hen first adopted, a philosophy of defiance and protest is enthralling. The hope and excitement of seeing through the fallacies and mistakes of your chosen enemies is addictive, inspiring and empowering. Anything is possible when you and your close circle of compatriots know the truth. But when your cries for change go unanswered and your efforts to improve are largely ignored, the thrill of rebellion recedes and your convictions begin to take a backseat to frustration. When frustration is allowed to fester, it digs a canyon between you and your principles -- deep, treacherous, bridgeless -- and creates conditions suitable for breeding cynicism.
With Yanqui U.X.O., Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor sound frustrated. And cranky and distant. It’s simple to see where their anger is coming from -- Godspeed is an anti-poverty, pacifist collective making music in a time when war is being waged on the destitute and when a discernable percentage of active bands can be rightfully accused of borrowing their trademarks -- but it’s hard to digest the sound of it. Gone are the field recordings that brought foggy, ethereal grit to the band’s epic orchestrations. Gone is the warm embrace of their previous recordings, as the sound is cold and the mix democratic to the point where no instruments are discernable as leads or back-ups. Gone are the volume shifts that marked the climax of the most crushing Godspeed compositions. There are no heights and no depths on Yanqui -- no angels ascending, no skeletons being reduced to dust -- meaning that the unexploded ordinance referred to by U.X.O. is actually more musical than it is theoretical.
What remains is a sometimes cold, sometimes confusing collection of epics that are more intricate than anything GYBE have ever created. The songs are massive, meandering and dense; the volume swells are tasteful and dramatic; the climaxes (which seem few, far between, and less than obvious) are cacophonous and swirling hazes that buzz and hover where before they would drive and destroy. Yanqui U.X.O. is a restrained and distilled Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
But the colors seem faded. The blood is gone, the mud is dried, the grass is dead. Distance is implied at every turn by the mix, by the arrangements, by the bizarre proliferation of guitar effects. Whereas Godspeed of yore induced exhausted sighs of “fuck”, the material here prompts a preface: “what the”. For every moment of rustic dreaminess there are another three that try your patience and test your loyalty to one of the planet’s finer bands. Much of “09-15-00” precariously straddles suspense and mourning, but there is never a payoff to justify either feeling, just unending tension and the odd rhythmic shift. The song’s second movement sounds like October ice, delicate, cold and unsupportive. Its succession of fading single notes is repetitive and ultimately rather empty.
“Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls” seems a more concentrated attempt at confusion. Within minutes, the track moves from prickly, mature belligerence to pounding black march to swirling fog of stabbing strings and wilting guitars, but not one of the movements is truly riveting. The song becomes mired in a sparse, low-end dirge that continues for what seems like an eternity. Odd and somewhat exasperating, when the trudge finally breaks it becomes replaced by such a melange of spaced out guitar and unassertive hints of optimism that it confuses more than it completes.
The final 30 minutes belong to “Motherfucker = Redeemer”, and if these two tracks are in fact the band’s final creation, they will be remembered fondly as some of the best music Gospeed You! Black Emperor ever spliced together. The first 21 minutes range from the album’s first energetic moments -- lively and bright, driven by an incessant kickdrum -- to cacophony to delicate, sad fog that finally implies some sort of hope or comfort. The second segment is like nothing the band has ever done. Spatters of snare and phaser-riddled guitars swing between distant strings and buried drums to create forceful, chilly post-rock. The most poignant, cohesive track on the album, the second movement of “Motherfucker = Redeemer” ends the album with certainty where the rest of the album raises nothing but questions.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor has aged, acquiring greater wisdom, grace and patience, but they are also beginning to display exhaustion, irritability and frustration; with the world, with their sound, with themselves. The “hammer of hope” looms large in the artwork of Yanqui U.X.O., but rarely does the album indicate a band willing to pick it up.
Reviewed by: Clay Jarvis
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01