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Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Yanqui U.X.O.

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Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Album: Yanqui U.X.O.

Label: Constellation

Review date: Nov. 14, 2002

Yanqui come home

In a career move that's not so much bold or wise as it is typical of their unceasing inscrutability, Canadian post-rock nonet Godspeed You Black Emperor! have changed their name to Godspeed You! Black Emperor for the release of their third full length, Yanqui U.X.O. And it only starts with the exclamation point shift: though this is their most political and melodramatic record yet, almost everything about it, from name-sharing tracks to inflammatory packaging, is cryptic as a motherfucker.

For all the mystery shrouding the group, what they do is quite clear: Godspeed You! Black Emperor make astonishingly beautiful music. With instruments befitting the hybrid of a rock band and a chamber quartet, frequent horn appearances, and liberally placed field recordings, they create slow-building, emotionally exhausting, majestically powerful instrumental pieces, often exceeding twenty minutes in length. Few other recordings before and since can match the gorgeous torrent of "Moya" from the fantastic 1999 EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, or the sweet fragility of "Broken Windows, Locks of Love Pt. III" from 2000's double album Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven! But while their near-flawless history affords GY!BE great credibility, it also imposes on them the pressure to reattain, if not surpass, the best moments of their past. Yanqui U.X.O. is doubtless equal to the challenge; in addition to the group's nine constant players, it features string bass, clarinet and bass clarinet, trumpet and, most notably, engineering by mastermind Steve Albini, whose track record is almost as impressive as GY!BE's.

At seventy-five minutes on one disc, and with the conspicuous absence of field recorded speeches, Yanqui is their densest collection of material, and is often overwhelming — if you're this exhausted after the first track, what will another hour do to your nerves? But therein lies its strength: its ability to engage you, keep you interested, and make you a pawn of its dominant mood. The album, especially the beginning, is marked by a deep foreboding, a tense feeling perpetuated by the songs' fiftul rise-and-fall structure, which makes you too a bit uneasy. What's perhaps most powerful and disconcerting is the group's seemingly limitless patience; coupled with their first-names-only shroud of mystery, you begin to wonder if they know something you don't.

And, of course, they do.

So begins the majestic, sixteen-and-a-half minute first track, "09-15-00." After a pulse of chimes, guitars, and violins lay the slippery groundwork, a deceptively calm, almost Modest Mouse-like parade of picked guitar notes (think "Third Planet") ushers in timpani, cymbals, and a second layer of taped violins played backwards. The tension mounts until the drums break loose, driving a triumphant buildup (à la "Storm" from Skinny Fists) to a tempestuous climax, a tumult of sinister chords and urgent rhythms. Tiring itself out, the song suddenly reverts to quietly plucked notes, descending violin lines, and snare drum rolls. This, too, builds to an energetic and dark conclusion, but, as if spent, it collapses once again. The second track, also named "09-15-00," is the first one's fragile, sadcore counterpart; like the resigned calm after the violent storm, it unfolds gently and slowly. With only wobbling chimes and a constant hi hat marking the pace, wailing violins shimmer to the high whistle of wind in the background, languidly closing the suite.

"Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls" begins with a faintly chugging guitar, soon joined by funereal strings. The snare-driven rise comes, goes, and comes again, bringing churning distortion and more melancholy chaos (distinctly pointing to Albini), which suddenly fades into an unexpected and largely inexplicable woodwind scale. Another buildup begins, led by the primal timpani pulse and gathering speed beneath clarinet and trumpet phrases, getting harsher and harsher until it erupts again into a fierce, caustic reprise.

The subsequent beginning of "motherfucker=redeemer" is one of Yanqui's most energetic and, indeed, lovely moments; a plaintive violin breaks through atop a towering wall of distorted guitar, bass, bells, and drums, elevating passionately and almost disintegrating before falling back down into restrained territory. The rest of the track has less to offer, a sleepy aftermath lined by occasional clarity among heavy echoes. It seems like an exhausted lullaby, gathering momentum after the frenzied force that came before, the ever-present uneasiness keeping it from reaching calm. The distortion is a bit too heavy and the violin at the end a bit too flat for anything to feel quite right, yet never reaching peace isn't enough to make the second part of "motherfucker=redeemer" especially exciting. It is energetic and noisy, but lacks the melody and surrounding quiet needed for volume to translate to power. Surprisingly, it's less pleasant because it commits to rocking where most of Yanqui is content to waver; even if only due to its incongruity, it feels a bit over-noisy. Still, ‘part two’ manages to pull together at the end for a triumphant last shout, sprawling until suddenly swallowed into a vacuum of silence. Though it begins and concludes with notable intensity, the "motherfucker=redeemer" suite is, on the whole, the album's least compelling.

If nothing else is clear about them, at least GY!BE are forthcoming abut their political agenda. The back of the record shows an accusatory diagram drawn on cardboard with arrows and their trademark spidery handwriting, implicating everyone from Lockheed Martin to DirecTV in a conspiratorial maze that all leads to a large YANQUI U.X.O., which is defined inside: "u.x.o. is unexploded ordnance [sic] is landmines is cluster bombs. yanqui is post-colonial imperialism is international police state is multinational corporate oligarchy." The lack of political axe-grinding within the music itself is felt most in the absence of vocal snippets, but while it might seem an inconsistency it turns out to be a mercy, leaving the group's partisan sentiments on the page and out of the pieces. Yanqui is overwhelmed by a palpable tension, and that's quite enough.

More than its predecessors, Yanqui demands a close listen. While most of Slow Riot and at least parts of Skinny Fists shine through from a distance, much of what makes this album great is its painstaking detail. The hushed ambient backgrounds and the meticulous buildups are essential to each piece as a whole and to each isolated moment — they make the climaxes more exciting, but they're equally pleasing on their own as well. The weakest points are still never noticeably weak, and before they begin to irritate they are eclipsed by the buildup of another soaring theme. Yanqui U.X.O. is less melodic and more melodramatic than the group's previous works, but it carries just as much intrigue and impact. Godspeed You! Black Emperor continue to make music of immense power and beauty, no matter where they put the exclamation point.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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