There is nothing ordinary about Godspeed You! Black Emperor. From their name (taken from a psychotronic black-and-white documentary about Japanese biker gangs) to their reluctance to indulge in media relations ("No singer, no leader, no interviews, no press photos") and most importantly, to their uncompromising music, GY!BE seem almost monolithic in their refusal to toe the line of convention.
Their story goes back to 1994. The first incarnation of the band started sparsely in Montreal, Quebec, with band members Efrim Menuck (guitar), Mike Moya (guitar) and Mauro Pezzente (bass). That same year they issued their first release on cassette and their first in a long line of long, cryptic album titles, the limited-to-only-33 copies All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling. The trio soon expanded their ranks for their live shows; with nine members, GY!BE became a mini-orchestra with the addition of two more guitar players, a second bass player and drummer, and even a string section when they brought violin and cello players into the lineup. They also included a 16mm projectionist to display film loops on their backdrop, which is still an essential part of their live experience.
GY!BE released their first full-length album in 1997, on the small Canadian imprint Constellation. Titled F A ∞ (pronounced "F-sharp, A-sharp, Infinity"), it's all of three songs, each clocking in beyond the 15-minute mark. The band was lumped into the post-rock genre, a relatively new niche at the time. Critics used that term to describe instrumental acts like Don Caballero, Tortoise, Mogwai and a host of other bands that were shattering the limits of what could be harnessed with typical rock-band instruments. The sound of F A ∞ could best be described as Ennio Morricone conducting a symphony amongst the ruins of a decimated metropolis.
That's exactly the sound that English filmmaker Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) had in mind when he began production on the post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later. In an interview with the Guardian, Boyle said, "I always try to have a soundtrack in my mind [when creating a film]. Like when we did Trainspotting, it was Underworld. For me, the soundtrack to 28 Days Later was Godspeed. The whole film was cut to Godspeed in my head." Uncharacteristically, GY!BE allowed Boyle the use of one track, an edited version of F A ∞'s tension-filled "East Hastings," although they would only license it for use in the film and not on the soundtrack release, due to it appearing on a major label. Like Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries heralding the U.S. helicopter onslaught in Apocalypse Now, or John Travolta strutting down a Brooklyn sidewalk to the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" in Saturday Night Fever, the marriage of "East Hastings" and Cillian Murphy's death march through the desolate streets of London in 28 Days Later is one of the most iconic uses of music in film.
2002 was the year the band peaked. They had followed up F A ∞ with the two-song EP Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada in 1999, and their sophomore album in 2000, the double-album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. In addition to their biggest exposure yet through 28 Days Later, 2002 was also the year GY!BE released their third full-length album, the doom-laden, uncompromising Yanqui U.X.O. Produced by Big Black mastermind Steve Albini, Yanqui U.X.O. is a spot-on soundtrack for the post-9/11 paranoia and pre-Iraq War fever that was sweeping the nation at the time. The album's opener, "9-15-00, Part 1," begins as a whirling dervish of strings that ends with soaring, combative guitar leads and martial drumming. "Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls" sounds exactly like the title: It's an arpeggiotic funeral dirge that peaks with orgiastic guitar squealing and ends with somber, tribal-like drumming.
A long hiatus followed soon after, while various band members continued to work on their side projects. They had been rumored to play various reunion shows but nothing came to fruition until 2012. Dispatches from the band's camp announced not only a few festival gigs on the horizon, but a new album as well. 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! is the band's fourth full-length, and the 10-year gap between albums hadn't diluted GY!BE's sound a bit. Now that whistleblowers are being exiled into bureaucratic gulags or imprisoned for lengthy sentences, the NSA is tampering with your privacy and apparently War is still Peace, the return of GY!BE was inevitable. 'Allelujah!... is a reminder that the apocalypse still looms over us, and this band of Canadian outsiders is more than willing to provide the soundtrack for the shithouse going up in flames.