Godspeed You Black Emperor! and the Politics of Chaos

A discussion of the music of Montréal collective Godspeed You Black Emperor! in relation to ideas of anarchy taken from the fiction of Pynchon, the political philosophy of Bakunin, and others.

The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.
—Mikhail Bakunin1

Long live a little bit of autonomy.
—Godspeed You Black Emperor!2

Godspeed You Black Emperor! (henceforth Godspeed!) resist any analysis formulated from within the guiding parameters of contemporary popular music. Take the difficult title of the collective (“band” isn't really the right term here, for reasons which will become apparent; and this immediate difficulty with terminology itself illustrates the point). Take the equally difficult titles of their works (“album” isn’t quite right here either); representative titles in reverse chronological order are lift yr. skinny fists like antennas to heaven!, slow riot for new zero kanada, f# a# ∞, and all lights fucked on the hairy amp drooling. Take the compositions themselves (“song”, too, isn't right, and here we get more to the point), which stretch out to over twenty minutes at a time; in fact, the last 3 works comprise almost 3 hours spread across 9 tracks on only 4 CDs. Try getting your hands on the first Godspeed! recording, a self-released cassette limited to 33 (yes, 33) copies; or the original f# a# ∞ release, initially limited to 500 numbered copies – each with a hand-made jacket containing various items, including a penny flattened by a train. Unlike, say, 5ive, it seems forever uncertain exactly how many members there are in the collective; one report suggests the count includes 3 guitarists, 2 bassists and 2 drummers3, another adds cello, horns, keys and glockenspiel4, and to that you can add tape loops and a double bass at times – depending on the context I’ve read totals of 9, 13, 17, and infinity (even a cursory glance at some Godspeed! reviews will reveal that hyperbole here never seems spared).

And then, there’s the music. Out of abstract drones, distant trains criss-crossing the countryside, static, hums, and echoes, emerges a single clear guitar line or string part that gradually develops upwards and outwards; more and more instruments are folded in, the tempo increases, and the compositions peak in epic washes of sound that sustain themselves until faltering and collapsing again, and from amidst the wreckage come lone voices, announcements, found sounds, musique concrete. A street poet rants at a judge against his parking ticket, a muffled voice mumbles about a barge with a radio antenna, a voice lists an arsenal of guns, a convenience store announcement unwinds. And the military drum beats slowly return, tension building for minutes at a time and fading over the course of countless more. The human voices are here always speaking and never singing, and often appear distant, echoing, and processed. The overall effect is both heart-wrenchingly tragic and stunningly beautiful, and perhaps can best be understood, if not by listening to the music itself, by reading some of the almost unanimously awestruck reviews catalogued on the various Godspeed! websites.

The intent here isn’t to add to the torrent of praise for the group, or to yet again redescribe their music, though a feel for their sound is obviously useful to appreciate the discussion. Instead, I am interested in examining the Godspeed!philosophy overall, starting (for reasons that will become clear) with their mode of distribution. Due to the factors mentioned so far, Godspeed! works are nigh unplayable on commercial radio – they would be impossible to cue, would drag on too long, would be at times too quiet and at times too loud, would confuse the audience, and the list goes on. In addition, there are no Godspeed!film clips5. Thus are ruled out the two primary modes of advertising utilised by the major record companies. In addition however, you don’t tend to find Godspeed! records in franchise and chain stores; and in fact their label, Constellation, explicitly avoids this practice, preferring to go straight to independent stores where possible and deferring most distribution to various third-party companies6. A final difficulty for reaching an audience is provided by the effort required to describe and categorise the music. The more you read about the group, the more genres and points of comparison are proposed, none of which in the end suffice. While strings are predominant, the music isn’t straight-forwardly classical; and while it delves into soundscapes that wouldn’t be out of place in an art installation, the music isn’t purely experimental, either. And yet despite all the ways in which Godspeed! resist traditional musical frameworks, they have developed a cult following worldwide.

