F♯ A♯ ∞ is the debut album of the Canadian post-rock band godspeed you black emperor! (later punctuated Godspeed You! Black Emperor). It was released twice, first in 1997 by Constellation Records and then again in 1998 by Kranky Records. Stylistically, the album is devoid of lyrics and mostly instrumental, featuring lengthy songs segmented into movements and wide dynamics.
The album was recorded at the Hotel2Tango in the Mile End of Montreal. The recording studio is personally owned and operated by select members of the band and their acquaintances, which ensured the band an immense role in the production of the record. When first released, it was done so in very limited quantities, and was mainly distributed through live performances and word of mouth.
Initially, interest in the album was limited due to the small number produced and the band's lack of recognition. After the album's republication and several magazine interviews, the band became considerably more well-known and accessible. Reception of the record was generally positive, and would go on to typify the band's distinct orchestral sound.
The music of F♯ A♯∞ is known for its wide volume changes, dark thematics, and lengthy songs separated into movements. All of the tracks feature a number of field recordings and sampled sounds, once referred to by David Keenan of The Wire as "eschatological tape loops." Therefore, the overall theme of the album is often pinned as apocalyptic. Indeed, English director Danny Boyle was heavily inspired by the album during the making of 28 Days Later. During an interview with guardian.co.uk, he explained, "I always try to have a soundtrack in my mind [when creating a film]. Like when we did Trainspotting, it was Underworld. For me, the soundtrack to 28 Days Later was Godspeed. The whole film was cut to Godspeed in my head."
The opening track, "The Dead Flag Blues", begins with an ominous introduction which originates from an unfinished screenplay by guitarist Efrim Menuck. Backed by a string melody, the speaker describes a derelict city, where the government is corrupt and the inhabitants are drugged. The introduction is followed by a quiet interlude which develops into a Western-themed melody, and is capped off by an upbeat glockenspiel and violin duet.
The second track, "East Hastings", is named after a street in Vancouver's blighted Downtown Eastside. It begins with bagpipes reprising the theme of "The Dead Flag Blues" and backing the shouts of a street preacher. The sermon slowly quiets, and is replaced with the movement "The Sad Mafioso...", an edited version of which appeared in the film 28 Days Later. Interestingly, the movement contains a portion where the band quietly sings with the melody—a rare occurrence of intentional vocals. A The track concludes with a series of electronic noises and buzzing until throbbing bass takes over.
The final track, "Providence", is considerably longer than the first two, coming in around thirty minutes in length. James Oldham of NME described it as "part The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and part spiritualized drone freakout." After the introduction, a cello piece is accompanied by a guitar and violin. Percussion is added to the melody which peaks then quiets, and is followed by a distorted singing woman and a military-themed tune. The sung phrase "Where are you going? Where are you going?" which follows is sampled from the song "By My Side," from the 1970 musical Godspell. After four minutes of silence, an outro named after late blues musician John Lee Hooker is performed.
The title of the album is pronounced F-sharp, A-sharp, Infinity. This is a reference to the keys in which each side of the record begins and to the endless loop at the end. The compact disc version does not contain the loop.
The original five-hundred records are well-known for their unique packaging and contents. The record jackets were handmade by the band, their record label, and local Montreal artists. One of three original photographs—depicting a watertower, train, or road sign—was glued onto the cover. The sleeve and jacket made no mention of the track titles. They were instead scratched into the run-off groove of the record, accompanied by the catalog number and side indication.
Inside of the jacket was an envelope filled with inserts. The contents included an old handbill, the album's credit sheet, a picture drawn by guitarist Efrim Menuck, and a penny crushed by a train. A silk-screened image dedicated to the blues musician Reverend Gary Davis was also included in the jacket. Barb Stewart of Stylus Magazine and Mike Galloway of NOW called the packaging and inserts "beautiful." After numerous repressings, the assembly process was streamlined. However, the record still ships, to this day, with virtually the same packaging elements as the originals.
The compact disc version of the album is much simpler artistically. Guitarist David Bryant once referred to the packaging as a "jewel-cased CD monstrosity," preferring the original handcrafted record. The photograph of a road sign was chosen as the cover image, and was enlarged and darkened significantly from the original. Inside of the case are liner notes and images, including the "Faulty Schematics of a Ruined Machine," the hand drawn picture by Efrim Menuck present in the record.
The first publication of F♯ A♯ ∞ was reviewed by a scant number of critics. Stylus Magazine wrote that the record was "innovative and inventive" and that it "stakes out unique territory in a world overrun with hackneyed experimentation." Gordon Krieger of Exclaim! described it as a "slow soundtrack of regret and desire, equal parts morose and expectant." Montreal-based Hour magazine said the lengthy tracks "could be really pretentious but the sounds [the band] make are way too cool to be merely coldly superior."
Reviews of the second publication were generally positive and more wide-spread. Marc Gilman of Allmusic said that "the music on [the] album is unique and powerful" and that someone "would be hard-pressed to find any imitators of [Godspeed's] revolutionary musical form." The Magnet commented that the three tracks can be "served up as staggering psychedelia for a headphone or surround-sound context," voting it #38 on their list of the best albums from 1993 to 2003. The NME called it a "genuine classic," noting the variety of sounds present in the album. Pitchfork critic Ryan Schreiber remarked that, of the many experimental bands around, Godspeed You Black Emperor! were "one of the few that [haven't] left out beauty and emotion in their pieces." Pitchfork later ranked the album #45 on their list of the top 100 albums of 1990s.
- The Dead Flag Blues
- East Hastings