It may follow the same pattern as the other three, but it does it significantly better.
Considering I'm giving this a 3.5 it might sound odd that I've spent this much time slagging on it, and maybe I am. More than anything, it's the way that this has been heralded as the untouchable god of post-rock that I find such issue with. It's certainly good. Very good, even. When Lift drops the shackles of slow-build-for-its-own-sake, it can be thrilling, haunting, uplifting, and moving. Sometimes all at once. Unfortunately, it's all dragged down by GY!BE's belief that exceptionally minute alterations in sound warrant several measures of their own. It may indeed make the payoff that much more potent, but the eventual ecstasy in drinking from an oasis pond does not mean that I am to enjoy the crawl over hot sands to get there.
I wanted to like this album. This was far from my first attempt to understand the hype. Over the past few months I've occasionally put on Lift to give it another go, but every time I found myself unable. Reading reviews, seeing the praise heaped upon it, I refused to believe that the issue could be anything but that I just wasn't able to crack into its mysteries. I was determined to enjoy Lift. I sat down and effectively said I would listen to it until I understood the accolades. So far, it hasn't happened.
Yes, the band does a lot of wonderful things with texture, and it can certainly be said that Lift helped break down the shackles of standard rock in suggesting that the only aspect of a song were the notes themselves being played rather than the atmosphere around them, and that GY!BE was on the vanguard of bands that threw away conventional song structure. Unfortunately, they did so not by making songs that were dreamlike streams-of-consciousness that were not beholden to outmoded thoughts of song template, but by simply making another one. Once you've heard any of the four tracks on Lift, you've heard them all, which rather undercuts its efficacy by saying not that rock needn't be a slave to format, but rather that there's a different format that should be used instead.
In the end, Lift is certainly a pioneer album, and also a necessary one to understand the history of post-rock. I've also heard that seeing GY!BE live is a blissful experience that helps one "get" the music, and perhaps that is the case. Its climaxes are strong, its production immaculate, the voice samples add much to its atmosphere, but that doesn't change that sitting through its 87 minute runtime is a chore. Trimming it down would certainly kneecap Lift's attempts at an "epic" sound, but it would do wonders in making it a better listen.