Posted by: Necci – Oct 10, 2012
Hearing of this album's imminent release, and knowing full well that I couldn't bear to live with myself if I didn't lay hands upon it and commit to the page some words on the subject, I was filled with a sense of trepidation bordering on terror (at least the sort of terror that comes part and parcel with that horrible void that is the blank page, the one that stares back through you when bleary eyes have rested too long upon it). Because Godspeed You! Black Emperor (or any punctuational variation they've applied to their name) are a watershed band for me, the type that, when I first heard “Dead Flag Blues” a dozen-plus years ago, made me realize it was the music that I'd always hoped to hear, something unlike anything I'd previously encountered, something unparalleled since. Something fractured and harsh yet unsettlingly beautiful. Something strident and political yet possessed of a self-assured subtlety. Something heavy and dark yet simultaneously ethereal and graceful. In the intervening near-decade since their initial dissolution, certain easily recognizable facets of their approach – extended instrumentals characterized by effects-laden guitars, sweeping orchestration, and crescendos aplenty – have become the lynchpin of a whole genre, the unfortunately named post-rock, but none of their followers have attained the ragged glory and singular aesthetic of the original. For many Godspeed fans, myself included as I paced the living room, wondering how to approach the thing, the question may have lingered whether even they could maintain the momentum from their initial run, but 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! speaks for itself, addressing the query with a firm and resounding affirmative.
Worth noting is the fact that, despite the titles of the album's four pieces, the two main works (two are full-band workouts, the others eerie drone pieces) are actually older, having been performed live, though never recorded, as “Albanian” and “Gamelan” during the band's earlier run. The use of these songs is a notable artistic coup – by utilizing them, the band is able to simultaneously address concerns of conceptual continuity while still demonstrating their ability to evolve and work with the aesthetic that they had cobbled together over the years. Though diehard fans ought not fear that the music will stray far afield, the content is decidedly leaner and more singular in its intent than any the band had previously offered. Tangents are shed, recognizable signifiers minimized, and each piece of the album's totality plows ahead with an energy and vigor that had occasionally presented itself on past albums, but had to fight through the dirge and the drone to make itself heard. Placed at the forefront, however, this directness imbues the album with a vivaciousness that's a reminder of exactly why Godspeed has been able to remain relevant, even after a decade apart.
Opener “Mladic” (nee “Albanian") begins with the sort of subtle drone and heavily echoing vocal sample one might expect from a Godspeed song, before kicking into what's easily the heaviest, noisiest quarter-hour of music the band has yet committed to tape. It's a fascinating piece, not only for its aggression, but because it's the first work the band has recorded that sounds strikingly similar to one of its rare direct antecedents – in this case the galloping desert punk of Savage Republic – to the extent that it introduces a whole new duality to their music, a counterbalance between reverence and raw abandon that lends their whole body of work a new level of depth. This is, of course, not to suggest that the piece is anything other than homage because, while the influence is notable, Godspeed will only ever sound like themselves, which may be more readily apparent on the second of the two extended pieces, “We Drift Like Worried Fire” (formerly “Gamelan”).
“We Drift...” deals with a different denomination of emotional currency than “Mladic” - where the latter was fierce, minor keyed, and harsh, the former isn't a million miles removed from the uplift that began the band's 2000 album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, a shambling victory march for a world that seems so mired in defeat, an upward climb from subtle major-key textures to an exuberant, almost celebratory coda. A quick foray into darker territory acts as a reminder of the manner in which any victory of the human spirit can only keep the wolves at bay for so long, but the placement of this more melancholic segment directly before the song's cathartic, triumphant conclusion is an inspired bit of compositional strategy, a dark night of the soul before the piece resurrects itself into exhilarating triumph.
The two drone pieces that follow each of the longer compositions stand in stark contrast to their more extended companions. By occupying the interstices between the more accessible orchestrated works, they allow the more developed compositional elements to retain their directness. Whereas on previous albums, something resembling these pieces might have found themselves incorporated into the middle of a longer work, in this context they are allowed room to breathe and to act as a reminder that no matter how exultant or cathartic Godspeed's music may become, there will always be a solid core of disorienting, disquieting unease. The term “apocalyptic” often finds itself embedded in descriptions of their music, and these pieces are a stark reminder that that's still applicable. Each is the sound of the musical center not holding, of the arc falling apart, with only the implicit suggestion that it might not remain dissolute.
The band's de-emphasis on explicit reference to their politics seems to be one of the only major variations from their previous work. Though the field recordings and ominous, anti-authoritarian vocal samples that served as a notable feature of the band's earliest albums had not found their way onto 2002's Yanqui U.X.O., even that featured a cover diagram that linked major record companies to arms manufacturers through joint business holdings. 'Allelujah's liner notes feature a brief reference to Le Plan Nord and La Loi 78, laws that respectively expand drilling and mining operations in northern Quebec and restrict the rights of student protesters, but with the exception of this, the progressive political sentiment is far more subdued than in the past. This isn't to suggest that the band has lost their critical edge, it just seems that they may approaching it with a greater degree of subtlety or possibly rechanneling the more strident sentiment into side projects like A Silver Mt. Zion.
But no one need worry that Godspeed has altered their overall approach too appreciably, nor should anybody be concerned that they've stagnated. No matter how much distortion they may now use, no matter how much their music might lean towards rock (the hell with any prefix), no matter how obscure the politics might at first seem, it's thankfully still characterized by the same sense of grandeur, tragedy, and triumph that it ever detailed. They represent both the light that keeps the darkness bearable and the darkness that keeps the light in check. And by continuing to sustain the balance between their various counterbalancing elements, they have yet again demonstrated their ability to evolve without betraying this core set of values, and in doing so have crafted one of the most compelling, moving albums released this year.
By Graham Scala