picture via CST Records
You never forget your first. It was the summer after my sophomore year, the first time I was living on my own, subletting a crappy efficiency from a friend of mine for the few months between semesters at a smallish humanities school nestled in the blue ridged mountains of North Carolina. I had been kicking around the idea of getting a record player for a while, but didn’t see the point in eventually replacing my CDs the same way I had needed to replace my VHS tapes once I got a DVD player. I finally broke down and knuckled up the hundo for a suitcase-style Crosley turntable, but what to put on that platter? Eventually, word would get out to my aunts and uncles, and they would empty their closets of musty records they had acquired in the 70s and 80s, but until then, I was in desperate need of some records. One of the main reasons I was getting into vinyl was as a means of chasing the closest thing to the desired experience that the artists were looking to convey to their audience, and you simply cannot deny the draw of 12 inches by 12 inches of cover (even more with a gatefold!) and the narrative possibilities encouraged by having 2 or more distinct physical sides in need of actual proactive interaction to mark their beginnings and endings. It was around then that I had read an entry in Mark Richardson’s now sadly-sporadic Resonant Frequencies column over at Pitchfork wherein the author gets all worked up over some really well packaged albums, including Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s album “F♯ A♯ ∞” ("F-sharp, A-sharp, Infinity") which, he says, “everyone should own on LP”, and he’s not wrong as I was soon to discover. I wandered down to the local music shop slash video rental place, and thankfully they happened to have the record I was looking for in the bins, which I took home and immediately pawed through the various contents contained therein like a christmas stocking.
Now, there are a lot of records that are worth owning simply because they have awesome packaging. Heck, the majority of #RecordStoreDay releases seem to rely on this as their main draw. A copy of Gza’s “Liquid Swords” that comes packaged with a full sized chess set? Hell. Yes. The Big Lebowski Soundtrack on White Russian colored wax? I’ll take a second copy for my dad, thank you very much. The Best of Gallagher on a watermelon pic disc? You know what? You legitimately have my interest, and I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that. While those are all good and well (even the Gallagher one), it’s rare for a records packaging to kick the content of the album into a whole ‘nother dimension in the way that “F♯ A♯ ∞” does.
Scooping up one of the greatest band names in the history of music from a mid-70s black and white Japanese biker gang documentary, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are less a band than a loose collective of musicians, with the outer limits of the group rotating in and out of orbit around the main nucleus of founders Efrim Menuck , Mike Moya, and Mauro Pezzente. In the three years from their forming to the release of their first album “F♯ A♯ ∞” (the cassette only “All Lights Fucked On The Hairy Amp Drooling”, of which only 33 copies are said to exist, is technically the first, but let’s leave that there for now), they were rollin ten-deep and the total number of personnel on the album is double that when you factor in all the folks that are listed as “guest musicians”.
The album opens with a spoken word section where, over the steadily creeping crescendo of ominous violins, a grizzled sounding old man intones “...The car is on fire, and there's no driver at the wheel / And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides / And a dark wind blows...”. It’s the kind of thing that makes the hairs on your arm stand on end, and it goes on from there. There’s a lot of mood that’s developed in the early bits, with layers of bowed guitars twisting in a dense fog and easily emulating the sound of a locomotive passing in the distance. The entire album is like this, but with occasional bursts of well-timed percussion that rolls out of nowhere in a full gallop and scoops you up with it on its way to some post apocalyptic wasteland or other. It’s a one-way ticket to Bartertown, or Panem, or wherever the hell it was that The Road was set. The a-side is one long song titled "Nervous, Sad, Poor..." and the b-side is titled "Bleak, Uncertain, Beautiful...". Both sides end in lock grooves, refusing to allow the spiralling groove to pull the needle of your turntable far enough to make it stop playing, but putting it into a perfect circle and repeating the last phrase over and over and over again. Needless to say: It’s not a record that you’re gonna want to start a party off with. If anything, it’s the perfect music to soundtrack the drive home from a World Trade Organization protest. It’s the kind of thing that makes the hairs on your arm stand on end (a sensation that helped land the album at number 45 on Pitchfork’s “Best Of The 90s” list), and it goes on from there.
The packaging of the whole thing, though, is what sets this already incredible album apart, and turns it into something of a riddle to which there is no answer. The sleeve is a dark shade of burgundy with the band name and album title embossed into it, and any one of three small black and white screenprints (a water tower, a blurry road sign, and the detail of a train’s engine axles) pasted on dead center. When you hold it in your hand, flipping it over to look at the black expanse on the back, you can feel small but substantial things sliding around in the sleeve, treasures yet to be discovered. The first thing to slide out is going to be a small envelope containing a penny that was smashed by one of the real trains that run behind the loft where some of the members of the band were living at the time. The next thing to slide out might be the image of a locomotive engine with the words “For The Reverend Gary Davis” written on its side. Who was The Reverend Gary Davis? A blind bluesman whose first record, “Blind Gary Davis – The Singing Reverend” was released in 1954 on, of all things, red vinyl. Next up you might find the folded up blueprint of what appears to be the documentation of a mathematics professor’s acid flashback titled "Faulty Schematics of Ruined Machine" which put regret (F#), desire (A#), hope (∞), fear (∞), on ends of an x/y axis and it all spins out from there in a strange incoherent “system” that you could build a whole season of True Detective around. Have people gotten tattoos of this mystical image? You better believe they have. Also contained in the sleeve are one or two flier reproductions and the credits of the album, all written in that same frantic yet deliberate scrawl of someone who has something very important that they really want, maybe even NEED, to communicate to you.
Godspeed went on to release two more albums, “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven” and the Steve Albini produced “Yanqui U.X.O.”, before “breaking up” for a time to pursue their various other bands (most notably A SIlver Mount Zion, Set Fire To Flames, and Fly Pan Am), and while those other albums are arguably better musically and are aesthetically precise in their look and feel, their masterwork will forever be “F♯ A♯ ∞” which also stands as one of the great examples of how an album, on vinyl, can be a great work of art musically as well as tangibly, with each element magnifying the others so the whole experience is greater than simply the sum of the individual parts.
Your move, Jack White.