Like with 2012’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend, fans know the music on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s latest LP, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. They just used to call it “Behemoth.” It’s a fitting title for the piece if you need to throw one at it, considering both runtime (anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes live) and the hall-rattling grandiosity of its final movement. On their own setlists, GY!BE just called it “Big ‘Un,” which works just fine for me.
The Canadian post-rock band took the fan-tagged “Behemoth” around the world starting in 2012, and the piece was later pared down, dragged out and droned over almost 100 times in concert. So when the music blogs refer to all that “road testing” referenced in Asunder’s press release, we’re not talking a little club warmup tour before hitting the studio. In fact, when opening for Nine Inch Nails for their 2013 Tension tour, sometimes “Behemoth” was all GY!BE played. So the LP that became Asunder has been years, miles, continents in the making. When it comes to self-producing a seamless 40 minutes of narrative-free rock, that’s to both the audience’s and the recording’s benefit.
It’s one thing for an instrumental act to wow with a dynamic-heavy piece in a live setting. Paired with Godspeed’s fantastic musicianship and 16mm projections, triggering a satisfactory crowd response at this point can be a matter of picking the right notes and knowing when to burst into a climax. But as a document of where the band is in 2015, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is much more than a tune that got wild responses live. And with its runtime, it might be a surprise to some to know it doesn’t resemble an out-of-control free jam. And it isn’t a live translation of the YouTube or bootleg recordings fans had to settle for since 2012. Asunder is an air-tight version of the already nuanced “Behemoth” piece that’s seen enough play to become hyper-focused, but it hasn’t lost its edge in the process.
Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is hacked up into four parts—1. “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light’” 2. “Lamb’s Breath,” 3. “Asunder, Sweet” and 4. “Piss Crowns are Trebled.” But don’t be fooled—the most division you’ll sense on the LP is when you pull your needle off Side A’s locked groove. The thing is pretty seamless, and it all starts with the same doomy kick-snare-kick-snare intro that signaled the “new song” for fans on the 2012 tour. Or, “tough shit,” for those who were due for a bathroom break. Asunder’s main voice—a reverb-heavy slide guitar—doesn’t make an entrance until “Lamb’s Breath,” but it’s a gorgeous trip along the way. Fragile strings, wiry guitars, a wall of drums and bass guide you through Side A, while feedback yanks you back in on the flip side. This side is all building, part by part, up to Asunder’s cathartic finish—and after 40 minutes, it feels anything but a cheap climax. No, by the “Piss Crowns” finale, you’ve earned your feelings.
But the four divisions do signal in different movements: The pretty, melodic intro that rings in a Middle Eastern-style groove defines “Peasantry,” where atmosphere and pure droning make up the second half of Side A. That mood-setting droning makes up some of the next side, but what’s exceptional about the tension built up through “Peasantry” and “Lambs’ Breath” is the release that follows, all over Side B. There’s full-on, back-hunching brutality. Then major chord uplifting melodies. Even some playfulness from the Godspeed players. Asunder is a self-described giant piece, and our investments pay off such deeper rewards by the end of the LP. There’s a reason why GY!BE can go out in front of a crowd and play one song and have that be enough, and that’s because Asunder is Godspeed: the Band condensed into one piece. Their building tension (plenty of that). The lulling drones. The tear-summoning climax.
“Behemoth,” Asunder—call it whatever you want to call it. But it’s a true piece of art, and we’re lucky Godspeed You! Black Emperor gave listeners a proper document.