Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
For the majority of post-rock fans worldwide, Godspeed is one of the first names that will pop up. This isn’t fact, but it is likely, enough that I would wager my soul on it. Godspeed You! Black Emperor are undoubtedly one of, if not thee, biggest forces in the post-rock genre – known for their instrumental epics, involving a number of orchestral instruments and also for their use of samples and written word. All these things have contributed to pushing Godspeed to the head of the genre, giving them the forward-thinking edge over some of the more conventional bands.
So with that in mind, only a band like Godspeed could release a new album with no promotion after ten years of no recorded output, playing a few live shows each year, and still cause a massive stir. This is their fifth full-length album and saw itself being released just by being sold at live gigs around later September/early October. Once images and rips found their way onto the internet, Godspeed managed to cause the internet music community to whirl into a crazed frenzy over this release with as little effort as possible… and damn, it is worth it.
The album is split into four tracks, amounting to just under 55-minutes altogether, two songs just falling short of the 20-minute mark (Mladic and We Drift Like Worried Fire) and the other two within 6-9 minutes (Their Helicopters’ Sing and Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable). The longer tracks are also split by the shorter ones, and so there’s almost breaks between and after the epics, so in order: Mladic, Their Helicopters’ Sing, We Drift Like Worried Fire and finally Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable.
Mladic opens with this haunting section of conversation (“With his arms outstretched. Okay, can you get him? Can you see him?” “No.” “Shoot.”), with plenty of reverb and volume adjustments, giving it a live sort of sound, as if we’re there at a shootout scene with sketchy two-way radios. Then the sound of an Eastern instrument slowly rises through the mix, while a moody double-bass with a bow becomes more, then subtle distorted guitar comes in as well – the adding and stripping of layers being a constant attribute to this track.
At one point, these racing strings start to come in a playful way and speed up as the track rolls onwards, really forcing your heart to fasten with the beat, the atmosphere mercilessly engulfing you and you can’t help but feel swallowed up in the build-up of its urgent and heavily layered climax. When it comes to the comedown, the layers peel off as the drums slow into a sludgy tiresome pace, the distorted guitar coming back to the front, wailing on in a thick fuzz, as if in post-battle mourning. In the end, we just a get a clattering parade, with frustrated car horns beeping in the background along with party whistles that are only just audible. A beautifully executed and breathtaking track.
Then there’s Their Helicopters’ Sing comes in, focusing on an almost distressful drone/ambience style. It starts as a fizzle, almost like static, while a rumble groans, sounding like a vibrating gong. As the song progresses, we get more orchestral instruments joining in, weaving in and out of play more than sticking with consistent rhythm. The bass thickens as the wailing continues, making for a suffocating experience at times, but unlike the previous track it never really builds up to anything in particular, just a long strain of discordant sounds.
We Drift Like Worried Fire starts off similarly with its static background with the double bass drawn out in long drones with the bow, as soft keys begin to colour it in. Again, the signature creeping sound of Godspeed as the stringed instruments subtly build together, layers added and then taken off. Then around the 3-minute mark a clean guitar appears, pretty quickly rising to the top of the mix as the double bass is plucked instead – creating a very apprehensive atmosphere; although this is softened by the introduction of a glockenspiel and violin. The drums accent this track really well too, never sounding to loud or forceful amongst all the soft sounds that attribute to the track. However, just as the first track did, a distorted guitar helps drive the band into motion, picking up the tempo, but not in the same urgency – this time it’s celebratory.
After that section finishes, we’re left with a wailing violin and more soft keys, the former slowly bowing out of the mix as muffled drums are pounded in a slow beat, as injections metallic clangs (maybe on tins or cowbells). Again, layers are removed and added, eventually giving the listener another motion of suspension, this time the violin leading the way with it’s constantly rising frenzy and levelling off to long draws on the strings, with guitar strums joining in, as the drums keep the pace, with a quiet interlude before the end.
Finally, we come to the end with Strung Up Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable, another drone-orientated track, unlike The Helicopters’ Sing however it remains a very calm and somewhat soothing track; which is needed after the mixed emotions in the rest of the album. The track generally follows a low vibrating bass, with slight noises of feedback waving through the drone, rebounding from the right and left speakers. Even at just over 8-minutes long, the track feels no way near that long, bringing you under a hypnotising spell – a nice ending to such an intensely detailed album.
The conclusion: This is the perfect outcome of Godspeed’s ten years of silence. “‘Alleluja! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” plays with you. You are its puppet, your emotions are moulded by what it plays; or so it feels. The changes in atmosphere toy with your emotion and imagination, and while meshing Eastern and Western musical styles (and instruments) so smoothly it doesn’t feel of this time – more like a recording found from a time before recorded history.
This might be a slight exaggeration, but when you go through it a few times, its general execution and intensity is likely to capture the heart of any post-rock fan. Godspeed have really laid down the gauntlet once again, reminding everyone why they are one of the top names in post-rock, and it’s unlikely anyone will soon forget. This is a passionate release and an intense listen for it.
Favourite tracks: Mladic, Strung Up Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable.