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Origins of a Species

Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the evolution of post-rock

The concept of multiple discovery is the idea that many inventions or discoveries are made almost simultaneously by several different minds working individually. For instance, the idea of natural selection was advanced not only by Charles Darwin but also by another British scientist named Alfred Russel Wallace, separately, at around the same time. Or like, how Armageddon and Deep Impact came out in the same year.

Anyways, when post-rock popped into existence in 1994, it happened in a few places at once. This wasn’t like the emergence of grunge, or the dawn of techno though; grunge was essentially an offshoot of alternative rock with many of the same characteristics, and techno really only evolved from one starting point, a team of musicians in Detroit. Post-rock was different.

Music journalist Simon Reynolds was the first to coin the phrase “post-rock” in a May 1994 review of English band Bark Psychosis’ album Hex, for Mojo Magazine. In it, Reynolds defined the genre as “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and powerchords.” In other words it was classical music made with rock instruments. So, the first blip on the post-rock map lands in the hometown of Bark Psychosis, East London. At approximately the same moment, instrumental-rock band Tortoise released their self-titled debut album in Chicago—the start of one of the world’s most influential post-rock bands, one that helped to establish Chicago as a haven for bands of the genre. Mark the next blip there, 4,000 miles away from London.

Coincidently or not, in December of 1994, almost 1,000 miles away from Tortoise’s headquarters, a trio of Montreal based musicians came together to form possibly one of the most well known post-rock bands of all time. This third blip on the map represents Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a name that is on the tip of the tongue of anyone who mentions the words “post” and “rock” in the same breath.

The original trio—Efrim Menuck, Mike Moya, and Mauro Pezzente—would release their first record, All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling, in late 1994, on cassette tape, limited to 33 copies. They knew they were onto something and before long what began as a trio would soon balloon to 15 members before deflating down to 10 for the band’s breakthrough record F# A# ∞ in 1997. Drastically different than All Lights, which clocked in at 27 tracks, F# A# ∞ was broken up into several distinct movements, creating a cinematic style of rock that both called back to classical period music but also seemed futuristic, with spine tingling guitar strings creeping through eerie, dark passages in time, like ghosts gliding through a neighborhood after a nuclear fall-out. In 2002, in keeping with the apocalyptic themes of F# A# ∞, the band released Yanqui U.X.O., with cover art portraying bombs falling from an aircraft, and song titles like “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls,” and “Motherfucker=Redeemer.” Songs on Yanqui developed equally as patiently as those on F# A# ∞ but where F# A# ∞ crept along to eventual climax, Yanqui detonated walls of sound, showering anti-melodic debris over intricately laid ethereal environments.

After an indefinite hiatus that began in 2003, the band, including original members Menuck, Moya, and Pezzente, reformed in 2010. Earlier this year they released their fifth studio album, and first since their reformation, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!. Heavier, deeper, and more chaotic than their previous records—at times, more straightforward—Allelujah is, as expected, of epic proportions, and truly substantiates the band’s reformation.

So, three bands in three different countries each developed the same general, yet groundbreaking musical ideas within months of each other. Being the pre-Internet age, musical movements were still vaguely confined to the community from which the ideas arose—like grunge in Seattle, and techno in Detroit—and although ideas were flowing around the world at an ever quickening pace, the exchange of ideas between Tortoise, Bark Psychosis, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor would have been minimal, if it existed at all. So how did these three groups of musicians develop a similar style of music, individually?

Admittedly, in the context of post-rock, Godspeed, Tortoise, and Bark Psychosis don’t sound much alike, and they weren’t the only bands making post-rock at the time, but they do represent a shift in focus for the underground, avant-garde rock scene that occurred in a relatively short window of time on a worldwide scale. As much as the genre is about soundscape over structure and mood over metaphor, the important aspect is how the bands were making the music. Violin-like, thinly picked, high-pitched guitars created haunting imagery, and a crashing rock drum-set replaced the booming timpani of an orchestra to create orchestral pieces.

Maybe the concept of post-rock was floating around in the collective unconsciousness of musicians around the world waiting to burst out through the fingers of some forward thinking guitarist, or maybe it had just become inevitable, with rock music reaching a sort of end in hardcore and grunge, the time had come to move past riff, verse, and chorus and back into form and atmosphere.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor will perform live at the Town Ballroom on Monday, October 15 at 7pm. Tickets are $25.

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