One of the only mechanisms that remains for a group that doesn’t slide easily into the music market is word of mouth. My own path to the group starts with a band that was played on the radio – I first heard Mazzy Star on a JJJ compilation CD, and then met another fan who because of our shared taste loaned me a Paradise Motel tape. I later bought the Paradise Motel remix album, Reworkings, which includes a remix by Mogwai. After I sought out some original Mogwai, an internet search for related bands turned up some Godspeed! MP3 files, and I got my first taste – it wasn’t until several months afterwards that I found a store that stocked Constellation. The point of describing my own path is to highlight firstly that there are an exploding number of alternate but similar paths that might be traversed; and secondly the sense of discovery and connection with wider social and cultural forces involved in the process – “discovering them feels like an initiation into the mysteries”7. This experience of discovery is completely absent from the way music is primarily consumed – mass media marketing ensures you know you aren’t the only person discovering a band being advertised en masse, and the number of exploratory steps is here ideally for the record company a single one: your trip to the closest record store, which will inevitably have the product ready for you to purchase. The only social interaction involved in this overwhelmingly typical scenario is the economic transaction between consumer and retail assistant.

The alternative network of connections described previously brings to mind W.A.S.T.E., the anarchist mail network from Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 498. Anarchist themes are prevalent throughout Pynchon's work9, and they provide clues into the Godspeed! philosophy10. The non-hierarchical, underground mail network described by Pynchon finds an echo in the message on the Constellation Godspeed!website, written in the characteristic freeverse style of the album inserts:

“'willfull [sic] obscurity', like not wanting to talk at all hardly about structure or form, wanting only to tell this little story to the other ones, the ones who have or will soon build or sustain or try to endure, the little secret communities worldwide- a picture in our heads of tons of us worldwide nodding our heads always quietly in agreement w/occasional lo-key communiques or rumours”11

And in fact it is a slow aggregation of clues that can gradually lead towards seeing anarchic themes throughout the music, in addition to the anarchism implicit in the word of mouth networks described. Most reviews of Godspeed!, however, have tended to shy away from rigorously examining the obvious political themes (and because of limitations on space here I will be merely offering some signposts). Keith Cameron in the 19 March 2000 issue of NME12 referred to the politics as “mystical anarcho-syndicalism”, a throwaway line in a throwaway review that really only gets the anarchoright (one suspects Keith just wanted to add a few syllables for gloss). But at least this is partially right, if also partially misguided. Other reviewers range in this respect from merely gesturing towards broadly leftist leanings, to glibly dismissing the political message as ambiguous (“politically imprecise”)13, to a simple shrug of the shoulders (“A commentary on the modern life? I dunno”)14. The most common response is to note a vague millenarianism (the word apocalypse or apocalyptic features in many reviews) and air of depression in the message and move on to the business at hand: talking about the music as music. John Mulvey in the 14 October 2000 NME though, offers a hint in the right direction: “their music sounds nothing like our usual ideas of anarchy.”15 And so the question becomes: if they don’t sound like our usual ideas of anarchy, what or whose ideas of anarchy do they sound like?

In order to start addressing the question, two clues more directly related to the collective are offered and explored (and there are many more). Firstly, the gold Hebrew lettering on the cover of slow riot for new zero kanada translates to the word chaos16; secondly, one of the side projects of the collective goes by the name Bakunin's Bum. Leaving chaos aside for now, the latter reference is to Mikhail Bakunin, sometimes referred to as the most radical of the anarchists. Bakunin’s political philosophy finds echoes throughout the work of Godspeed!. His scepticism concerning final solutions finds direct echoes in statements made by the group. Compare:

No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will ever save the world.

