Release Date: Mar 31, 2015
Record label: Constellation
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Like with 2012’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend, fans know the music on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s latest LP, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. They just used to call it “Behemoth.” It’s a fitting title for the piece if you need to throw one at it, considering both runtime (anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes live) and the hall-rattling grandiosity of its final movement. On their own setlists, GY!BE just called it “Big ‘Un,” which works just fine for me.
When Godspeed You! Black Emperor returned from their decade long hiatus with Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! they did so with a collection of reworked and renamed historic material. It was as if they had unfinished business to attend to within the band itself. Not that this prevented their return being any less glorious, and after a series of triumphant gigs and rave reviews the band scooped the Canadian Polaris Music prize “thing”.
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 a band not known for their words, Godspeed You! Black Emperor really do seem to do a lot with their choice of them; from their rare, carefully considered interviews, to their sloganeering statements and the samples of monologues and street recordings that frequently pepper their recorded output. So after four albums (that the group have unleashed on the public at least), one EP, plentiful side projects and two decades, just how does one approach their first record to eschew all of that? The seemingly random, semi-profound and poetic song titles might be all present and correct (the likes of Piss Crowns are Trebled make no more sense the longer, or shorter, that you look at them, but they always feel like there’s some sort of meaning there somewhere), but the rest of the language has all been stripped away for the first time. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this slight withdrawal follows in the wake of their much-criticised criticism of the Polaris Music Prize and its corporate sponsorship? At first, the effect is somewhat disorienting.
Godspeed’s latest release is best thought of as a suite of dynamic exploration rather than an album, as its four tracks develop over 40 minutes. The band’s signature slow riffs and brutal, unison forces are all present, while it’s between these chord changes that the interplay of feedback, overtones, drones and whistles play, against and with, in and out of the bludgeoning drive of the enormous, portentous menhirs of minor melody. Peasantry Or ‘Light! Inside Of Light!’ is a classic example of this hefty march of giants; over 10 minutes it moves through countries, from North African scalar tunework to Irish melodicism, rising and receding all the while.
Twenty-one years have passed since their formation, but Montreal’s apocalypse orchestra remain stubbornly outside the mainstream. Yes, there have been overtures from the establishment – 2012 comeback album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’ saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor awarded Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize – but the group chose to give the $30,000 prize money to fund music education in the prisons of their native Quebec, and skipped the awards ceremony, instead issuing a characteristically poetic communiqué ripping on the prize and its corporate sponsors. All the same, it’s possible to read a shift in the octet’s artistic headspace.
Godspeed's taste for pageantry has not left them, though they have, on this LP, left some of the spectacle behind. None of the spoken word tape/musique concrete interventions are there, and with a release that clocks in at under 41 minutes (if you don't count the locked groove drone at the end of the first side) this is as concise a statement as one could expect from an ensemble that have taken their time making sure we all get there at once.That being said, what is left is the essence of what makes Godspeed the great rock band that it is. The building of layers and texture flows naturally and without pretention.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor may be the first instrumental rock band with an almost anthropomorphic career arc. And if F# A# Infinity was the wasted 20-something prodigy too overwhelmed with the pain of the world to have a clear vision of tomorrow, we can be happy that said prodigy survived to be the thriving thoughtful grown-up she is on Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. The complex panoramic optimo-nihilism of this Canadian collective has been transmuted into a laser focus that retains the vectors of its large ensemble while discovering a new unified vocabulary.
There is no such thing as a bad Godspeed album. But this relatively curt 40-minute set – the Montreal multi-instrumentalists’ second recording since their lengthy hiatus ended in 2010 – ranks among their most immediate. Fist-pumps accompany the sawing crescendo on Piss Crowns Are Trebled. The journey back from the abyss on Peasantry or “Light! Inside of Light!” begins halfway through, when major chords come chorusing in like a cavalry of the just.
Over their first two decades, Godspeed You! Black Emperor has garnered as much of a reputation for their enigmatic relationship with publicity as for the group’s unquestionable influence on the post-rock contingent. But founding member and longtime spokesperson Efrim Menuck was invariably candid in an interview with Self-Titled Mag last year where he discussed the anti-political bent of his music: “I had a rough period from about the age of 17 to 23… I was homeless, broke, and fucked up, and everyone I knew was homeless, broke, and fucked up. That was when everything clicked in my head.
It starts with a massing of forces: solemn, summoning drums, thunderous guitars and acquiescent violin. One guitar attempts to take control, but the others resist; rogue melodies rise up, Middle Eastern in flavour; then another emerges, feminine and reconciliatory, easing the tension. The guitars relax into discussion, community, accepting that it’s possible to pursue different paths while maintaining togetherness.
Review Summary: A thematic and musical awakening for one of the greatest post-rock bands in history.Nearly two decades ago, F# A# ∞ brought forth instruments of destruction. Mankind was reduced to rubble, as mothers clutched babies and pulled out their hair. The skyline was on fire, washing the heavens over in an orange haze. Some pleaded for repentance.
