Godspeed You! Black Emperor
'Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress'
, April 2nd, 2015 09:14
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. Besides, unfinished business is a reason to keep on living, and once it's done, you're done. The two long tracks that made up the lion's share of 'Allelujah! in fact dated back to the group's final pre-hiatus tour in 2003, with fully-formed versions of 'Mladic' and 'We Drift Like Worried Fire' performed under the titles 'Albanian' and 'Gamelan' - so perhaps that's just what 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! was about: dealing with unfinished business. They were clearing the revolutionary's docket for good, before signing off and leaving a truly fucked up modern society to stew in its own hateful mess - and without the appropriate soundtrack. However, once up and running, the world's largest manmade vessels are tough to stop, and the revived GY!BE could not, it seems, halt once more.
'Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress' is exceptional in the GY!BE canon in a whole heap of ways. Firstly, it's a mere 40 minutes long - which is short by anybody's modern standards, let alone for the band which popularised the 20-minute plus track time for a whole generation. What's more the four tracks that make up the album play through as one single suite, resulting in a potent statement that it's tough to argue against always sitting through in its entirety (as if 'motherfucker=redeemer' had been its own album). The only other release by the band to rival Asunder in its sheer distilled potency, is the half-hour Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP.
Like all long-serving Godspeed You! Black Emperor fans, they're a band I feel intimately close to. I hold them up in the highest regard; they were an epochal moment in my own musical journey and maturation. The forlorn plucked guitars and violins of 'The Dead Flag Blues' soundtracked dozens of lonely teenage walks along Plymouth's wet grey waterfront, while the many peaks and troughs of '09-15-00' pumped through headphones during a family drive through a desolate Middle-Eastern landscape on an oddly-chosen family holiday remain forever etched in my memory. They offered something no other contemporary rock band could quite muster, making music to trip out on but without concerning themselves with the likes of space, jazz or worse yet, 'spirituality'. There's no need to suspend your disbelief when GY!BE send up those hairs on the back of your neck.
It was perhaps an illusion back in that long-distant time before the web and music became so intertwined, but the group's apparent obscurity was something that made them all the more alluring to a teenage mind disillusioned with the indie scraps on the radio and pant-wetting screamo littering the pubs around the West County. Sporadic first-name only credits on the sleeves, cryptic song titles, lo-fi artwork, and mysteriously sourced samples were an integral part of the experience, making every subsequent cinematic crescendo all the more pronounced, turning mundane reality into something abrasive and awe-inspiring (without having to be part of some great unified experience, or something all the other kids knew). Even the discovery of their now extremely dated website over at Brainwashed felt like stumbling across an untapped gold mine.
In many ways, the dispersal of the group's lineup since the hiatus, with former and current members remaining active in a whole host of side projects, has dismembered the multi-faceted sound of GY!BE's initial run of three albums and an EP. Percussionist Bruce Cawdron skipped out after 'Allelujah to commit himself fully to his incredible chamber and folk-infused group, Esmerine, seemingly taking many of those heartbreakingly melancholy interludes (and his glockenspiel) with him. Still present guitarist, David Bryant was a key player in formulating the worn tape loops and iconic recorded interviews on F#A# and Lift Yr Skinny Fists (along with Roger Tellier-Craig, who's since left the group entirely to pursue a career in experimental electronics amongst other things), but Bryant's fantastic Hiss Tracts project with Kevin Doria (of Growing) commits itself solely to his unique brand of ambient-experimental soundscapes. Cellist Norsola Johnson choese not to return for 'Allelujah, leaving violinist Sophie Trudeau as the sole string player in the group. Even founding member Efrim Menuck's quit writing glissandi lines for his screwdriver scraped guitar strings (as heard on the likes of 'Moya'), electing to rock-the-fuck-out instead. What's more, Timothy Herzog (the photographer of Allelujah's cover photo) has stepped in as Bruce Cawdron's unlikely replacement on GY!BE's second drum kit, the first new band member for over a decade. This new Godspeed You! Black Emperor, stripped of the sidebars, has become the high-volume anarchist epic rock band they've always been in their deepest core, and Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress is the result. Pure distilled, 200 proof revolutionary instrumental rock.
