Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 'Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress'
When occasion permits, I'll reacquaint myself with one of my favourite box sets, King Crimson's The Great Deceiver, a four-CD collection featuring live 1973-74 recordings of the Fripp-Wetton-Cross-and-Bruford unit. Issued in 1992, the set offers one of the compelling arguments on behalf of that incarnation as the most incendiary of the Crimson bands, especially when its playing is at times so ferocious it beggars belief. I'm reminded of that collection as I listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor's ‘Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress,' the Montreal outfit's sixth full-length and excellent follow-up to 2012's Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! There are moments on the new album, which the group assembled between late-2013 and 2014, that are as volcanic as those on The Great Deceiver, moments where the music rises to such a feverish, cataclysmic pitch that it feels a hair's breath away from exploding.
The similarities don't end there: just as that version of Crimson rendered meaningless any attempt to reduce its music to the prog-rock label, so too does Godspeed's attack leave any such attempt in the dust. Yes, the group plays epic, long-form compositions, and, yes, ‘Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress' deploys electric guitars and strings as its frontline, but the album material might best be described as raw and incendiary instrumental music and left at that; put simply, genre concerns fall by the wayside as the group works through the set's forty minutes. On this recording, Godspeed's sound swells to behemoth-like proportions, with the music powered by three guitarists (David Bryant, Efrim Manuel Menuck, Michael Moya), two drummers (Aidan Girt, Timothy Herzog), and two bassists (Mauro Pezzente on electric, Thierry Amar on bass and contrabass) in addition to Sophie Trudeau (violin) and Karl Lemieux (16mm film projections).
That we're in for a heavy ride is intimated by the opening seconds of “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!'” when a plodding drum pattern is joined by a crushing riff voiced by guitars and strings that grows ever noisier as the minutes pass. The band enters into full-blown Godspeed mode as atonal squalls of six-strings fill the air and a celebratory theme suggestive of the Scottish highlands soars above the fray. Things gradually settle down as the music decompresses for a hypnotic, swoon-inducing coda, after which “Lambs' Breath,” ten minutes of ponderous, improv-styled dronescaping, follows without pause. Harmonically reminiscent of Ligeti and Penderecki, the piece plays like smoldering ruins rendered into musical form until the music strips down to a wavering drone during the closing minutes (on vinyl, the piece becomes a run-on groove at the side's end). Rising from the ashes, the churning noisescape “Asunder, Sweet” expands in strength and scope over the course of its brief, six-minute run before “Piss Crowns Are Trebled,” a classic slice of Godspeed business that sees guitar and violin melodies declaiming ecstatically alongside a bruising 3/4-time bass-and-drum pulse, takes over.Adding to the recording's appeal is the fact that, despite having existed in various forms since 1994, Godspeed's sound remains as raw and unbridled as ever. There was a moment (on record, at least) where the band's playing threatened to become too refined and polished, specifically on the double-CD release Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, but its subsequent release, 2002's Yanqui U.X.O., saw the band reaffirm its commitment to raw power. A splendid addition to Godspeed's discography, ‘Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress' is, if anything, perhaps even more raw, as shown by the searing second half of “Piss Crowns Are Trebled,” whose attack has so much bite it makes Led Zeppelin sound about as harmful as The Eagles.