Editor's Note: Yes, we know the band's name should be listed in the sidebar as Godspeed You! Black Emperor. However, when we did this, it did weird things to our database and the band's name didn't show up at all. We're trying to figure that out. 'til we do, please excuse the error.
Last autumn, GYBE (we'll sort out the exclamation point issues later) settled into Steve Albini's Electrical Audio for an intensive week of recording. While I suspect that Albini and the band were well-matched in general temperament -- all parties concerned reputedly being slightly prickly, no-nonsense individuals -- the grueling recording sessions can't have been a picnic. Not that it matters; Godspeed's time with Albini has yielded a focused and vital effort at a crucial juncture in the group's career. Yanqui U.X.O. makes no attempt to dispense with GYBE's established "build slowly to a huge climax; repeat" formula, but it moves the group in a more orchestral direction. One thing's certain: you won't mistake anything here for leftovers from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. Whereas that album and its predecessors were culled from the group's initial "block" of material, refined over years of live performances, Yanqui U.X.O. is apparently truly new compositions.
The disc's seventy-five minutes break down into three discrete pieces: "09-15-00" and "motherfucker=redeemer", which bookend the disc, stretch their ideas over a pair of tracks apiece, while the central "rockets fall on Rocket Falls" makes its succinct statement in one 20-minute segment. It's clear that brevity wasn't part of Albini's production agenda, though he does seem to have sold the group on simplicity. The "found" vocal segments that often introduced Godspeed songs, and functioned as de facto vocals in the maelstrom of cathartic instrumentation, are gone, leaving the music to speak for itself.
It's hard to say what has changed in the group's sound, or to assign credit to Albini or the GYBE posse, but Yanqui U.X.O. takes a step back from the cathartic sonic excesses of previous albums. "09-15-00", for example, offers the same "delayed gratification" crescendo as prior epics, but angles for a more manageable payoff. The squalling hurricane of noise arrives on schedule, but seems more purposeful and honest. The gauzy, cinematic unreality of the past is gone -- or perhaps the listener is on the other side of the curtain. Regardless, you'll feel like you're there, in the midst of the maelstrom; the instrumental acrobatics are less extreme, but it's easier to feel them.
You'll also notice the group's increased reliance upon strings. They add texture to "09-15-00"'s knife-edged build, and counterpoint during the climax, and they're also crucial to "motherfucker=redeemer"'s initial sense of urgency. It's in "rockets fall on Rocket Falls", however, that they truly make their mark. The piece front-loads its climax, devolving from a hopeless dash to a nightmare ballet; close your eyes and imagine a last-minute rush to stop nuclear armageddon...that fails. There's a moment of calm before the catastrophe, and then the bombs begin to fall in slow motion. Then comes the death knell -- a plodding brass, wind and string dirge that's half Bernard Herrmann, half one of the scarier bits of Holst's The Planets. There's a climactic build as explosions mount, a hint of hope in the final minute, a plaintive, ghostly coda, and then the fires go out. Don't be surprised if you're shivering when it ends.
Thanks to Albini's recording acumen, you'll hear every electrified chord, every seething scrape of the bow, every lonely plink of the piano (especially during "motherfucker=redeemer") and every rich, cascading flurry of drumbeats and cymbal crashes. Nothing is muddy, nothing is buried, nothing is superfluous.
Indeed, it's looking as if the band's gratuitous shift of their name's already-unnecessary exclamation point is the only frivolous thing about Yanqui U.X.O. -- the name itself an impressive burst of brevity, given the band's demonstrated fondness for lengthy and cryptic album titles. The titular conceit, which addresses the unexploded ordnance (both literal and metaphorical) of post-millennial corporate culture, is an interesting reversal of the current spate of US anti-drug commercials that link drug traffic to terrorism; by giving your money to multinational entertainment corporations, GY!BE argues, you're actually funding high-tech weapons development. They even provide a handy diagram explaining the idea (which, due to ever-reliable "internet research", they got wrong, necessitating a second run of artwork). Of course, nothing in the music directly addresses this point, but regardless of the validity or importance of their argument, Godspeed scores a few maturity points for admitting their own culpability -- they confess that they've profited from chain-store sales, and are therefore a tiny part of the problem. (Of course, the fact is, every time you give money to, say, an American charity, some portion of that money goes to that charity's employees' salaries, which are taxed, and some portion of those taxes finds its way into the military budget...so really, everyone's culpable and everyone's screwed.)
The band should be proud of Yanqui U.X.O. -- it proves that they're not hopelessly married to the fine-print details of their formula, and that they can still wring fresh ideas from familiar territory. For that reason, the suggestion I'm about to make may seem a little premature, but bear with me. If you're one of the nine members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, please take particular note:
Seriously. Make Yanqui U.X.O. the end of your road. Quit while you're ahead. I love your music, and a lot of other people do, too, but none of us wants to see you miss your stride. You've amassed a solid four hours of music -- more than most bands ever create. What more do you need to achieve? One day this formula is going to fail you. If you can't abandon it, abandon this group identity. Break up. Split into another half-dozen incestuous pairings. Write hardcore songs, and country songs, and little emotional vignettes for piano and cello. Be content with your accomplishments and move on. It's better to go out with a bang like Yanqui U.X.O. than to keep milking the concept until the day when your unexploded ordnance turns out to be a dud.