Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Yes, the ladies and gentlemen of the band formerly known as Godspeed You! Black Emperor are back, in typically idiosyncratic fashion. Ten years after the release of their last LP, Yanqui U.X.O, the band have released ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! – without fanfare or warning. A decade is a long time, especially for a band as politically conscious as Godspeed. When Yanqui was released, it was barely a year after September 11th, in the midst of the war in Afghanistan. The Iraq war, a constant reality throughout the last decade, was still on the horizon. Clearly, a lot has changed. So where do the newly reunited group, and ‘Allelujah, stand with regard to the current zeitgeist, or to Godspeed’s previous body of work?

I’ll make a frank confession – I have always preferred Godspeed’s first album, F# A# Infinity, over the majority of their later works. It’s a record of its time – a gloomy Millennial soundscape of post-apocalyptic imagery, all twisted rebar, firey horizons and crackly military radio chatter. It’s a beautiful record, in its own spare way, and while it included the trademark rising and falling dynamics, the long stretches of ambience followed by furious explosions of sound and fury that characterise Godspeed’s music, it managed to hold onto a sense of narrative and progression. It’s likely that this is to do with its use of dialogue and environmental sounds – a few words, or the sound of a train in the distance, are an easy and effective way to immediately provide a reference point for the listener, a means to contextualise and visualise the music. F# A# Infinity came off, more often than not, as the soundtrack to an unmade film. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of taste. Nevertheless, the group gradually moved away from this style, their succeeding albums becoming more drawn out, abstract affairs, to the point of flabbiness in the case of Yanqui U.X.O.

My bias having been revealed, what of Godspeed’s latest work? Truth be told, it’s a mix of old and new – it revisits many of the old Godspeed standbys, but it has to be said that it does so in supremely confident manner. The first track, ‘Mladic’, is a strident, churning affair. Beginning with what sounds to be a string instrument’s impression of seabirds, the track slowly but inexorably morphs into a mutant middle eastern riff over a brutally incessant bass drum beat. When the swell finally breaks, and the drums gallop along like a Persian cavalry, it’s impossible not to get swept away. It’s a master class of the kind of build-up Godspeed excel at, but ratcheted up higher than ever before. By the point of the suitably epic string breakdown at the fourteen minute mark, a dramatic break that would sound Hollywood in the hands of anyone but them, it feels like you’ve already listened to an entire album. Music as dense as Godspeed’s lives and dies on its dynamics – a brief respite from the fireworks is definitely required at this point, and provided, but ‘Their Helicopters Sing’ doesn’t quite come up to the standard of the rest of the album. As a palate cleaner, it’s perfunctory, a big, droning ambient wash – but it lacks both the subtlety and texture that are essential to this kind of track. It sounds, truthfully, like an orchestra warming up, and a throwback to some of the less inspiring moments of Godspeed’s back catalogue. Discordancy, for sure, is a valuable tool, but only when it’s interactive with something else. It certainly provides a contrast to the preceding and succeeding tracks, but it ain’t much fun to listen to.

Luckily, it’s followed by ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’, which is the best track on the album, and manages to convey something so often lacking in Godspeed’s music – a sense of tenderness and beauty. For sure, it’s not all sweetness and light – but over the paranoid pizzicato strings that open the track, and the off-kilter and twitchy nervous energy of the riff it opens into, blossom unabashedly plaintive and wistful strings and a twinkling glockenspiel. It’s a refreshingly open and innocent shade in the clever but cold world Godspeed’s music often evokes. The introduction of a single string at seven minutes, haphazardly falling in and out of tune, is the best and most unexpectedly moving moment on the entire album. The track falls (inevitably) back into doomy tension eventually, but its coda is a forward facing and surprisingly triumphalist surge. It almost sounds like things are going to be alright after all – until the final track, ‘Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable’. The printemps érable was the name of a raft of student strikes in Quebec and Montreal, a movement violently supressed yet largely ignored in English-speaking media. If ‘Worried Fire’ could be said to represent the exhilaration and optimism of a protest, then ‘Printemps Erable’ is the aftermath of a depressingly large number of movements. It’s pure dead air, a drone punctuated only by exhausted guitar groans and a glum, one note bass. Ignored, supressed, or simply drowned out, the message never comes through.

It’s a sombre note to end on, but ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’s narrative lies in the tension between passion and silence, meaningful content and buzzing meaninglessness, the quickening effect of new ground and the stultifying effect of the old. The turn of the new decade and the economic crash has, for the first time in the 21st century, brought serious debate about the pervading narratives of society into the mainstream, and Godspeed ably reflect this new uncertainty. Moreover, they’ve found a way to hone their at times overly expansive oeuvre into something vital and incisive. It’s a coherent album, in a similar way that F# A# Infinity was, so many years ago now – both internally, and with regard to its wider context. As such, it’s a confident and exhilarating effort, and a welcome return.

     Malachi Constant

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