Efrin Manuel Menuck

Plays High Gospel

A few weeks back, what started out as a casual conversation with a friend about the recently reformed Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s forthcoming UK gigs unexpectedly turned into something of a heated debate. We were both excited about the prospect of seeing the group playing again but, from there, opinions started to split. My buddy claimed that GY!BE had always been untouchable, and that a reunion had been inevitable ever since they parted ways in 2003; I argued that critical interest had started to wane around the release of third album Yanqui UXO, and that the band’s absence had coloured their legacy with a somewhat rosy tint. He opined that young Arcade Fire fans would see Godspeed as spiritual forefathers, and flock to worship as Oasis-loving teenagers did with the Beatles twenty years ago; beyond the facts that both groups are Canadian and use strings, I really couldn’t see the connection. The biggest bone of contention, however, was whether they should record new material: my friend – for various reasons – was all in favour, whereas I didn’t agree that it was necessarily a good idea. Doing shows to give fans a nostalgia trip is one thing, but experience has taught us that blighting a solid reputation by committing new ideas (or, rather, reheated old ones) to tape can be pretty embarrassing or, even worse, completely pointless.

A lot of my trepidation was based on the glut of material released over the last decade or so by various GY!BE members’ side projects; a total of 18 albums from Esmerine, Set Fire To Flames, HRSTA, Fly Pan Am and the various permutations of A Silver Mt. Zion had yielded diminishing returns, sounding very much to the casual listener like the tiniest of variations on an over-familiar conversation. If so many of Godspeed’s members had failed so often to come up with a notably fresh idea between them, then why hold our breath expecting them to do so collectively? Imagine, then, my surprise upon hearing Plays High Gospel, GY!BE founder and Silver Mt. Zion main-man Efrim Manuel Menuck’s debut solo outing; a collage of ambient fuzz, half-formed lullabies, primitive techno signal-bending and – yes – gospel, that sounds like a warped version of Godspeed’s bombastic post-rock beamed into space and transmitted back, encoded, from some alien satellite. As much as I hate to admit it, I was wrong: here was an album that was genuinely new and exciting, burning with purpose and most definitely worth forty minutes of anyone’s time.

While the obvious shared variables ensure a sense of deja-vu familiarity, Plays High Gospel bears scant resemblance to either GY!BE or ASMZ; nor does it offer – as one might reasonably expect – much in the way of virtuosic six-string action. Menuck’s approach to his instrument is more experimental here, re-amping and multi-tracking, combining delays, distortion and compression to create subtly billowing clouds of pink noise; in fact, the guitar accounts for a relatively small part of a sonic palette that also includes field recordings, tape manipulations, electronics, organ and piano. When Menuck ties all these strands together, the results are mesmerising. ‘A 12 Point Program For Keep On Keeping On’, for example, combines bass-heavy post-punk tones and cut-up vocal samples before erupting into a barrage of scattershot hardcore beats; ‘Kaddish For Chesnutt’ is a moving eulogy to the late Canadian songwriter (and former Menuck collaborator) while ‘Heaven’s Engine Is A Dusty Ol’ Bellows’ and ‘Chickadees’ Roar Pt. 2′ sound like Morricone Western scores reimagined by Tim Hecker and Julianna Barwick respectively.

Apart from ‘Heavy Calls & Hospital Blues’ – a stripped-back piano ballad that draws too much attention to Menuck’s shortcomings as a vocalist – Plays High Gospel is a remarkably consistent song cycle. However, it’s the two tracks that bookend the album, featuring contributions from Menuck’s partner Jessica Moss, their ASMZ band-mate David Payant, and Montreal songstress Katie Moore, that stand out as real highlights. Opener ‘Our Lady Of Parc Extension And Her Munificent Sorrows’ is a slow-motion rocket-ship ride into the heart of the sun, Menuck and Moore harmonising over Moss’ gently swelling violin and Payant’s stuttering drums while dive-bombing electronics puncture vapour trails of mangled guitar. The closing ‘I Am No Longer A Motherless Child’, meanwhile, pairs gently freewheeling space-rock with a simple, repeated lyric celebrating Menuck and Moss’ infant son Ezra: “Look at my boy / Look at him smile / I am no longer a motherless child.” Both tracks exude a joyous warmth that most often seemed absent from GY!BE, and on this basis the prospect of new material suddenly seems a lot more appealing: if a decade of births and deaths and all the really important stuff in between can help the group realise there is more to life than punk rock and politics, then maybe there’s an idea worth exploring after all. And if it results in something that burns with the same passion and humanity as Plays High Gospel, I would gladly eat my words all over again.

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