Godspeed You! Black Emperor
‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
October 7, 2012
Few bands can get away with releasing their “reunion” record in the fashion that Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor have sprung ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! on the unsuspecting public. Excited fans approached the merchandise table on the band’s first date of their United States tour in Chicago, scanned the various tee shirts and records until some unfamiliar cover art caught their eye—a grainy black and white photo of a square, bleak-looking adobe building in the middle of a desert. A beacon of light shone down from the ceiling upon this unexpected piece of wax, a choir of “ahs” seeming to emanate from the record itself. It was what they had been waiting for a decade long—new Godspeed You! Black Emperor music. It shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise that Godspeed decided to release this record with such minimal fanfare; the octet is notoriously opaque with press and has always done a good job of staying in their music’s shadow as individuals. It may not seem like it at times, but a lot has changed in the music world since Godspeed released their last record, Yanqui U.X.O. While they were away, it has become increasingly difficult for artists to remain opaque, and before the show in Boston was even over, the Internet was abuzz with talk of their new record.
Though virtually silent in the media throughout their illustrious career, Godspeed has always made a lot of noise through their music, speaking not with words but through the pure emotional response their volcanic instrumentals invoke. They seem to explore the depths of their instruments, building tension before finally pulling heart-wrenchingly gorgeous melodies to the surface and allowing them to fully take their hold on the listener. The thing that has always made Godspeed such a prominent act in the post-rock genre is their patience; no other band allows their songs to stew quite like they do, and the waits between their massive pillars of sound make it that much more intense and gratifying when the ascend upon the listener. Each towering melody that Godspeed has crafted throughout their career comes like a tidal wave, bringing with it clarity and meaning in the context of the listener’s life. No matter at what point in a person’s life one of their songs comes, it seems to be the exact aural accompaniment to the state of mind associated, the soundtrack to match whatever pitfalls or peaks fill their days.
Finding that clarity, that beauty, across the desolate expanse of a Godspeed record can be one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences, representative of the uplifting nature of the human spirit even within the darkest days. The constant darkening of those days in the time that the band was on hiatus has obviously taken a toll on their music; ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! comes at a chaotic time in the world’s history and is perhaps Godspeed’s most aggressive record to date. The album opener, “Mladic,” shows that chaos and that whatever beauty there is to be found these days is superficial at best, menacing anger at worst. The track, which made its way onto many setlists last year as “Albanian,” blossoms from squealing guitars communicating as strings swirl around, owing a lot to the Hungarian scales predominant in the area in which the namesake Ratko Mladić terrorized, to a gnarled and slightly grotesque punk-rock drone. The song seems to constantly build upon itself, guitarists David Bryant, Efrim Menuck, and Mike Moya creating a relentless chug before the entire thing collapses in a flurry of descending melodic runs and explosive drumming from Aidan Girt and Bruce Cawdron. At twenty minutes, “Mladic” is as clear an indication as any that Godspeed hasn’t lost a step; just as the tension couldn’t be any more palpable, they release it in a firestorm of percussive rock, all the frustration and anger the band feels about the times the record finds them in tumbling out of them. It’s a different sort of release than the undeniable beauty of some of their classic songs like “Storm” and “Moya,” unforgettable and uplifting melodies pouring out of the speakers, but the way that their tangible anger spills out through that tumbling crescendo is beautiful in its own right.
‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, at four tracks and just under an hour in length, is comprised of two soaring, twenty minute rock instrumentals—“Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire”—and two ambient drones meant to serve as bridges, perhaps breathers from the intensity of those tracks. The first of those is “Their Helicopters Sing,” a mournful drone built around Sophie Trudeau and Thierry Amar’s haunting strings while guitars buzz around the edges of the mix like a swarm of wasps. It’s during Godspeed’s quieter moments that the listener can truly feel the immensity of their music; their high-flying grasps for heaven during the loudest, most forceful moments of “Mladic” are put into a fuller context as they stretch out the space on the record on “Their Helicopters Sing.” The opposite is also true, and without the eerie atmosphere of the record, the theatrics wouldn’t seem as memorable; everything comes together to give ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! the same cohesion that we are used to from Godspeed.
“We Drift Like Worried Fire” sees a new take on a bit of the more traditional side of Godspeed; tremolo-picked guitars soar atop an eerily beautiful melody as bassist Mauro Pezzente gives depth to Bryant’s gorgeous guitar tone. There is something strikingly different about the Godspeed we see on ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, however, and it’s prevalent on “We Drift Like Worried Fire.” Whereas throughout the bulk of their career, the band has showed beauty in the face of despair, hope in the shadow of pain, as “We Drift Like Worried Fire” collapses into dark and militaristic nuances, they seem to be saying that the pain is ever-present, the hope a mirage. It’s a bleak record in that regard, but the passion and technicality that the music is played with is something to find beauty within in and of itself. It’s something to get used to—the vision of hope in dark days is something I have always turned to Godspeed’s music for—but as the record unfolds itself over multiple listens the beautiful moments will reveal themselves. If anything, the record is a challenge to the listener to find that hope themselves. For now, Godspeed is just telling it like it is.
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