Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 'Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Let’s talk about what’s happened in dramatic, instrumental-heavy rock (some might call it post rock) in the 10 years since Godspeed You! Black Emperor released its last album, Yanqui U.X.O. Explosions in the Sky unfurled basically their entire catalog and became unlikely festival darlings, bringing the extended, carefully structured instrumental rock track into the ears and hearts of thousands. MONO enjoyed moderate success after moving over to Temporary Residence, Ltd., a label they shared with Explosions in the Sky. We saw Sigur Rós reach a broader audience by moving on from the screeching feedback and ambient noise it thrived on with albums like Takk… and Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. That’s not to mention that on a local level, the band validated countless bearded college dudes sporting high-slung Fenders, an affinity for effects pedals and not-so-great handles on dynamics or composition—only now they had an excuse to bore the pants off of onlookers in basements across the U.S.
These are broad, sweeping generalizations, ones that are probably too broad to comfort fans of the genre, ones that would have friends of mine shaking their heads. But the point remains intact: As a culture, we’re more prepared for a new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album than we were in the early 2000s. The proof is in the cult-status (but minimal success) of albums like Yanqui and their seminal Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. And yet, some fans are a little pissed off with the release of ’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!. The quiet release of the album left many rushing to additional reunion shows to pick up a copy after they were mysteriously put on sale at the band’s Oct. 1 date in Boston. And after throwing the album on a turntable, fans found the extended, melodic tracks “Mladic” and “We Drift like Worried Fire” were a little too familiar to get excited about. After all, fan communities knew these compositions by other names, “Albanian” and “Gamelan,” and the band had been playing versions of them—which had been well documented as bootlegs—before their big hiatus in 2003.
But fanboy drama set aside, a new collection of tracks from a band as critically lauded as Godspeed is a welcome one and ’Allelujah! doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The time-tested tracks not only showcase the band doing what they do best in notoriously long, dramatic, panic-inducing instrumentals but are also startling reminders on why the band was so vital and lead such a movement to begin with.
The meat of the production is in its two true compositions, with the additional “B” tracks (“Their Helicopters’ Sing” and “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable”) acting as “drone” tracks—we see these on the additional 7” record included with ’Allelujah! and not on the 12”. Opener “Mladic” shows the band’s commanding hold on the dynamics that have defined the genre, but that’s just the start. It’s an unsettling, abrasive 20-something minutes defined by an opening of some sort of sick formula of dissonant notes and rhythms.
We’re only relieved when the band comes crashing together toward the song’s halfway point for a Middle East-leaning gang riff that’s cathartic at least, and its defining, seven-note conclusion make the whole thing immediately rewarding. We get some relief on the flip side of the album in “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” a more linearly paced, building track compared to its counterpart. Here we see the band building, er, ascending on a melody that introduces the song before launching into a triumphant mess of tremolo-picked guitar and strings. It’s tense, it’s beautiful, it’s bleak, it takes the listener from point A to point B while leaving it up to us what the point of the ride is to begin with. Godspeed You! Black Emperor is back, if only for this album and the reunion shows that surrounded it, and it’s all we could ask for after a decade’s wait.