Lift Your Skinny Fists… is like a funeral march for a world ravaged by the military-industrial complex.
The year 2000 was a turbulent one for popular music, and rock ‘n’ roll was taking a turn towards uncool. Teeny-boppers like NSYNC and Britney Spears battled with hip-hoppers such as Eminem and Nelly for radio airwave control. Gloomy art-rockers and agit-prop rap-rock revolutionaries Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine both called it quits, while their natural heirs in Radiohead and Limp Bizkit downed their guitars in favor of synths and sequencers (albeit to fine results) and jettisoned political rage for aimless white suburban angst, respectively. The biggest rock album of the year was U2’s latest arena ready offering, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Metallica, meanwhile, joined the major record labels in a courtroom war that forced file-sharing website Napster to go legit. Rock was lame, and a world that panicked over the Millennium Bug that never came, and would soon be sent into a paranoid frenzy due to events yet to transpire lacked an adequate soundtrack (save for Kid A) at least until 9th October, the day Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s most famous and beloved album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven was released.
Lift Your Skinny Fists… was not preceded by any singles, nor did the album catapult the band into superstardom (it peaked at 66 on the UK Album Charts). It was, however, seen as a seminal work in the post-rock genre. That is not to say that the Canadian collective sounded even remotely similar to its peers. Their take on post-rock was a different beast entirely, almost comparable to the output of Michael Gira vehicle Swans during the late ‘90s in its use of ascending instrumentation, spoken word samples, use of drones and textures. While these were already trace elements of Godspeed’s early work, Lift Your Skinny Fists… (and preceding EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada) showed these ideas become refined and bound into four painstakingly worked, dystopian songs, altogether about an hour and a half in length.
As with many post-rock albums, Lift Your Skinny Fists… has a film-like feel. Its rising crescendos, hushed nadirs, liberal use of reverb and ambiance add to the album’s drama. But there is so much more to the album than post-rock noodlings. Lift Your Skinny Fists… has been heralded for its fusion of ambient sounds, noise music, musique concrete and vital punk rock ethics – much of the album maintains a quiet rage, while its overall sonic restlessness and the name given to each movement within the four tracks reflect a strong sense of social and political awareness. Classical elements are present also – pianos, strings and horns embellishing the intrinsically detailed layers of Lift Your Skinny Fists…
Despite its high praise, Lift Your Skinny Fists… is by no means an easy listen. While fans of niche sounds like drone, ambient and noise music have much to enjoy here, the first listen can be unpleasant for the uninitiated. At almost 90 minutes, the album could be accused of being long-winded or pretentious, while the overall sonic content could be considered depressing, but never self-indulgent. The listening experience could be compared to an auditory experiment where all involved are trying to use their instruments to sonically capture the apocalypse, all via the exhilarating highs, heart-wrenching codas and overwhelmingly intense lows.
The album begins on a positive note with the titular movement, as part of the first song “Storm” (Note: Lift Your Skinny Fists’s tracks and their movements are mapped out on a sleeve insert provided with the physical album. However, the accuracy to which they are mapped out is dubious as some parts end earlier or later than the map suggests). These six plus minutes – all shimmering strings and guitars, bulging brass and militant drums marching together in a constant climb – are some of the most gorgeous, well-arranged post-rock ever recorded. The storm brews for over 20 minutes but never fails to be engaging. If there’s anything Godspeed do well, it’s creating tension through interesting sounds, dynamic playing and expert layering. Their attention to cohesion and detail makes for constant hikes in volume and intensity. Just as you think you’ve reached the peak of a track, it takes a total shift in mood.
All instruments heard on Lift Your Skinny Fists play equal importance to the overall sound of the album. Different sounds take the lead from movement to movement, adding to the album’s variety. The phrasing of the lead instruments change over the course of a build in a constantly evolving way, and once an apex is reached, it fades away abruptly and gives way to something totally different. Often strings are left to float downward like confetti after an explosion. A particularly memorable moment on the album sees droning strings underpin a guitar softly playing a variation on “Amazing Grace”, which grows increasingly heavy before giving way to deafening, dark, dissonant strings. There is a suggestion of violence, or a dark presence or evil character being introduced.
There is a feeling of constant motion from Lift Your Skinny Fists. It no sooner slows into a sequence of thick, ambient interludes, soundscapes and sound collage than it builds back up again into a slow burning rocker filled with wailing guitars, cyclical strings and a quiet glockenspiel lost in the fray in “Static”. During this sequence, a key moment comes in the form of a pitch-shifted religious sermon over haunting strings. Exhilarated, the speaker tells of death and visions of God but the combination of the voice modulation and strings make the experience all the more twisted. “Sleep” meanwhile opens with a snippet of Noo Yoik chatter about how Coney Island was once the world’s playground.
To even attempt to discuss the album in its entirety is futile – there is so much to unpack and to do so would also spoil the cinematic experience therein. What we can say is that the album is equally inspiring and terrifying. Lift Your Skinny Fists… is like a funeral march for a world ravaged by the military-industrial complex. A soundtrack as fitting now as it was during post-Y2K/pre-9/11 hysteria. Through sound alone it conjures images of fire, wreckage, and urban blight and polluted skies. It is a true reflection of the flaws of humanity. But there is much to celebrate. Lift Your Skinny Fists… is an ambitious affair thanks in equal part to its ambitiousness, the high fidelity recording quality, its memorable textures, melodies and songs and the variety of samples, sounds and voices. Beautiful, yet brutal, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is an emotional roller coaster with enough variation on style and mood to keep the listener engaged.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for their part, have maintained a cult following and remain iconic within the realm of post-rock. Having disbanded a mere three years after the release of Lift Your Skinny Fists (a year after follow-up album Yanqui U.X.O.) the band would reunite in 2010 and release another three albums, their most recent being Luciferian Towers in 2017. Their comeback proper, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was unanimously praised and won the 2013 Polaris Music Prize – a ceremony they criticized due to its cost during a time of austerity. The band has continued to tour, their live show famous for its film loop projections and being a safe haven for bootlegging fans, which has often seen new material being released before the band have even committed the music to tape. Godspeed hold steadfast to their leftist political stance, holding a mirror up to the world and its weary ways while offering an alternative when and where they can. If ever these opposing concepts have been sonically represented, it’s on Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.