It’s been more than a decade since Godspeed You! Black Emperor has released an album. But now, with Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, the masters of celestial crescendo have returned to the fold as though they never missed a beat.
This content appears in the July/August iPad edition of ALARM Magazine. Download it for free and keep reading!
– Location: Montréal, QC – Year founded: 1997 – Employees: 6 – Genres served: Many, all hyphenated – Current # of recording artists: 27 – Lifetime total of recording artists: 36 – Best-selling album: Yanqui UXO by Godspeed You! Black Emperor (by a long mile) – Website: cstrecords.com
In the late 1990s, Montréal was a dismal scene for emerging artists, providing mostly pay-to-play venues that made it difficult for underground acts to perform. Recognizing the need for sustainable, artist-friendly music infrastructure, friends and music lovers Don Wilkie and Ian Ilavsky started Musique Fragile — a monthly concert series run out of an inner-city loft — and launched Constellation, issuing handmade records by local bands.
The label’s third release was Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F#A#∞, which granted both the band and label an instant cult following. Constellation would quickly (but begrudgingly) become synonymous with the post-rock movement, and it has since been home to artists such as Vic Chesnutt, Do Make Say Think, and Thee Silver Mt. Zion. Here Ilavsky shares the label’s impetus and mission.
[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Sole__the_Skyrider_Band_Hello_Cruel_World.mp3|titles=Sole & The Skyrider Band: “Hello, Cruel World”]
Citing differences in vision for his label and a desire to release music independently, Tim Holland split in 2010 with the Anticon collective that he helped to found. Now, with his faithful Skyrider Band at his side, Holland has released his first official release as Sole since the departure, and it’s another bold chapter in a bold career.
Skyrider, which has been the force behind Sole’s sonic development over the past few years, now sets a surprisingly mainstream and orchestral backdrop for Holland’s rhymes, which have slowed and become more decipherable — but no less potent in criticism. As he explains below, Holland wanted Hello, Cruel World to sound more like a “big rap album,” and it accomplishes the feat with club beats, vocoder-inspired choruses, and a posse of collaborators (Sage Francis, Xiu Xiu, Lil B, and many more). But the musical backdrop also is more cerebral and beautiful, thanks in part to the talents of band member and film-score composer William Ryan Fritch (a.k.a. Vieo Abiungo).
Holland also is keeping busy with DIY videos and his Nuclear Winter mixtape series, which employs the Situationist détournement technique of “turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself.” In this case, it’s taking hits by Lil Wayne, Rihanna, and the like and dropping politically current themes on them. Here Holland explains this mixtape concept while discussing the state of the world and the Sun Tzu-inspired direction of his new album.
Now three albums into recording with Skyrider, how do you feel that your sound has evolved since joining forces?
It’s pretty crazy, really. When we started out, all I wanted was to be a hip-hop version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and somehow along the way, we listened to way too much Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne in the car. The rest is history, I guess! For a while, The Skyrider Band was living in LA and working a lot with Telephone Jim Jesus, and Skyrider really came into its own on the production tip.
A member of Skyrider (William Ryan Fritch) has experience scoring films. How much did he influence the orchestral accents of Hello, Cruel World?
Ryan has always been way too talented for his own good. On our past work, we weren’t experienced enough with how to make the band aesthetic work for a hip-hop album, and I feel like through all of Ryan’s work with real composers, doing film scores, working with Asthmatic Kitty, and branching out on his own, he has a really solid grasp of what to add to Skyrider’s beats to take them over the top. The big surprise on this album is his vocal contribution; he’s able to layer my off-key singing with his beautiful crooning and really make stuff sound great.
Hello, Cruel World has a much more radio-friendly sound and even features Melodyne software (similar to vocoder software) in many choruses. Was there any deliberate decision to target a broader audience to get your messages across?
Yes, there was. In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he says you can’t keep attacking using the same method; in order to succeed, you have to surprise your opponents. I had listened to gangster rap so much that its influence and aesthetic had taken over what I did, and coincidentally, that is what the hip-hop people are listening to right now. It wasn’t so much an opportunistic move as it was a natural evolution. So we thought it would be an interesting gamble to try to make an album that would be an SSRB take on Jay-Z or TI — a big rap album. What I like about those albums is that they all collaborate with their homies and put each other on. After years of mainly writing music alone, it was really fun to try to collaborate with some of my favorite artists. Usually, when people use these styles, they try to be ironic, but we take rap music very seriously.
