Godspeed You! Black Emperor – The Dead Flag Blues

We’ve been on a bit of an apocalyptic post-rock kick as of late. Perhaps its the brutal cold weather, or a random rekindling of our youthful rage against the man, or maybe its the writing death march induced by a looming article deadline. Whatever the cause of this state of mind, a spin through the older works of the legendary Godspeed You! Black Emperor (don’t forget to add the exclamation point), which incidentally form an excellent writing soundtrack if one wants to induce a frenzy of paranoid productivity, unearthed a train song and inspired an update here.

“Dead Flag Blues” comes off of F#a#infinity, the debut record that launched the group into the public eye. The track starts with a chilling spoken word piece, about a corrupt society degenerating into chaos, complete with “buildings toppling in on themselves” and “mothers clutching babies” apparently written by a member of the group. Few bands channel fears of societal collapse better than Godspeed – its no surprise Danny Boyle used the second track off this record in the excellent zombie movie 28 Days Later. Swelling strings add to the drama and the narrator opens up his wallet, only to find it full of blood. And if that’s not an indictment of capitalism and greed in whatever horror has transpired here, we don’t know what is.

Then the beat falls away and there it is – the whistle of a train and the chugging of an engine as it speeds up and flies off into the distance. The train image below is from an insert in the LP (The Revered Gary Davis referenced on this train is a blues artist).


The symbolism of the railroad works on many levels here. As a historian writing about railroads as a symbol of capitalism’s advance, the link between the group’s prophetic vision of societal collapse, and the inherent chaos and instability built into the system, is all too apparent to us. The leaving train also fits the “western” atmosphere of the next part of the track. The train leaves behind ambient sounds in certainly wake, which certainly adds to the dreamlike atmosphere and as the song builds again, one can imagine a camera panning away from the train to reveal a wide-open landscape. Finally, the train works to reset the listener’s attention and leads us to wonder if we are waking up from a horrible dream. The train whistle often intrudes in literature and film as a device to jar the viewer back into consciousness, and in this case its a jarring and effective transition to the second half of the song, a link between a nightmare and the new dawn.

After a lengthy hiatus through the turbulent 00s, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are back in action, releasing new music, trashing and pointing out the hypocrisy in prestigious awards they win, and going on tour. Here they are, posing by some train tracks:
Godspeed You Black Emperor

Its certainly a good time to have them back – F#a#infinity came out in 1997 and a look back reveals that these guys were indeed prophets. Considering the cataclysms and crises of the first decade of the 21st century – environmental catastrophes ravaging major cities, fears of global terror, and a financial crisis that brought the world to the brink of economic collapse – we’ve been closer to the apocalyptic vision of “Dead Flag Blues” than anyone could have guessed. Indeed, the apocalypse is hot stuff now – a zombie show is the highest rated show on cable, and few monsters prey on end-of-the-world anxieties like zombies.

Zombies aside, its an interesting use of a train song, and certainly an unconventional train song. Not to beat up on our own blog, but the many lonesome whistles and trains leaving behind lost loves and broken hearts were getting a little repetitive here…