Godspeed You! Black Emperor records are already events in and of themselves. They’re made of huge, epic movements, towering sounds, textures and atmospheres that match the grandiosity of the band’s name. But if you tack on the fact that it’s been almost a decade since they last gave us a record, well all of a sudden ‘ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND! is one of the biggest flat-out music moments of 2012.
It builds its own huge expectations and, amazingly, blows them away. The new record earns those all-caps words in the title, and comes off as the band’s most rock-oriented, and maybe most punishingly beautiful record yet. It’s an album of poles, and also of constant expansion between those poles. We move back and forth from 20-minute movements to about 6-minute movements. And while that seems like simple logistics, especially for a band who makes such unified records, it ends up being crucial to the new record.
What we don’t have here are the shocking shifts and negative space of older albums, particularly F# A# ∞. In it’s place is an album that deals in slashing and repetitive riffage. Opener “Mladic” builds slowly on atmosphere, with muffled voices giving way to keening strings and feedback, something that sounds like a bittersweet approximation of swirling, diving seagulls. These sounds stretch out in each direction, but they’re hardly vague haze. Instead, it’s punctuated by clear sound, a circling of notes that may not be recognizable hooks, but they dig in under your skin nonetheless. It also turns out those seagull-sounds aren’t swirling around firm land. The guitar riffs that come in on clashing rolls of distortion, have a tidal in-and-out to them. They’d be oceanic in heft if they didn’t seem to also rise above and below as well. When the drums come in, they’re lean and insistent, leaving room for the grinding hooks to tangle up into their own size. For all the groaning weight here, the elements are relatively simple, even subtle. Basic chord movements and phrasings continue while the beat under them changes. We go from propulsive rock to, under all that squall, West Indian shuffle to spacey ambience and back into the heaviest hard-rock riff you’ll hear all year. It’s the kind of thing Sabbath would have blushed to hear back when Paranoid came out.
Even if the song is 20 minutes, what it does, the ways in which it doesn’t morph but move are stunning. It’s equal parts joyful and abrasive, and as it leads into “Their Helicopters’ Sing”, that song feels at first like a lament, full of bagpipes and hurdy gurdy and dense squall feels somber at first. But as it goes, though it never takes shape, it does take on edge, earning its own careful inertia, its own surprising swell.
It leads perfectly into the haunting, moodier long piece, “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” a song built on string arrangements and repeating clean guitar riffs. It feels like a long shadow cast behind the fiery stomp of “Mladic,” but it grows its own muscle on tight-to-snapping solos and barely-there-and-then-everywhere keyboards and brilliant cymbal work. If the build up is slower and more deliberate here, if it telegraphs where its going, its still somehow no less surprising when, after walls of blistering noise, the band returns to a lean rock chug, steady chord lines punctuated by strings and driven by military steady drums. Despite the sheer size of this song, and this record, it comes back to a fairly restrained approach here, the same kind of straight-up guitar muscle that they built “Mladic” on.
They seem at their most powerful as that song fades out, so the final track, the ambiant “Strung Like Lights at Three Printemps Erable” starts off exhausted. There’s some angry fuzz in the background, but mostly it feels like tinnitus leftover from the punishing track before. But one thing becomes clear about this band and, in particular, this record: it never relents. The buzzing gets more ferocious, it doesn’t just get louder, it feels like it takes up physical space. It’s yet another strong blast of sound, not a breather after all the work the record did befor it.
The best thing about this record is how it doesn’t quit, but rather retreats only to regroup and come back stronger. There’s a dark tension riding under all of this, but like the band’s best work before it never gives into that darkness but instead crawls out of it towards a new, still-grey light. It’s an album with an undeniable physicality to it, one that demands physical interaction — which is why the record flips back and forth between a 12-inch and 7-inch (the best way to hear it, by the way). This music can’t fade into the background because it asks something of you, it begs interaction. Of all the things it builds, and well, it builds a bridge to the listener.
So nevermind darkness and apocalypse when it comes to this record. It’s hard, sure, but it’s not callous. The album lives up to its name in every way on this powerful, bruising, yet generous record. The muffled sounds you hear in the end are not the remnants of the band’s sound, its the echo of the darkness left behind, its the rumble of feet stepping on new ground, it’s the sound of a blurred, fading memory.