[15 October 2012]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
There couldn’t have been a better time for Canadian post-rock legendaries Godspeed You! Black Emperor to come back than the conclusion of 2012. The end-of-the-world jokes and souvenir shirts have undoubtedly worn out their welcome, but there’s undoubtedly a great many people in the world who genuinely fear December 20, 2012, and the supposed destruction it will bring. For most of us that day will be like any other during the other bustling holiday season; our minds will have probably internalized the fact that the Mayans likely stopped etching calendars at that particular date because, well, having made it insanely far into the future they figured that point would be as good a time as any to stop.
But for that lone person out there with a bunker full of freeze-dried food and high-grade shotgun ammo, the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor is the perfect soundtrack to her paranoia. When I first played Godspeed for a group of friends (the song was “The Dead Flag Blues”), aside from the one person who thought they were super-cool, everyone thought I was playing the score from the The Road. Even though this simplistic dismissal of the group overlooks the orchestral nuance of their compositions, that reaction isn’t a bad one: Godspeed’s music has always lent itself to the end times. Long, doomy, drawn-out notes, snippets of vocal interactions calling for the end of Western, capitalistic governments, and a bombast that few post-rock bands have matched: these are but a few of the many things that form Godspeed’s distinctive sound, and though they to date have only made three albums and one EP, their legacy and following is considerable.
Thus when the news of ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, their first studio album in 10 years following Yanqui U.X.O, was released to the public not but a few weeks ago, it’s understandable why the burst of excitement was a big as it was. The enigma inherent to the group tends to keep fans in the dark on the development of their music. Their live shows reflect this: when up on stage, they never talk; all they do is sit hunched over their instruments, as if carefully considering each note being played. To some, this might amount for a boring live show, and indeed Godspeed aren’t for everyone. Yet despite the group’s “let’s just sit and jam” style, the concert isn’t boring because they play incredible music. It’s immersive to the point that the musicians almost disappear entirely, bringing further depth to this collective’s mysterious identity.
The 10-year wait for ‘Allelujah probably raised a lot of questions. Would there be any substantial changes to Godspeed’s core sonic? Would the band still have “the edge”? The latter is of considerable importance given they began their hiatus in 2003 after Yanqui, which while not bad was the weakest of their career at that time.
Fortunately, ‘Allelujah! is a solid example of a band who hasn’t lost any of their compositional uniqueness. Yes, for the most part these songs, especially the two epics “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire”, are prototypical Godspeed in their structure, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less effective. “Mladic,” in particular, is just as good as any of the other epics they’ve written before. The raw power of the lead guitar melody is just fantastic, containing the exact urgency some people find long, formless compositions to lack. Godspeed certainly require patience, as the songs burn slow into bombastic climaxes, but once the music has picked up, it’s relentless.‘Allelujah still captures the greatness that made the band such a force back at the turn of the century in a new and invigorating way.
Godspeed, however, aren’t content to just crank out a new set of really long instrumentals in their traditional style. ‘Allelujah is the most unique of their studio LPs in terms of structure in regards to track sequencing. If one purchases the vinyl edition of the record, the two twenty-minute tracks are on a regular 12-inch and the two shorter drones are put on a seven-inch. The CD sequencing is long-short, meaning that in order to experience the album properly one will have to alternate between the 12-inch and the seven-inch. This is a pretty clever way to draw listeners further into the music; after all, one of the benefits of vinyl is that it actively involves the viewer in the listening process. He cannot just press play on an iTunes playlist; he actually has to turn over the vinyl and pay attention to the experience as a whole. What’s a shame, though, is that the drones on the seven-inch pale in comparison to the two longer pieces. The first one, “Their Helicopters’ Sing”, is the better of the two, a torturous little thing where bagpipes squawk underneath a thick drone as were they suffocating. It gets at the sort of jarring, unsettling effect unique to drone music that’s a perfect match with Godspeed’s ethos. On the other hand, there’s “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable”, a mostly flat piece that brings the record to an anticlimactic conclusion. In a live setting, this drone would probably work very well: part of the Godspeed experience is the dark films that serve as visual accompaniment, and “Strung Like Lights” could definitely use that aid. As it stands, it and the drone before it mostly feel like transitory pieces in need of a reference point.
What should have ended the LP instead is the second epic, “We Drift Like Worried Fire”. Though it begins with the doom and gloom one would expect from Godspeed, it culminates in a midsection that sounds surprisingly like their significantly more optimistic contemporaries Explosions in the Sky. That’s right: the same guys who made The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, aka the post-rock album you can listen to while cuddling with your significant other, actually have some sonic similarity to the pseudo-anarchist sonic of Godspeed other than being under the broad umbrella of post-rock. The anti-institutional rhetoric that Blaise Bailey Finnegan III once espoused (“BBF3” on Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada) has, even if only for one movement of a song, left the building. But lest one think Godspeed have softened in the face of the supposed 2012 apocalypse, this relatively sunny moment isn’t a capitulation to feel-good niceties. It’s an expanding of emotional depth, one absolutely necessary for a band that can easily get caught up in how imposing its music is. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is another stellar work by this intriguing collective, and even though it’s not anything like a sonic shift in direction, it still has a beating heart underneath it all. This vulnerability may only happen for a moment in the grand scheme of the record, but it packs a wallop unlike anything Godspeed have ever written before. Even with a (not really) potential apocalypse facing us, one of contemporary rock music’s most paranoid outfits shows that there’s positivity to be found in the bleak, light in the darkness. This potent emotional strain that runs throughout ‘Allelujah is a confident affirmation of Godspeed’s return to prominence. Ten years have very much been worth the wait.