Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
With almost a full decade having passed since the release of Yanqui U.X.O., the likelihood of a new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album seemed remote at best. Yet here we are basking in the collective's ferocious sound once again, as if only a single year has passed and not something closer to ten. The disastrous state of our current world suggests, in fact, that the band's previous period of concentrated activity was slightly ahead of its time, not artistically so much as socio-politically, and, consequently, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! feels like the perfect soundtrack to today, especially when the music, at least in part, snarls with a fury that oozes disgust, even anger. And while some things change, others thankfully stay the same: it's heartening, for example, to discover that in this 3-D CGI era the band still uses 16-MM film projections as part of its presentation.
Godspeed didn't just reconvene in the studio and start recording, however, but instead brought two years of post-hiatus practicing, playing, and touring to the recording sessions. It's the opening piece, “Mladic” (known as “Albanian” during its developmental stages and now sporting a new title that presumably references former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic), that's the most incendiary. A looped opening sample of urgent voices (“With his arms outstretched”—perhaps the words spoken by Serbian security forces upon Mladic's arrest in Lazarevo, Serbia on May 26, 2011?) establishes an unsettling tension that only intensifies as the twenty-minute colossus unfolds. “Mladic” captures Godspeed at its heaviest, as a seething fireball of mesmerizing force whose guitars (courtesy of David Bryant, Michael Moya, and Efrim Manuel Menuck) snarl so viciously they reduce the band's trademark strings to a whisper. Fast-forward to the eight-minute mark and Godspeed sounds less like an instrumental rock collective and more a blazing metal outfit hellbent on laying waste to everything in its path. It's an exhilarating ride, to say the least, and during the piece's later moments, the music at times calls to mind the bruising attack of Red-era King Crimson. A re-occurring theme of decimating force is the glue holding the piece together as it moves from one episode to the next before exiting with a percussion coda.
By comparison, side B's “We Drift Like Worried Fire” (formerly “Gamelan”) is a tad less ferocious, more triumphant in tone and in keeping with the tried-and-true Godspeed style. Sophie Trudeau's violin is more audible and a glockenspiel's tinkle can even be heard—until, that is, the guitars enter to escalate the intensity in classic Godspeed style. After a stop-start episode at the track's center finds the band's playing at its most ecstatic, that glorious section morphs into a ponderous dirge and then thunderous coda. The two epics are followed by six-minute drones (“Their Helicopters' Sing,” “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable”) that, while raw and intense in their own way, nevertheless offer temporary shelters from the longer tracks' storms. If the long tracks are immolations, the final track rises like poisonous fumes rising from the smoldering ashes after the cataclysm.Any group, especially one that's less admired than worshipped by its core audience, can start to feel like the walls are closing in as the album releases add up and the pressure builds, and the act of music-making can also begin to feel like a too-conscious endeavour that's ultimately crippling. Thankfully, Godspeed appears to have taken the advice Paul Simon dispensed on his 1983 Hearts and Bones album: “Don't think too much.” Wisely, on its fifth full-length release, the Montreal-based collective lets its muse speak and follows its purest impulses, and the result is music of raw power and uncompromising integrity. It's unclear how long this latest period of activity will last, but for now, at least, how wonderful it is to have a new offering of Godspeed's joyful noise available for our listening pleasure.