Sunday, December 9, 2012
Godspeed's return takes listeners on journey to hell, but not back
Godspeed You! Black Emperor was one of the first and best post-rock bands, laying down a foundation with the crushing opus Raise Your Fists to Heaven Like Skinny Antennas. With a three pronged guitar battery, two drummers, and a litany of other various effects and instruments, the Canadian band perfected a sound based on slow, churning buildups that would eventually launch themselves into a massive tidal swell of heavy, emotionally intense walls of guitars and melody, before finally deconstructing itself and ending as it began. Song lengths averaged around 20 minutes. Imitators soon emerged. But following 2002's Yanqui U.X.O., Godspeed quietly packed up and slipped off into the night.
That changed with the release of Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, announced roughly two weeks prior to its October 16 release. Word of a new Godspeed album leaked when the band nonchalantly began selling copies of it at their merch table during their latest tour, before it had even been commercially released.
Now they have returned, on the eve of the Mayan endtimes, and have produced an album that could very well be its soundtrack.
The album consists of two full length tracks, 20 minutes apiece in length, along with two abbreviated drone pieces. Opener "Mladic" is a roaring, rumbling, doom laden piece with full throated guitars playing a theme which sounds like a Russian hat dance at the apocalypse. No doubt this is the most aggressive and hard rocking piece on the album. Several trends become quickly apparent. There is almost always a layer of drone supplementing whatever the lead melody is, and this drone is always shifting and evolving. It's quite impossible to pin down its exact nature for any length of time.
Sophie Trudeau's violin is almost never used as lead instrument, in the classical sense, but is rather used as a tool to add various coloring and texture to the drone. At the beginning of "Mladic," she sets a mood with a Middle Eastern/Russian tinged lead, one of the few times Trudeau's playing is plainly visible. Other than the violin, the band's drone is created by an immense switchboard capable of creating a dynamic litany of effects, along with the continual feedback delivered from the strings of Godspeed's three guitarists.
"Mladic" follows the classic song structure developed by the band since its infancy, which means the first five to six minutes of the song consist of this drone, building up the tension for what is to come. When they let loose, they really outdo themselves. During the opening those three guitars lumber like sleeping giants, yet when the main melody kicks in the listener is left in awe of the power those bandmembers are able to harness from their instruments. From there the song proceeds like a roller coaster, quieting and slowing the pace only to build back up again. By the time the song concludes to sound of clanking metal tin cans, Godspeed have unleashed a tour de force, an oeuvre that leaves the listener breathless and winded. Its ability to communicate such dark thoughts and feelings with only the benefit of instrumental sounds is so impressive that it serves to make spoken language look like a primitive institution by comparison.
"We Drift Like Worried Fire" takes a much different tack. The build up displays how proficient the band is at utilizing drone in innovative ways. The lead melody remains relatively simple for the first few minutes while the drone in the background continues to shift and evolve. Slowly, the rest of the instruments begin to come in, and begin to produce post rock that sounds like their take on a sound Grace Cathedral Park or This Will Destroy You might go for.
At its height, the song is like a great catharsis; it provides a strong emotional appeal that can and will tug at your heart strings. It gets droney and esoteric along the way, but it gets powerful again near the end with the chugging clanging of the guitar, the awe inspiring leads of the violin and cello, the drumming, and the combination of various other instruments. If "Mladic" is concerned with apocalyptic doom, "We Drift Like Worried Fire" tends to view the world with misty eyed wonder and a genuine sense of tenderness.
Of the two drone pieces, "Their Helicopters Sing" is the more engaging. Bridging the gap between "Mladic" and "We Drift Like Worried Fire," it initially sounds like Trudeau is trying to saw through her violin strings. The piece exudes a general sense of dread, and sounds like bagpipes playing from the moor of the dead. "Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable" is the de facto album closer, but serves as more of a moment of reflection rather than a traditional closing track. It takes on a very alienlike quality; other than that little can be said of it other than it consists mostly of a busy drone with little else to support it. The layers slowly strip away to close the album with a gentle hum.
A general way to think about the album is this: "Mladic" represents the end of the world, "Their Helicopters Sing" illustrates the realm of the dead/dying afterward. Then, "We Drift Like Worried Fire" provides optimism and hope that maybe mankind will pull through, until "Strung Like Lights..." squashes all hope and marks the end in cold, debilitating fashion.
There's no question Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! can be a difficult record. It consists of only two suites that can truly be considered main attractions, with each piece intended to be observed as a unit. This can cause the album to seem shorter than its 50+ minute run time.
But ultimately that's trivial. The album evokes dark feelings and moods, though often drives with an enlightened spirit and can generate a true sense of optimism. This is the post rock record for those who don't listen to post rock. Though it's an instrumental record, it has plenty of things to say; the amount of messages it can send is limited only by the listener's imagination. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! is among the greatest of achievements due to the band's ability to speak volumes with only the limited tools at hand.