Album Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ”Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’

Godspeed You! Black Emperor has released their first album in a decade, and it was done in classic Godspeed fashion. At their show in Boston, attendees who picked up an album from the merch table were in for an exclusive treat. It wasn’t rarities or B-sides. It was Godspeed’s new album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! The manner in which the album was released is a testament to Godspeed’s aura: low profile, no press, no attention, no fluff. Proud, but shy.

Since their formation in the early nineties, Canadian post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor has released 4 studio albums, an EP and a number of compilations. They employ many instruments, including drums, cello and guitar to create their sound; a sound that is somewhat elusive. It’s drone and fuzz and crescendos and dark landscapes. Many of Godspeed’s songs expand from a central guitar motif and build to raw, but elaborate climaxes. Their albums follow along a similar theme. They’re political, but what kind of music isn’t political? Lots of artists write the essential ‘screw the system’ songs, even if it isn’t a blatant political statement. But it’s not a conceited angst that powers Godspeed, it’s not an individual groan and they do it without lyrics. Their music is about us, all of us, together in a world that is riddled with filth and lousy, corrupt governance. However, each song ends with a vague hope for the future. Godspeed encompasses the predicaments of our times, but dismisses them at the same time.

Godspeed has received acclaim from the likes of NME, Pitchfork and Allmusic (just in case you wanted proof from the critics). But I have a feeling Godspeed would say “screw the critics”. They have secured a place in the music world as harbingers of the post-rock movement, and in the process have accumulated a dedicated fan-base. So excitement abounded within the Godspeed community once word of a new album caught wind.  It might have just been a slight draft though.

I’m not going to say ‘Allelujah! is disappointing. I enjoy it as I enjoy everything Godspeed turns out, but I’ll spare you the fan-girl word vomit. I couldn’t help but experience déjà vu in the midst of listening to the new album. It was a strange phenomenon until I realized that 2 of the tracks on the album weren’t actually new at all. ‘Mladic’, the album opener, is a reworking of ‘Albanian’ and ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ is a reworking of ‘Gamelan’ (both ‘Albanian’ and ‘Gamelan’ were songs that were performed live but never released on an album). I think ‘Mladic’ and ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ are very beautiful and, dare I say, more epic than their predecessors. ‘Worried Fire’ is the lighter of the two, and it’s a track that shows how joyful Godspeed can actually be. It’s lovely and uplifting, somewhat of a contrast to ‘Mladic’. They’re both heavy, and booming, and just magnificent. When they begin you get a sense that something big is coming, and in that sense Godspeed doesn’t disappoint. These are two huge tracks, and I’m not just talking about their length (both tracks are about 20 minutes long individually).

The fact that these weren’t really new songs didn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t think it suggests a lack of creativity, or laziness. I think it shows how innovative Godspeed is, how dedicated they are and how well they know themselves. However, considering the fact that 10 years ago I was only 10 years old, and considering the fact that at 10 years old I wasn’t rocking out to Godspeed, I’m not one of the unlucky ones who had to wait a decade for new material. But I can see how it’d irk some people. I guess.

Those two tracks provide the passion, while the other two, ‘Their Helicopters Sing’ and ‘Strung Like Lights at the Three Printemps Erable’ provide the drone and are rich with texture. Don’t mind the French words, Godspeed are from Montreal and you thought they were just being pretentious. ‘Printemps Erable’ is the name of the student protests that occurred in Quebec during the spring of 2012. I told you there was a political theme.

And it’s hard not to read a Godspeed album, including ‘Allelujah!, through a political lense. Their last album Yanqui U.X.O. was released in 2002, a year after the attacks on 9/11 and in the midst of the Afghanistan invasion. Godspeed introduced us to a decade that would be defined by war and turmoil. Now enter 2012: an American election year and a year in which we are still reeling from the events of 2001. So in these two albums, Yanqui U.X.O. and ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, I feel that Godspeed is embodying the legacy of a decade. Allelujah! combines new with old, heaven with hell and is everything you would expect from a Godspeed album. I have a sneaking suspicion that the world isn’t going to clean itself up any time soon. I guess the good in that is that Godspeed will stay pissed off enough to write more material. And we’ll all stay pissed off enough to sing along with them.

Hailey Mawhinney

Hailey is listening to Hammock – Departure Songs

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