When Godspeed You! Black Emperor returned to record after a long hiatus with Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! they weren’t quite releasing new music. The album consisted of pieces the Montreal collective had composed during the early 2000s, back when they were at their most prolific, and the album was simply a matter of getting long-performed work down in the studio. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress contains music of a more recent vintage, which is potentially significant because following Godspeed has always meant grappling with a basic question: When you have one of the most distinctive sonic profiles in music—that trademark quiet/loud mix of soaring guitars, epic strings, and field recordings—how important is it to branch out beyond it? Do we want a Godspeed album that sounds like anything but Godspeed? Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, conceived a decade after their initial run, when they defined everything this band is and should be, does not offer a new wrinkle.
When Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their debut full-length, 1997’s F? A? ?, they burned down the walls separating heaven, purgatory, and hell in the wake of apocalypse. It only took 38 minutes. The album’s championing moment, and maybe the band’s best opening sequence to date, comes in the form of “The Dead Flag Blues”, a deadpan soliloquy about a man’s skepticism of the government and the decline of modern civilization.
Well we can't say we didn’t see this one coming: where the reformed Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s fine ’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! came as a bolt out of the blue, fifth album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress must stand as one of the most heavily trailed albums in history. The camera-shy quasi-anarchists played the entire record live – under the guise of the gargantuan single track ‘Behemoth’ – on every night of their 2013/14 world tours, with a bloody-mindedness that was pure Godspeed: I saw them headline a festival in Poland (I believe it was their first ever Polish gig) with a 75-minute, three-song set, well over half of which consisted of ‘Behemoth’. To other bands this would be a fatal indulgence: for the Quebecois post-rock godheads, it just burnishes their enigma.
The four pieces that make up the suite-like Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, have evolved from an earlier live incarnation of the work, known to fans as "Behemoth," which was excessive even by Godspeed You! Black Emperor's sprawling standards. For the studio, they've carved it and sharpened it for maximum impact. At just over 40 minutes, this is the band's first single album release since their 1998 debut F# A# (Infinity).
“As soon as you find something you’re into, it’s fed back to you at double the price in a candy-coated distortion of what it is you’ve experienced in your life. This is even a media cliche now. […] It’s obvious — if you’re not vocal about what you’re critical of then you just end up contributing to what it is.”– Efrim Manuck to NME, 1999 “I understand that Godspeed is leftish, and that’s about it.”– Conrad Amenta on Allelujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend “And so now we thrum our joyous tension in opposition to all of that.
It’s easy to be put off by the punctuation in an Efrim Menuck release. Exclamation points abound, haphazardly strewn throughout his work in both Godspeed You! Black Emperor and prolific side project Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (who else would write a song called “Sisters! Brothers! Small Boats Of Fire Are Falling From The Sky!”?). And you’ll find them here as well: The first track of Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress, GY!BE’s follow-up to 2012’s scorching Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, is called “Peasantry Or ‘Light! Inside Of Light!’” Exhausting, yes, but the exclamations serve a very specific purpose.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (Constellation)If you wanted to explain Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s work as concisely as possible to a friend who’d never heard of them, you could do worse than to play them the lead track from the Montreal collective’s new album and point out that, for this band, it’s the equivalent of a tightly composed three-minute radio ready single. Unlike, say, “Moya” (one of Godspeed’s previous high-water marks for relative accessibility) the ten-minute “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’” doesn’t rely on the slow, steady build that the band is so good at; instead, within the first 20 seconds they launch into a coruscating (in the literal sense, as in it could strike sparks off of metal) riff. As Earth-heavy as the song can get, though, there’s also a sublime movement in the middle of the track where Godspeed’s non-guitar stringed instruments take center stage; it could be the light inside of the light of the title.
The triumphant return of Godspeed You! Black Emperor with 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! was an odd move. The biggest threat to modern culture is the remake/rehash/revive phenomenon, where terrible film franchises are kept alive, and decaying musicians are prevented from going the way of the dodo, propped up by the public's insatiable thirst for repeated, safe 'content'. GY!BE's decision to go on indefinite hiatus back in 2003 - which ended up lasting a decade - was in many ways the ultimate act of defiance.
When Montreal post-rock icons Godspeed You! Black Emperor emerged unexpectedly from an extended 10-year recording hiatus with 2012's 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, no one was sure if that meant we could expect to get regular releases from the notoriously press-averse band. So another GY!BE album not even three years later is a pleasant surprise, and while it takes a few listens to absorb, Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress captures everything we love about the gloomy experimental instrumental rock group. This is their shortest album since their 1997 debut, F# A# ∞, but it feels much longer, with its slowly evolving compositions (especially if you don't notice the locked groove at the end of the first side of the vinyl).
It’s weird, isn’t it? No, not the way that everyone has forgotten about that life-changing rap album that came out a while ago. I mean, it’s weird that Godspeed You! Black Emperor are still kicking around after returning from their seven-year hiatus from terrifying, inspiring and admonishing us. There’s still something so strange and exciting about the anticipation that surrounds a release from one of Canada’s most publically conservative exports.