The skyline was beautiful on fire all twisted metal stretching upwards …
You grabbed my hand and we fell into it like a daydream or a fever
Then the guitars come in.
Slow-builds are the currency these children of northern landscapes favor. Maybe it’s to do with the skies norther and bigger, or the nights colder, or the capability of cultures even ever so slightly different than American to take a teeny bit more time with their climaxes. Whatever the reason for their capability to build and rise and fall musically, it is “F-sharp A-sharp Infinity”, this album, live and smoking, that Godspeed You! Black Emperor will be playing when our cities burn and it is this band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who will still echo through canyons when we are no longer bound by squares and steel.
Or at least that’s how it felt two days ago, when I wasn’t in urban canyons and instead was in real ones. GY!BE albums are always a soundtrack to something, but most often when I hear them or choose to put them on the stereo it is because I want to accompany the epic ups and downs of cities, car trips, rush hours, the sunset behind the façade of the apartment building across the street, the scary sense when the night is nothing but sirens that this could be the end of us. Their songs are mostly wordless and feature a lot of different melodies – guitars thin and phat, distorted and chorusy and unplugged, fast and slow. The drone of the slow rise to a cohesive melody that just builds and builds and then explodes into crystalline clarity, washing clean the mishmash ruin of all that screams around us in these daily urban lives. They make noise that is pretty and varied and always, even in its jokiest or rough moments, always epic. I don’t listen to them often anymore, and when I do I listen for the symphony of my daily life.
But two days ago I wasn’t here and I wasn’t listening to anything. I was in the mountains, teetering on hungry lungs at 10,000 feet up, and the sky around me was so thin it conducted sound faster than down here in town, it amplified space in new ways, it was quiet but every thing I did felt loud. My friends and I, on a backpacking trip in the Sierra, talking and joking and crunch crunch crunching our blistered feet across rocks of every hue, between slides of snow and shale, above and inside and perched on the lip of a lake drowned between mountains, reflecting us up at ourselves over every pass. Yeah, no city here.
I want to write all the things people always like to write about being in “nature” and how it is different than not being in nature. About how coming back it takes a day or two for all the walls we live by to seem regular again — the way everything is enclosed and squared off in towns, the noise having so much to bounce against and the way in which the sounds and grinds of the city are my accustomed spacial soundtracks.
At night everything was blue, but first it was the color of fish jumping up rivers, and then it was the color of slate tumbling down after you step on it, and then it was blue. Stars bigger than the continents from which we run to them. Violins couldn’t do better than this.
We woke up one morning and fell a little bit more down.
In the morning on the lake the world was light and new-gray before the sun rose over the pass. Everything around felt both thin and immovable, granite strewn like children’s toys across the valley displaying the whim and violence of eras. Once the sun came, announcing its arrival with a rapid rollback of shadows that swept across the basin like a wave, there was nothing to do but join in. Rise, sleepy, wash in snow’s drippings, shiver and laugh and hear your daily routine bounce down the river and away.
To return from silence, from physical intimacy involving only elements, from the pause-button simultaneity of this natural landscape: simple/majestic; cold/hot; up/down; quiet, loud, quiet. To return feels messy and imperfectly composed. To return to cracked sidewalks not cracked boulders, to brakes squeaking not bats squeaking, to the messy crude beauty of the cities we’ve built seems callous. Everything seems callous. I want to hear the rocks fall.
So I put on this record in the morning before work, trying to sound-track my way back into the life I’ve chosen, into the locked groove, in this destructive and ridiculous and ugly city I’ve helped build. This destructive and ridiculous and ugly city I also love. And I listen for the composition, the sound, the arrangements that illustrate what guitars and amplifiers think it sounds like when a skyline falls. When it’s gone, maybe we will all hear better. Maybe we’ll be blue again.
I open my wallet and it’s full of blood.