Anybody who saw the group's recent tours has already heard much of the material on Asunder, which was appearing as a lengthy (some iterations went over the forty minute mark) multi-movement piece pre-emptively titled 'Behemoth' on setlists. It begins blindingly simply, with an archetypal 6/8 beat plodded out unaccompanied by both drummers. Suddenly a careening epic overture of deathly serious riffage crashes into view, and a towering barrage of three guitars, two basses and a violin march onto the battlefield to join the two drummers. Several minutes and an actual shredding guitar solo into the building track, it all takes an about turn towards major keys, Sophie Trudeau plodding out balkan melodies on the violin, while the drums loosen up. She's later usurped by a slide-guitar - practically straight from F# A#'s cutting room floor, and steeped in gothic Americana - turning the descending opening riff on its head, morphing it into an uplifting climax. The name of this first ten minute section is listed as the typically wordy 'Peasantry Or 'Light! Inside Of Light!'', and it segues straight into the equally long (or short, depending on how you view it) drones and feedback of 'Lambs' Breath'.
As a subject, the concept of a downtrodden 'peasantry' is perhaps something which defines the politics of Godspeed You! Black Emperor; a royally fucked underclass, physically and spiritually slaving away, giving over our minds and bodies to prop up a hegemony of which no good has ever come. The typically grim and beautiful artwork that comes with the album, includes a poster of an upside down Canadian flag, hovering over a ground-nibbling lambs. Between lamb and flag sit the words, "WE LOVE YOU SO MUCH OUR COUNTRY IS FUCKED." The group have always been intensely calculated with their words and assisting artwork, adding a political edge to what is already some very serious sounding music. I've often struggled to decide whether their aggressive, angry movements are horrific representations of the demonic warmongering powers-that-be, or a hellraising call-to-arms for the downtrodden masses. Are the marching drums and cannon-fire guitars that open the album the sound of 'us' coming to get 'them'? Or is it a portrait of our own impending demise; the deathly back-bent march of a world of peasants, living empty lives so 'they' don't have to? 'Lambs' Breath' follows immediately, with drumless droning stoner guitars, piercing ghostly bowed cymbals, and farting vibrations squealing from gigantic brutalised amps. No-nonsense unified group drone music has played a pivotal role in GY!BE, and came to the forefront in Allelujah's pair of six-and-a-half minute interludes. Passages of amorphous ambient droning have also always given them a space to improvise live, and 'Lamb's Breath' certainly feels improvised. Halfway through, keyboards enter the mix, and the group's long spindly notes become almost meditative, pulsating through gaping chasms together before a single endless note cycles on for eternity (it's a locked groove on the vinyl, so it's quite literally an eternity).
The title track of sorts opens up side two, and the six minutes of 'Asunder, Sweet' picking up directly from where 'Lamb's Breath' left off, and diverting away from the meditative comedown/dronefest vibe and taking things into far weirder abstract territory. Scraped violins cycle either side of the stereo field, while atonal sound effects and awakening six-string monsters steadily gather like some satanic orchestra tuning up. Towards its end, the piece again scales the heights of noisy drumless guitars, and seamlessly segues into the excellently-titled thirteen minute grand finale, 'Piss Crowns are Trebled'. The ocean of fuzzy noises and loops quickly gets punctuated with percussion, and a simplistic chord movement comes into view - just enough to formulate a tune over. Punched out power chords, marching drums and a mournful set of melodies played out on harmonising tremolo guitars. Violins play out for the piece's central section, leading through several dramatic peaks and troughs. It perfectly marries the group's new heavier approach with their vintage brand of emotional crescendos heading ever skyward, and of course ultimately collapsing into a fading serene coda. It's familiar territory to be sure, but they've never sounded more like they're playing for their very lives.
'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress' is a deceptively meaningful step for Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The band's activity has always been something of a microcosm for what they preach. They express together as a unified group, they find greater power in numbers, they scream angry cries as they run into battle amid the smoking ruins of aging patriarchal dominant powerhouses. But in the past they've also wept and lamented together, read poetry to each other, mournfully sat in knitting circles above working men's pubs, quietly crocheting patchworks of painful memories. Now, these frills have been shed. It's the direction they've headed further and further towards since Yanqui U.X.O. did away with words, growing increasingly militaristic and angered on 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, and ultimately finding ourselves at this latest blast of outright sonic war. The occasional soppiness of post-rock, which ultimately rendered it a dirty word in certain circles, has all but disappeared from the work of its godparents. Godspeed You! Black Emperor are now truly playing the music they were destined to play, and in its purest, weightiest possible form.