I think believing that the creation of art alone is going to lead to any sort of solution is a conceit, yes.
(Efrim, Godspeed!)18

Bakunin’s notion of communal autonomy, based on a bottom up rather than top down exercise of power, also finds echoes: in the effort to distribute through independent rather than chain or franchise record stores, and also in the Godspeed! creative process itself19. Related to both these themes in anarchist thought is the tendency of anarchism to “disown itself from any structure that portends to speak for its actions and motivations"20. Understanding the source of this scepticism regarding structures and systems goes a long way towards explaining the notorious reluctance of the band members to talk about their music – their recordings and performances thereby stand more freely, demanding active interpretation by an audience who must be forced to accept that there are no ready-made answers. The argument extends to the philosophy of the work in general, which instead of being interpreted as a failure to articulate a clear political position, should be interpreted as a refusal to play the kind of games that would make them easy to sum up and therefore categorise, and dismiss. Fiona Sturges, writing in The Independent21, accurately observes that the people who listen to Godspeed! believe that “their wordlessness embodies a greater political statement than all the proselytising of Gillespie or Bono.”

The eternal anarchist dilemma is that of creating a positive force that doesn’t reproduce the structures (and therefore failings) of the institutions that are being opposed22. The approach Godspeed! have taken and are taking in this respect is to demonstrate in action the possibility of alternatives, with alternatives here meaning ways of operating that displace and disorient power in the way Lyotard suggests when he writes in The Postmodern Condition that:

Reactional countermoves are no more than programmed effects in the opponent's strategy; they play into his hands and thus have no effect on the balance of power. That is why it is important to increase displacement in the games, and even to disorient it, in such a way as to make an unexpected "move" (a new statement).23

That is, the superficial alternative (the reactional countermove) is merely an opposition within the standard game. Within the world of contemporary music, I take an example of this to be, for instance, major record companies selling nu-metal within the framework of all other pop music, in order to cater to a largely homogenous market by altering little more than surface detail – a shift towards “heavier” music while having no overall effect on the power structure in the industry at large. The work of Godspeed!, in contrast, while staying broadly within the same game (regardless of the resistance they offer to standard ways of categorisation and analysis, the forums in which they are discussed are consonant with them being considering rock or pop, in the broadest sense of the terms) demands displacement, causes disorientation. They offer something unexpected, a new move in a tired game.

From this perspective it is natural that anarchism be marked by spontaneity, differentiation, and experimentation24; that it be marked by an expressed affinity with chaos, if chaos is understood to be what lies outside or beyond the dominant game or system. Because of the resistance to definition and categorisation, the anarchist principle has been variously interpreted as, rather than an articulated position, “a moral attitude, an emotional climate, or even a mood”25. This mood hangs in dramatic tension between utopian hope or dystopian nihilism26, a tension that can be easily read into the sweeping trajectories of the Godspeed! sound. Mendelssohn once said that people “usually complain that music is so ambiguous, that it leaves them in such doubt as to what they are supposed to think, whereas words can be understood by everyone. But to me it seems exactly the opposite.”27 The unambiguous message from Godspeed!that I read is one of desperate hope for the future in the midst of an almost overpowering disillusionment with the present. As the message they flash onstage at the end of every show reads, suggesting that saying so helps make it so: "FREEDOM CAN BE ACHIEVED". The official website28 is equally unambiguous with the opening message, which has the struck-through text godspeed you black emperor! over a simple glowing crucifix followed by one word: hope.

But can a clear message be so easily distilled? In claiming that these are the ideas of anarchy that Godspeed! set into musical motion, there is an obvious tension, since I am forced into the paradoxical situation of offering the interpretation that there is no one true interpretation. Perhaps this suggests that in the end, the proper response to the work of Godspeed! is not critical or analytical, but an act of creation, following their lead; because in the end, as Godspeed! demonstrate, the most powerful critical tool against something ugly is making something beautiful. The question now for Godspeed! is surely whether they can or will continue to create a similar standard of music given the dramatic increase in their popularity. More than five years after forming, they’ve now been on the front cover of NME (24 July 1999), had their most recent work feature as New York Times album of the week (Ann Powers, 3 November, 2000), been named by Spin the 16th most important musical act of 200129 and been named “too cool” by the 2001 annual cool issue of Rolling Stone30.