[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Esmerine_A_Dog_River.mp3|titles=Esmerine: “A Dog River”]
Cello/percussion twosome Becky Foon and Bruce Cawdron, of Montreal’s Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, began recording minimalist chamber music under the moniker Esmerine about a decade ago. Two instrumental albums and numerous (sometimes collaborative) performances later, the duo has doubled to include percussionist Andrew Barr and harpist Sarah Page and completed its third full-length album. Both developments can be attributed to the late Lhasa de Sela, a Montreal vocalist and common thread between all four band members.
Lhasa passed away due to breast cancer at the age of 37 on January 1, 2010, and in her remembrance, Esmerine created La Lechuza, a beautiful, moving album. With several guest artists (including Colin Steton, Sarah Neufeld of Arcade Fire, and Patrick Watson) and the addition of steel drums, violin, harp, and saxophone, La Lechuza is a testimony to Esmerine’s musical progression.
ALARM caught up with Foon, Esmerine’s cellist, to discuss the band’s expansion, its new record, and its inspiration.
What was the initial motivation to create your own musical project as Esmerine?
We (Becky and Bruce) met recording the first Set Fire To Flames record, Sings Reign Rebuilder, in 2001 and became really interested in exploring the world of cello and melodic percussion. Bruce and I started to improvise together quite a bit, which then naturally evolved into writing songs. About a year later, we decided to record our first record at the Hotel 2 Tango in Montreal.
During the six-year time span between Aurora in 2005 and La Lechuza, was Esmerine on a hiatus, or were you just waiting for an appropriate time to start another album?
Bruce and I had been playing the occasional Esmerine show in Montreal since our last round of touring in 2005-06, inviting various guests to join us for some of them, but we hadn’t been thinking much about future recording. Lhasa asked us to open up for her in Montreal in 2009, which we did as a duo, and that’s where we met Sarah and Andrew, who were in her band at that point. We really hit it off, and soon after we invited Sarah and Andrew to join in an Esmerine show (where Lhasa also sang on a song), and everything evolved very naturally from there.
Morrow: Though relatively silent for the past six years, New York noise-rock trio The Psychic Paramount recently released a new full-length album, its first since Gamelan Into the Mink Supernatural in 2005. The wait was well worth it.
Effected guitar loops, devastating low-end grooves, and bashing rhythms again form the core of the band’s sound, but II is more compact than its predecessor. Both pack a mighty wallop, but Gamelan…, which was based on live jamming, was more sprawling and improvised. This one is a direct but dynamic rock explosion.
Hajduch: If you like tremolo picking, but don’t want to listen to black metal or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, then this may be the album for you. The guitar is a constant, blurry howl. Between the guitar, the cymbals, and the effects, the mid-range gets a constant workout. You don’t even notice how ferocious the drums are until the guitar drops out. But the drums are pretty ferocious!
Before passing in late 2009 (shortly after this piece was written), folk-rock troubadour Vic Chesnutt had released 20 years of albums imbued with his infectious passion and collaborative spirit. The triumphant final album At The Cut is a fitting swan song.
The connection between visual and auditory art seems natural to graphic artist David V. D’Andrea, who notes KISS album artist Ken Kelley, Metallica’s merchandise designer Pushead, and Dischord Records founder and designer Jeff Nelson as fundamental influences. “The artists I looked up to when I was young were all music based,” he says. “Early on I saw the music and visuals as one in the same.”
Since the early 1990s, D’Andrea has gradually become a staple in the West Coast music scene. Growing up, D’Andrea produced zines and fliers – generally in the DIY fashion of Xeroxing – for a variety of underground bands in the Oakland, California area. By the mid-’90s, the artist’s work began to receive well-deserved attention: D’Andrea soon had a commission for an album cover.
Wherever you are this weekend, check your calendars to catch the diversified endtime ballads of Crippled Black Phoenix, the beautiful electro-grooves of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and the pummeling mid-tempo riffs of Pelican and Tombs.