If Godspeed You! Black Emperor hadn’t come along in the back half of the ’90s when they did, some other assemblage of heavy hearted anarcho-romantics would have had to huddle together against the gathering storm clouds for them. In their original heyday, you couldn’t have dreamed of a more appropriate soundtrack for the encroaching unknown. The Montreal nonet didn’t release mere records; they hefted roiling cauldrons of pre-millenium tension. For some of us — fine, for a select few of us — their debut album, F#A# (infinity), and the followup Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP were regularly spinning in the background of debates over the possibly sinister significance of the “YKK” zippers on our Carhartt jackets.
Alas, the computers kept working and gravity still held us. Godspeed, perhaps themselves buoyed by a gust of relief, put out the monolithic Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, both their longest and perhaps most optimistic work. Whether or not it is relevant to that faintly elevated spirit that Life Your Skinny Fists was put to tape well in advance of — and released just a month before — the 2000 US presidential election, the mood didn’t last. Yanqui U.X.O. would be Godspeed’s last album for a decade.
Forged at Electrical Audio in the waning months of 2001, and released a year later, its disillusionment and anger were surely due to more than just the frayed edge that Steve Albini can bring to the table as a producer. With all the members having numerous other musical pursuits and interests, it was entirely natural for Godspeed to call time when they did. Still, their exit felt like something of a concession, if not to the powers they railed against, then to the zeitgeist of the moment. The world has become too real: no more grandiose emotions: it’s time to dance.
Now, though, it feels like it is Godspeed’s time to dance — on their own terms, naturally. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is, without a doubt, and seemingly with all intention, their most immediate record to date. That’s a relative quality, but it’s still worth noting. Has a Godspeed song ever opened with just a drum beat? While it is not exactly a straight up 4-4, the beginning of “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’” implies a more “rock” gesture than devoted listeners might anticipate. Then, barely 20 seconds pass by before the song rips furiously open like “Kashmir” fueled by a regimen of HGH and opium. There’s even a brief, fragmented guitar solo past the three-minute mark, which redirects the unwieldy vessel away from the tossing waters toward an exhilarating climax.
“Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’” soars in the way that only Godspeed You! Black Emperor at their best are capable of. Only on occasion have they operated below peak, and Asunder is no exception to that. When they returned, first with a series of live dates in 2010, and then with Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! in 2012 (two months from the end of the Mayan calendar, no less, staying true to their apocalypse-eyeing roots), only then did it become clear how big the hole they had left behind truly was. Core members Efrim Menuck, Thierry Amar, Sophie Trudeau and others in the various Silver Mt. Zion incarnations inevitably shared similarities, but not quite size. Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and others that stepped up, were and are more than capable of sounding huge in their own right, but their tools and methods are significantly different. Godspeed have always been a genre unto themselves; distanced from classical music’s priorities, unconcerned with rock’s parameters.
Still, they aren’t without their own tendencies, and it is interesting to see how Godspeed has inverted part of the structural model that Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! set. “Lamb’s Breath” and “Asunder, Sweet”, the ambient stretches of Asunder, come at the end of side A and the beginning of side B respectively, winding down before winding back up. Absent percussion and heavy on feedback and noise, “Lamb’s Breath” is the dissolution of the first piece’s rousing goodwill, a bending descent that stands the hairs on the back of your neck. “Asunder, Sweet” reignites from the embers of “Lamb’s Breath”; a deep inhalation of its own, as the end beckons.
“Piss Crowns Are Trebled”, the big finale, is both vintage and innovative. The resounding strings slash with echoes of Slow Riot’s “Moya”. The guitar hits the doom note on its opening cue and then proceeds to shower sparks all over the pummeling drums. “Piss Crowns Are Trebled” does all of the things one turns to Godspeed for so well that the subtle but significant differences aren’t necessarily apparent at first. There is a breakdown roughly half way in to it, but they don’t dwell on it, only pivot. No vocal samples or field recordings were harmed in the making of this song, or any part of Asunder, for that matter.
It is notable that Godspeed have once again gone for less-is-more, this time around wedging everything on two sides of vinyl (Allelujah! required an additional 7” to carry the shorter pieces). Asunder, though, doesn’t simply let the physical properties of the format dictate the terms of its content. Godspeed You! Black Emperor don’t really deal in limitations. What they do deal in is catharsis, which the world needs as much now as it ever has. Maybe they came back just in time.