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Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s <i>Lift Your Skinny Fists… </i>remains the band’s most prophetic work

Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists… remains the band’s most prophetic work

Graphic: Libby McGuire

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The American release of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s second full-length album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, came one day after the 2000 presidential election. Listening to it 20 years later feels prophetic, the work’s title encapsulating the pervasive feeling of anxiety felt by so many in the ensuing 21st century—a hope that our bodies could somehow transform into rudimentary radio conduits to form a collective, desperate grasp at divine rescue from the inexorable, crushing drive of late capitalism’s corruption, pollution, and cravenness.

Two decades after its stateside debut, the otherworldly transmissions received and recorded for Lift Your Skinny Fists are somehow even more terrifying, beautiful, and awesome. But like many biblical visions, the feelings and messages evoked are so subjective and personal that it’s often a struggle to put them into words.

“A prophet’s true greatness is his ability to hold God and man in a single thought,” wrote the Jewish theologian and civil rights activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel. While not necessarily religious themselves, GY!BE’s work has come across like an attempt to blend divinity and human folly atop the same sonic canvas. That might seem like an impossible—or, to the understandably skeptical, an insufferable—task, were it not for the collective’s early work leading into Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. A sense of modern hopelessness in the face of humanity’s propensity to destroy itself pervaded the band’s first two releases—1997’s full-length F# A# ∞, and its 1999 EP, Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada. The latter’s cover consisted simply of the Hebrew words תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ (Tohu VaVohu) meaning “waste and void,” or, more traditionally, “formless and empty,” taken from the Book Of Jeremiah (quoting Genesis) and emblazoned in copper against a smokestack-gray background.

“I grew up in the ’70s. I got indoctrinated with this post-hippie ideal, where the world’s gonna be a better place. Then I hit adolescence, and that was clearly not the case,” founding member (and de facto leader) guitarist Efrim Menuck told self-titled during a rare interview in 2008. “I had a rough period from about the age of 17 to 23… I was homeless, broke and fucked up, and everyone I knew was homeless, broke and fucked up. That was when everything clicked in my head. I realized the world was unjust, that the game was rigged. At the same time, I was going to these Wednesday night punk rock shows that were the best thing ever. I feel like I’ve been on the same road since I was 17.”

That road and its merging of late capitalist rage with explosive, kinetic forms of music is what eventually would lead Menuck and company to Lift Your Skinny Fists, which offered glimmers of hope within all that waste and void for the first time in the band’s career. It isn’t wholly surprising; GY!BE has always trafficked in contradictions. The band’s volume of work stretching back over 25 years is both ostentatious and spartan, delicate and gargantuan, subtle and overwrought. All of these complexities exist within Lift Your Skinny Fists’ roughly hour-and-a-half runtime. Like much of GY!BE’s work before and after it, the album is not so much a collection of four tracks that all hover around twenty minutes long as it is a singular piece broken into parts akin to classical movements. Upon its initial release, the physical album’s inner sleeves included a diagram sketched by Menuck, visualizing Lift Your Skinny Fists’s approximate sonic and thematic trajectories. Like the group’s other contradictions, the “liner notes” somehow both clarify and obfuscate their intentions.

The opening track, “Storm,” offers one of GY!BE’s most straightforward initial progressions, with a gathering sense of urgency brought on by clarion horns and a marching snare drum beat, as if the listener found themselves mid-ascent toward St. Peter’s gate. Only twelve minutes later, we waver in the air uncertainly before crashing back to earth and into an Arco AM/PM, its sound system ostensibly warning us that any human interaction isn’t affiliated with the BP-owned convenience store.

We would like to advise our customers that any individual who offers to pump gas, wash windows, or solicit products is not employed by or associated with this facility. We discourage any contact with these individuals, and ask that you report any problems to uniformed personnel inside. Thank you for shopping at Arco AM/PM, and have a pleasant day.

The warning leads listeners into the second track, its initial, ominous ambient droning resembling echoes across abandoned industrial districts (fitting, given Menuck’s diagram titles this subsection, “Terrible Canyons Of Static”). The unmoored whirlwind of noise is suddenly and ironically broken three-and-a-half minutes later by the robotic chime of an atomic clock telling us its “coordinated universal time,” an absurd phrase to consider during any GY!BE album. It’s here that Lift Your Skinny Fists introduces its audience to the LP’s first of two major monologues—the distorted field recording of a preacher’s rambling sermon on ego-death, the hidden nature of divinity, and the mental unravelling of prophets upon receiving the word of God. Sixteen minutes later, the subsequent crescendo feels like looking out an airplane’s econo-class cabin window as it careens toward the ground.

“And we used to sleep on the beach here, sleep overnight. They don’t do that anymore. Things changed, you see. They don’t sleep anymore on the beach,” an unnamed older man reminisces of Coney Island on Lift Your Skinny Fist’s third track, “Sleep.” Nothing about that quote necessarily needs to be dissected, because everyone has felt that same sense of profound, inarticulable, industrialized loss, and yet no one has felt it specifically like you have. That’s what makes GY!BE’s work so deeply affecting to listeners.

GY!BE’s output can be (and has been) dissected endlessly by critics, musical theorists, and armchair philosophers, as they wrestle with the band’s experiments in multimedia and jam band tendencies. But these descriptions could easily be lobbed toward GY!BE’s entire career. Their project technically falls into the quasi-academic subgenre that is “post-rock,” but even that obtuse, malleable description is too limiting a term to many fans of their work. But their music is something meant to be tackled alone.

For some listeners, Lift Your Skinny Fists’s sweeping, abstract meditation on modern paranoia, hope, and religiosity with “Storm,” “Static,” “Sleep,” and “Antennas to Heaven” may have felt unearned or silly when it was first released. Not one year later, however, and the 21st century all too literally exploded into existence on September 11. The rest, of course, is now history—a sad collage of surveillance state technology, profit-driven warfare, environmental degradation, hooded detainees, reality-host presidents, and caged children.

Lift Your Skinny Fists remains Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s most prophetic work, a balancing act of human creation and spirituality, of forces and emotions bigger than ourselves. The music the group creates is structured upon deconstruction, building antennas to the heavens only to have them collapse in on themselves, contradictions spinning within contradictions. This often overwhelming world can’t be put into straightforward words, GY!BE argues—it can only be soundtracked. It’s an album from a band that knows we may never receive anything from our lifted fists other than the act of lifting them together—but that, in itself, is its own kind of divine act.

Andrew Paul is a contributing writer with work recently featured by NBC Think, GQ, Slate, Rolling Stone, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He writes the newsletter, (((Echo Chamber))).