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A Dossier of Desperate Measures 

Godspeed offshoots light the fuse.

Wednesday, Feb 20 2002
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Photo by Arthur E. Giron

1. From Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, circa 400 B.C.: “87. Those diseases which medicines do not cure, the knife cures; those which the knife cannot cure, fire cures; and those which fire cannot cure, are to be reckoned wholly incurable.”

2. Available now for download from Earth liberationfront.com: Setting Fires With Electrical Timers — An Earth Liberation Front Guide, described on-site as “the politics and practicalities of arson: down-to-earth advice and comprehensive how-to’s about devices, fuel requirements, timers, security and more.”

3. From the 1999 screenplay for Fight Club by Jim Uhls, based on the ’96 novel by Portland, Oregon, resident Chuck Palahniuk: “Marla looks at Jack, then looks back out the window. He reaches for her hand. She takes his hand. They are SILHOUETTED against BRIGHT FLASHES as ANOTHER BUILDING EXPLODES and COLLAPSES. ANOTHER BUILDING EXPLODES. And ANOTHER BUILDING. And ANOTHER BUILDING.”

4. From the spoken monologue at the beginning of “The Dead Flag Blues” on the 1998 Godspeed You Black Emperor! album F#A#¥: “The buildings tumbled in on themselves/mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble, and pulled out their hair/the skyline was beautiful on fire/all twisted metal stretching upwards/everything washed in a thin orange haze/I said: ‘Kiss me, you’re beautiful — these are truly the last days.’”

5. Reported by the Associated Press, April 1, 2001: “Eugene, Oregon: A communiqué released Sunday by the Earth Liberation Front has linked a fire that destroyed at least 30 SUVs parked at a car dealership last week with a fire at the same lot last summer.”

6. 2001: Music from Godspeed’s Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada — a 1999 29-minute piece reminiscent of some of the more stirring moments of Ennio Morricone’s score for The Battle of Algiers (1965) — is used as soundtrack material for Igniting the Revolution: An Introduction to the Earth Liberation Front, a 20-minute promo video produced by the ELF. The cover of Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada features Hebrew text meaning “chaos.” On the back cover is a
diagram for a fuse-benzine-sand-soap-bottle incendiary. The inside sleeve features text from Jeremiah in Hebrew and English. It reads, in part: “I beheld, and lo, there was no man, And all the birds of the heavens were fled. I beheld, and lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness, And all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the Lord, and before His fierce anger.”

7. For some people, the Empire — the American-style corporate military/industrial state — isn’t crumbling quickly enough. The music of the Montreal-based collective Godspeed You Black Emperor! — noir politics and apocalyptic guitar twangle, tense cello-and-violin-stringed crisis marches not so distant from old records by L.A.’s Savage Republic — is by and for those people. It’s the soundtrack of a dissident cell, for those new autonomists who hold on to hardcore/DIY ideals as treasures of first, last and only resort; who know that we live within a very rich, demented jive peddler’s charade; who know that every silver lining has a black cloud.

8. Five of the 13 Montreal-based musicians who recorded Set Fire to Flames’ Sings Reign Rebuilder over five days in the summer of 2000 are GYBE members. Sleeve-type extract from Sings: “Real estate speculators/urban planners/architects pregnant with bastard monstrosities — you should all be put on trial for what’s being done to our cities . . . your bulldozers and wrecking ball can make matchsticks out of the rickety staircase and crookt/creaking floorboards — but they can’t erase the recording that was made here — and we are waiting for your wrecking ball . . .”

The record is desperately uneven; its documentary aims have been followed perhaps a bit too closely. Staggering instrumental compositions — icy slide guitars,
violin-led drones, GYBE-scale epics — are pre-empted and undermined by post-Faust “clear album” found-sound-ish recordings, full of dull rubs and harsh scrapes, braying street noise and stuttering Manitoban street people. And yes, creaky floorboards, too. As usual, the unfound sounds prove more interesting than the found ones.

9. HRSTA is a five-member group headed by Mike Moya, a GYBE guitarist. L’Éclat du Ciel Était Insoutenable is the group’s first album. The slide guitars (swooping, chilly) are nice, but the tape-loop collages (metalwork, alarms) and Galaxie 500/Low–style songs (slow, morose) are less than special. This is for GYBE completists only.

