Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
, November 11th, 2012 10:58
How to approach a new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album? The exciting reappearance of one of the most politically vital bands of the last 20 years, or as an intervention into a changed historical landscape that renders their critiques obsolete? Reaffirmation of the dignity of indie, so degraded since F# A# Infinity came out in 1997? Or as experimental (whatever that means now) miasma; as a fractional addition to a monolithic body of work, or the best thing they've ever done.
That title, with its almost parodically positivist screamers, is nicely misleading regarding the content of Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!. It would have been easy enough on re-emerging in 2010, especially given the somewhat lukewarm work that their sister act A Silver Mount Zion have been doing in the last few years, for Godspeed to play to the assumed image of what 'Godspeed' are: the big, parabolic structures, the soaring climaxes, the earnest politics that made sense in Seattle circa 1999. This would be to ignore the contradictions and ironies present in the band from the beginning.
The apparently total purity of intent expressed in fleeting interviews and lo-fi sleeve artwork (not to mention the infamously mordant monologue at the start of 'The Dead Flag Blues', the first track on the first album: "The car is on fire and there's no driver at the wheel...") was always altered in its charge by its presentation - the jokes (who didn't think the dedication to "the Reverend Gary Davis" was at least slightly funny?), the collision of different materials in the inner sleeve collages, the conflicting energies and textures of the songs, sliding and grinding from rage to placidity to uninvited noise to lullabies. The albums were, as the band suggested in a recent Guardian interview, "a joyous difficult noise": their aesthetics bear the closest relation to punk, detonating their conflicting materials through negation, antagonism, to produce works of strange and searing energy. (The distance from Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts' council estate branded ‘Land Of Milk And Honey' to "Fuck la loi 78" on the sleeve of Allelujah!... is shorter than we might choose to think.)
All of this is a slightly roundabout way of saying two things. One: it turns out that the things about the band that enthralled the first time around - the sincerity, the leftism, the obscurity, the extremes of sound - were as much pop hook and manifesto as, say, anything in the early canon of Adam and the Ants (as masterfully analysed last week by Mark Sinker) - and that this is precisely where their politics, and their brilliance, reside. (Certainly when, on the last few Silver Mount Zion albums, Efrim Menuck's vocals have been unimpededly front-and-centre, the desperation seething within the collective's songs has been written in ten-foot-high slogans, untouched by context or irony, the results have been either comical or too painful to keep up.) Two: a decade's hiatus has given them the chance to sound more like themselves, as a collective entity, an idea, a mass of interacting forces, a project and intervention operating according to what they call their own "particular stubborn calculus"; more like Godspeed than 'Godspeed'.
The two long tracks, 'Mladic' and 'We Drift Like Worried Fire', apportioned to a side each, press together all of their seemingly incompatible elements, and do so in a stronger, more boldly articulated way than the somewhat episodic progress of their last major statement, 2000's Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. The band sound here more like a collective sound generator than a big band in which every section has to have its turn. Rather, field recordings, lambent drones, melody, concatenations of guitar noise, strings that veer into shredding atonality and back again, are all folded into structures whose thematic successions or juxtapositions feel dreamlike or counterintuitive. (The short tracks - 'Their Helicopters Sing' and 'Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable' - do something different, but more of that anon.) In this it reconnects with the distant, seemingly halcyon days when post-rock meant feverish drift through rock's debris - Disco Inferno, Gastr Del Sol, Bark Psychosis, Pram - rather than white guys playing rock slowly whilst looking sad. (Ten years of listening to other stuff has also allowed us to notice things like this.)
It's tempting at this point to zoom in on significant details - whether to draw a curtain over what opposition there might be to our preceding argument, or to highlight the strange political freight the record carries, or just because they sound so lovely: the jumping clatter of the Montreal casseroles at the end of 'Mladic'; the strafing slide guitar that starts about two minutes into that track; the scything treble guitar noise that cuts through the middle of 'We Drift...'; the wonky ebb to which the crackling noise of 'Strung Like Lights...' dwindles, as if heard on tape. But the tracks deserve to be taken in their entirety: 'Mladic' as a slow, groaning build to a thundering foment that breaks off, reiterates parts of itself - guitars strangled into noise as the drums - and slides into drawn-out breakdown, flaring up and burning out over and over; 'We Drift...' as a low, gathering drone that reaches a peak of treble noise simultaneously light as air and crushingly static, before a long, intricate patchwork of musical gestures leads into the repeated, ecstatic thrash of the ending.
The long tracks here are hard to experience or hold in memory as entireties - too big, too detailed, too multiple. (We should put a word in here for the production of both Howard Bilerman, who recorded the long tracks, and the four members of Godspeed who recorded the short ones: there's a remarkable clarity and depth-of-field, the clashes or layerings of instruments satisfyingly dense without being mushy or congealed.) Gone is the guilty thought prompted by Yanqui U.X.O. that every next move was, if not predictable, at least intuitable; for the moment, it's all a surprise.
But more than all that, there's a palpable fierceness, a disciplined savagery, to the playing here - no doubt honed over a long period (both long tunes have been in the band's live repertoire, more or less, since before their hiatus in 2003), but not polished. Which makes what comes afterwards more genuine: the two shorter tracks (relegated to a dropped-in 7" on the vinyl version) each explore a moment that would have formed part of the succession of the longer pieces, probing atmospheres of breakdown, exhaustion and drift as if opening up the microcosmic heart of their work. 'Their Helicopters Sing' layers an almost improvisatory clash of circling, scraping string phrases over tape-drone and guitar that moves from hesitant to looming, as if choking back the fury that animated the violins on 'Mladic'. At this point, wearing my contrarian hat, I'll say that 'Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable' is the best thing on the album: bleeding in from the cut-off quiet at the end of 'We Drift...', it presents a rich, troubled drone, treble noise, heavy with the sound of instruments' resistant materiality - mistreated strings and e-bowed guitar - gathering and breaking over deeper, woozy pulses that come from nowhere and disappear just as mysteriously. It condenses and suggests the flicker, flash and clash of their collective elements, off to one side.
There's as much of a palpable freight to these obscured moments, these negatives of the fullness and presence of rock - and, as is always also the case, rock as a carrier of political discourse - as where they left off a decade ago. There's the brilliant first ten minutes of 'Motherfucker=Redeemer', the following cut-up of George W. Bush that, as Anwyn Crawford has pointed out, his "sound like - morph into - gunfire." The most poignant moment in the Guardian interview comes when they talk about "the dull fact" of being a band: "we spend most of our time engaged with the task at hand - rehearsing, writing, booking tours. We do our best to get along, to stay engaged with each other and with the shared labour... Nothing special, nothing interesting."
The press has talked almost incessantly about the timing of this release, its relevance to the current moment - or irrelevance, in the case of those who've complained about the attention being given to it. That remark by the band prompts a slightly different reflection, concerning what's changed politically since the dour days of the first Bush regime's mid-term. There's the possibilities that have appeared, in Cairo, Tunis, Wisconsin, New York, London, and what continuities and causes for despair still exist. It seems apposite to note the appearance of this hard-won document of anger and lovely stasis and ghostly drift, just as popular struggle, at least in Britain and the post-Occupy US, seems to be undergoing its own moment of hiatus. The album's meanings begin but don't end here, any more than the struggle itself does. But we can start by saying: listen; it's worth it.