I don't know about you, but I'm relatively indifferent to Radiohead's Kid A, which is ostensibly the most eagerly-anticipated album of the year. Sod that noise. I've been waiting all year for Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.
Please understand from the outset that this isn't an entirely impartial review. I don't think a band like Godspeed inspires impartial reviews. You either hurl yourself into the maelstrom of their music with reckless abandon or you remain at a safe distance, unwilling to get involved. While describing their music as "profound" would be going too far, their records and live performances seem to tap a well of primal energy, connecting with listeners at some fundamental, almost trance-inducing level.
Instrumental (sorry, accidental pun) to this image is a healthily pompous attitude. I mean, shit...this is an instrumental group, right? And they're releasing a double album. With four songs on it. You've got to be a little bit arrogant to pull off something like that. And I think people are drawn to that arrogance, that mystery and that unrepentant artsiness. After years of watching punk rock and emo bands present themselves as "everyman" types, people want their Rock Stars back.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven seems big -- perhaps too big to take in all at once. At first, the mere prospect of listening to such massive slabs of music seemed unnaturally daunting. But they're not that big. Each disc clocks in at a little over forty minutes and contains a pair of compositions. As with Godspeed's early work and the A Silver Mt. Zion side project, each composition consists of several individually-named movements. This allows each piece to indulge itself in a series of massive peaks, punctuated by moments of sweeping cinematic grandeur -- and throwing in a few lurching, shocking explosions of sound to please the crowd. In addition to crescendoes of guitar-based catharsis, GYBE's music now incorporates some stirring string arrangements, as well as conversations between guitar and piano. Sound collage material, including a healthy array of "found" narration, remains integral to the Godspeed sound. "Sleep" dishes up a particularly heart-tugging vocal track, as an elderly man (the titular Murray Ostril, perhaps?) talks about the good old days, when it wasn't unusual for entire families to sleep at the beach on hot summer nights.
If you've seen the band live or have downloaded any of the numerous MP3 bootlegs, you'll discover -- perhaps to your disappointment -- that you've heard some of this material before. "Antennas to Heaven", which closes the second disc, seems to have been a staple of GYBE's live set, though given the degree of improvisation inherent in live performances, only the climax will seem truly familiar. Besides, familiarity won't make "Antennas to Heaven" any less stirring. Most striking, however, is "Storm", which opens the album. Combining string arrangements with chiming guitars and martial drums, it seems to take some of its cues from the more classically-minded Silver Mt. Zion, and suggests that GYBE! is becoming more confident in their use of traditional melody. It also makes more than a passing reference to "Amazing Grace", sustaining the emotional (and perhaps quasi-religious) catharsis established by ASMZ. "Static" also makes extensive use of strings and piano, though it's a sparser, more brooding work than the edgily pastoral "Storm". "Static" delivers a more traditional (by GYBE! standards) climax of squalling and howling guitars, which ascends to a thunderous final act that wouldn't seem out of place on a Metallica album, then wilts to nothingness.
Essentially, you get one disc on which Godspeed You Black Emperor tinkers with their sound a little bit, and one on which they deliver exactly what you've been expecting. That's a good mix. Godspeed's extant recorded output is still too modest to make this material sound overly familiar or predictable; while there's clearly a formula being followed, it's too early in the band's career for Lift Your Skinny Fists... to be pegged as "more of the same". And on the basis of disc one's advances, the group is not content to let their sound stagnate.
In other words, if you're shooting for Album of the Year, Mr. Yorke, you've got some serious competition coming on October 23rd.