10. The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band is a Montreal six-piece featuring three members of GYBE. Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward, the group’s second album, is the closest of these three recent GYBE offshoot albums to the mother-group’s work, perhaps because its music was composed by Efrim, by most accounts one of the prime movers of Godspeed.

From the cap-locked broadsheet included with the CD: “And we were an army of dead women and men, shuffling pointlessly across and thru this glorious new century w/ all its interactive toys, Internet prattle, electrified restraining harnesses, billion-dollar deathrays and super-max penitentiaries, and its goddamned evermore refined, irrational and TERMINAL economies of blood, misery and slow fucking doom . . . And [we] made small gestures w/ our hands or eyes that were endlessly redeeming, and made us all sometimes almost believe in saints and/or angels . . . And [we] found hope in the idea of the futile gesture . . . And resistance grew from tender places, and we fought the good fight whenever it staggered down our lonesome, twisted roads . . .”

Born Into Trouble comes across like some kind of 58-minute wide-screen minimalist opera. Spare magnificence in eight sections: a Pink Floyd–ish intro, a circular four-note motif, pallid piano, and ambient bird & dog song, horns and strings, someone singing like John Lydon with stung lips, an unsettlingly earnest young girl preaching to the “brothers and sisters” of “beautiful, ridiculous plans,” a bruising, triumphal four-minute Sigur Ros/My Bloody Valentine/GYBE–style crescendo that bursts beyond the red into the black, and a Flaming Lips–kissed heartburst denouement.

11. It’s a fallen world, but you can’t let that bring you down: Wallowing in a quagmire of self-pity is sexy for only so long. GYBE’s beloved street-corner preachers — who appear on record after record, talking about the government and guns, when not passing off sophomoric Megadeth lyrics as their own — aren’t the only ones with eschatological visions, but they are the ones who’ve become stuck in a dead-end spin cycle. Their rap never changes; their torment never ceases. They burn up or flicker out, never finding the steady glow. The way out, the way through all this, is simple and eternal — it’s one that blinkered, bleak, self-doomed existentialists like the protagonists of Fight Club (and, probably, the desperate-to-believe GYBE folk) always miss. Hippocrates didn’t think of everything. There are other methods to cure disease, methods that lie beyond medicine, beyond the knife, beyond fire.

12. July 12, 1999: In their hometown of Glasgow, Mogwai join the headlining Godspeed for an encore of GYBE’s “J.L.H.”

13. Between A.D. 200 and 600: The Jewish psalm “Avinu Malkaynu” (“Our Father, Our King”) is written. It is a lengthy prayer admitting guilt and asking God’s forgiveness, recited repeatedly during Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). All but the final four pleas are chanted in silence.

Mogwai’s “My Father My King” is a 20-minute rendition of “Avinu Malkaynu”’s melody recorded as an electric-guitar-led instrumental. It’s not just the best use of a Jewish melody since the bridge on Parliament’s “Flash Light,” it’s arguably the best thing Mogwai have ever done on record. This is music that’s up to something: There is a power here that meets the demand of the psalm’s lyrics, which read, in part, “Hear our prayer, we have sinned before thee/have compassion upon us and upon our children/help us bring an end to pestilence, war and famine/cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth/inscribe us for blessing in thy book of life/let the new year be a good year for us.”

The music is tender, massive, lyrical and dense, a delicate, wordless almost-elegy that ascends into all-consuming, roiling, cleansing noise. The volume range is so extreme that when John Peel recently broadcast the song on his Radio One program, the BBC’s emergency backup tape kicked in for several minutes: The broadcasting system had sensed silence — “dead air” — during the piece’s opening section.

To the contrary: Air has rarely ever been so alive.

SET FIRE TO FLAMES Sings Reign Rebuilder (Alien8)

THE SILVER MT. ZION MEMORIAL ORCHESTRA & TRA-LA-LA BAND Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward | (Constellation)

HRSTA | L’Éclat du Ciel Était Insoutenable | (Fancy/Alien8)

MOGWAI | My Father My King (Matador)

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