Classic Review 8/5/15: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven’

Evaluating a post-rock landmark

Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor merges the familiar with the unknown on Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven

Fair use image from Constellation Records

Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor merges the familiar with the unknown on ‘Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven’

Conor Battles, Editor-in-Chief, Arts & Entertainments Editor

Post-rock is as hard a genre to define as it is to get into. What exactly constitutes the style is open to interpretation, but one of the simplest, most common ways of defining it is the use of instruments traditionally found in rock music – think guitar, bass, drums, and more –  to create a radically different style of music. With that in mind, Godspeed You! Black Emperor is perhaps the foremost post-rock band in the roughly two decades the subgenre has existed.

From their first release, the post-apocalypse themed F# A# ∞, the Canadian group has shaped the scene around post-rock, combining traditional melodic structure with experimental, wandering instrumentation. Violins, bagpipes, and distorted vocal samples abound in their music, imbuing in it an evocative blend of familiarity and something entirely alien. On their quintessential 2000 release, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, they reached a benchmark moment in musicianship, quality, and downright weirdness that has yet to be matched in the genre, fifteen years later.

The LP is just that – long. Four tracks, the shortest being nearly nineteen minutes, with little space to breathe between songs before the next movement sputters to life. It’s not particularly heavy music by any stretch. It is a mellow, relaxed, mostly instrumental stretch of music, blending ambient soundscapes with spasms of vibrant guitar and drum work. The lengthy string sections add an almost neoclassical element to the record, and a bizarre sort of agelessness – parts of this album could have been recorded in 2015, or 1975, or perhaps the Middle Ages.

The four movements – titled simply “Storm,” “Static,” Sleep,” and “Antennas to Heaven” – are just that: movements, in the classical sense. Motifs and themes are woven through the tracks, repeated, and modulated, while the drums morph from soft bass kicks to Sousa marches and back again. On “Static,” radio white noise drifts in and out of the mix, setting a droning rhythm for the track to evolve against. On “Sleep,” a vocal interlude of an old man reminiscing about his childhood growing up on Coney Island, then “the playground of the world,” sets the scene for the dueling guitar tracks and washed-out string melodies that make up the first phase of the piece.

No other album released since has matched Lift Yr Skinny Fists… in the way it blends elements and snippets of so many tonally dissonant styles and schools of music. The unconventional chords and total disregard for any recognizable melodies at times is almost jazz-like, while the obvious classical influence on the structure and composition of the lengthy pieces leaves a definite mark on the album as a whole.

Lift Yr Skinny Fists… is the rare album where everything about it just works; no matter how experimental it gets, no matter how loosely it begins to resemble familiar musical patterns, it never abandons its listener. And fifteen years later, it is still just as unique, just as groundbreaking, just as good. The easiest way of explaining it would be to pass along a pair of headphones and simply listen to the whole thing through.