What next? All the Constellation tour website reveals: “godspeed is resting…”31.

  1. The statement concludes Bakunin's 1842 essay "The Reaction in Germany", reprinted in Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, Grove Press, New York, 1974. 

  2. From a monologue read to open a live show at Royal Festival Hall, London, 3 April 2000. Online: http://brainwashed.com/godspeed/deadmetheney/monologues/liveintro2.htm (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  3. David Keenan, “Life Stinks”, in The Wire, May 2000, Online: http://www.brainwashed.com/godspeed/wire2.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  4. Roman Sokal, Exclaim!, 7 November 2000, Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/cst012reviews.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  5. None are mentioned on the various websites, and when I was lucky enough to get my hands on a recent copy of the list of videos available to Rage guest programmers, Godspeed! were absent. For Rage see Online: http://www.abc.net.au/rage/rage.htm (Accessed 8 June 2002). 

  6. Constellation manifesto, Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/manifesto.html (Accessed 1 August, 2002). 

  7. Keenan, Op Cit. 

  8. W.A.S.T.E stands here for “We Await Silent Tristero's Empire” and also happens to be the name of the merchandising arm of the not-so-silent Radiohead empire; while Radiohead did initially use the moniker for a basic mailing list, it has since grown into a full-blown commercial operation. See Online: http://www.followmearound.com/wasted/#1 (Accessed 8 June 2002). 

  9. On this, see Graham Benton, “This Network Of All Plots May Yet Carry Him To Freedom: Thomas Pynchon and the Political Philosophy of Anarchism”, in Oklahoma City University Law Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 1999, Online: http://www.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/okla/benton24.htm (Accessed 8 June 2002). 

  10. I’m not the first to cite Pynchon in relation to Godspeed!: “this is what the first sentence in Gravity's Rainbow surely sounded like!” John Fail, fakejazz, 6 October 2000, Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/cst012reviews.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  11. Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/godspeed.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  12. Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/cst009reviews.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  13. Brent S. Sirota, Pitchforkmedia, 28 October 2000, Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/cst012reviews.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  14. Fail, Op Cit. 

  15. Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/cst012reviews.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  16. Or alternately, “void and waste”. See Sirota, Op Cit

  17. Paul Berman (Ed.), Quotations From the Anarchists, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1972, p. 34. 

  18. Keenan, Op Cit. 

  19. On which see Matt Galloway, Now Magazine, 13 August 1998, Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/fsharp.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  20. Benton, Op Cit., p. 543. 

  21. 6 October 2000. Online: http://www.cstrecords.com/html/cst012reviews.html (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  22. Benton, Op Cit., p. 545.** 

  23. Jean-François Lyotard, 1979, The Postmodern Condition, Manchester University Press, 1984, Online: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/lyotard.htm (Accessed 10 June 2002). 

  24. Emma Goldman, Anarchism And Other Essays, Dover Publications, London, 1969, p. 10. 

  25. Gerald F. Gaus and John W. Chapman, “Anarchism and Political Philosophy”, in J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (Eds.), Anarchism, 1978, p. xvii. 

  26. Benton, Op Cit.. p. 555. 

  27. Cited in Wes Phillips, “Godspeed You Black Emperor: Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!”, onhifi.com Music Archives, 15 December 2000. Online: http://www.onhifi.com/music/20001215.htm (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  28. Online: http://brainwashed.com/godspeed/ (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  29. Ahead of, for instance, Beck and Madonna. See Daniel McCabe, “Mauro Pezzente: Almost famous”, in McGill Reporter, Volume 33, Number 14, 5 April 2001. Online: http://www.mcgill.ca/reporter/33/14/kaleidoscope/ (Accessed 1 August 2002). 

  30. Ibid. 

  31. http://www.cstrecords.com/html/godtourdates.html (Accessed 1 August 2002).