Soundtrack To The End of History Part One
On Post Rock Hope and The Hauntology of Godspeed You!
Hello everyone - it’s been a while.
I thought I would send this out to let you know that over on Patreon I’ve started a brand new series of reflections, reviews, and retrospectives on all of the albums of four of the most important and formative bands in post-rock: Mogwai, Godspeed You!, Explosions In The Sky and Sigur Ros. I’ve included below the first piece on Godspeed You! Black Emporer and their landmark album F#/A#/∞
If you’ve never listened to post-rock that’s fine but hopefully, this will be a fun introduction to a musically fascinating, and philosophically rich form of culture.
For more, please do check out patreon.com/thelitcritguy
How do things start? It starts with a warning. There’s something about this album-opening that has a deep artistic boldness to it -- 1997 was the peak of the end of history, Blairism in the UK along with Clinton starting his second term in the States. Pax Americana had won the day. There was a grim finality, the coagulation of the present into an endless now, so there's little wonder that for anything new to emerge it seemed to require something truly apocalyptic to run alongside it. How can there be hope for something better without a ruthless, almost overwhelming awareness of just how fucked you truly are? It’s been memed to death but the opening prose poem of The Dead Flag Blues is still a genuinely incredible piece of writing, an apocalyptic horror show, a tour of the end of all things. An eerie diagnosis of what is coming. What’s most interesting is the shifts in perspective - is this the end of the world for all, or just for you and me? It moves from the personally atomized subject, trapped in the depressive hedonia of capitalist realism (“on so many drugs/With the radio on and the curtains drawn”) to the language of natural disasters and global scale tragedy (Mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble/And pulled out their hair). The response at first seems to be nihilistic annihilationism for the individual subject in the shape of the thousand lonely suicides that litter the sewers. All of this is bound up in two key sentences from the first half of the text - ‘We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine/And the machine is bleeding to death.’ It's the machine that’s bleeding to death -- we’re all just stuck inside it. But the crucial thing -- and the theme which returns throughout the GY!BE corpus is that of we. We’re trapped. But we are, and here is the possibility for hope, trapped together.
So, where are we? What kind of world does the dead flag blues warn us about? It is a world that is distinctly eerie in precisely the sense that Mark Fisher used it in The Weird and the Eerie. The world is shot through with a terrifying agency, wherein even objects take on new and terrifying potentiality. The billboards leer down, flags all dead at the top of their poles. Something is out there. Close to you. To put it in Fisherian terms, the outside has come in - an eerie agency has remade the world, revealing the corruptive rot under the shine of neoliberal technocracy. All that’s left is to kiss those you love, as in echoes of Nietzsche, ‘these truly are the last days.’ You can’t buy your way out either. Open up your wallet and it’s full of blood, the commodity fetish cast down, stripped of its metaphysical niceties.
From there The Dead Flag Blues morphs into Slow Moving Trains/The Cowboy, resonances of Morricone in its tone presenting a kind of nostalgic counterpoint to the opening, from the eerie potential of the new emerging to the reassuring cinematics of genres past. But at the close of the first track, a moment of breakthrough, a hopeful cadence to the outro even as the playing teeters on the edge of chaos. The track closes again on a collectivity -- joyful noise made together even in a world remade by forces beyond us. From there we’re back to the apocalypse -- but one religious in nature thanks to the ambient recordings of street preachers and others the band found. In a sense, it would be easy to see this as a kind of quick spectacle - a way of mocking the easy American evangelical teleological theology that can only conceive of endings, apocalypses, and favor in religious terms, but that misses the psychoanalytic aspect of collective living. Listen to the street preachers, the eerie signals and noises picked up in the static, pay attention to the graffiti on stadium walls. Nothing is alright in our life/Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, says the man on the street.
It’s nothingness that the Sad Mafioso (perhaps my favorite movement in East Hastings) echoes with too -- a stunning slow-build of resonance and reverb. The city that in the Dead Flag Blues thrummed with eerie presence is now solely that, emptied on human subjectivity. It is the aural equivalent of Eugene Thacker’s notion of the world-without-us. Not for nothing was it used by Danny Boyle in the zombie movie 28 Days Later for the scene in which Jim, played by Cillian Murphy wanders through a city empty of people, whilst from billboard colossal smiling figures leer down on an empty urban landscape. Find the segment on Youtube, and the comments are full of ghosts - echoes from a year ago of people saying that they can’t stop thinking about this scene and this song. No wonder, in a way we’re all living it in a post-Covid world. And as the punishing final section of the movement builds and accelerates absolutely mercilessly it functions as a good reminder that we might well be living it again and again and again. The final movement forms a good companion piece. If The Sad Mafioso is the experience of the world-without-us then Drugs in Tokyo / Black Helicopter is the soundtrack to the disciplinary state as it crumbles around us. It is the sound of fortress Europe, of militarized border walls, of drones, chopper blades endlessly circulating and mosquitos that will bore into your flesh. Helicopters, the most double-loaded sign of the military function as both symbols of humanitarianism, of rescue but also of punishment and, most crucially, surveillance. If the climate apocalypse reaches its worst heights and the general drift to the right continues in much of the global capitalist system it will sound like this.
The final movement Providence opens with an interview with a local character called Blaise.
D'you think the end of the world is coming?
BLAISE BAILEY FINNEGAN III:The preacher man says it's the end of time... he says that America's rivers are going dry. the interest is up, the stock market's down. you guys have to be careful walking around here this late at night…
Is the world ending? So says the preacher man, but as the interview closes, we’re told that you don’t have to go by what he says. Perhaps what Marx says about history - that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past," might also be said to be true of our future.
In Dead Metheny the movement swings back to those Enrico Morricone resonances, but here the mournful violin strings resolve into a delicate glockenspiel and rhythmic drum patterns- a dance at the end of the world -- a collective coming together for a moment of celebration, a space in which sound and body might become something new, as after all apocalypse and revelations are not just about endings, but herald the emergence of something else entirely. Kicking horse on Brokenhill builds on this further, weaving its sonic acceleration into something coming close to a triumphal march. It's the first moment in the album when the sky breaks open just a little allowing you to see behind the smog, the ash, the fallout, the presence of light.
On String Loop Manufactured During Downpour the repeated refrain of “Where are you going?” cuts through the rockist metaphysics of presence so roundly critiqued by Derrida in Spectres of Marx. What matters on a GY!BE album is not the singer or their authenticity, what matters is the noise made together. The individual members of the collective might come and go (and indeed they did over the next twenty years) but the singular continuity of what GY!BE is not determined by anything other than the elastic and capacious question of belonging. Individual subjectivity isn’t the point -- these aren’t “rock stars” - this is an entirely different kind of musical subjectivity. The voices on this have arrived from somewhere else, and the spectral question could be a call from the past or a question for the future. It is, to me at least, both. Where are you going? Where indeed?