We waited a month. We heard the album when it came out, we posted it on our News page, and we listened – we just wanted to make sure. So often the first reaction to a new album is a euphoric embrace, but then time wears down the veneer and the impression abrades.
I was one of the naysayers when Godspeed You! Black Emperor first announced its reunion tour (technically a “return after a decade hiatus”). It didn’t seem like a good idea. But of course I bought tickets, and I was blown away by the concert. At the time, I hoped for a live document – and lo, there was a live document. (The band freely posts concerts online). Then I hoped for the unreleased tracks “Albanian” and “Gamelan” to be made available on a new album – and lo, there was a new album. Because these songs are ages-old, their release is less a commercial risk than a completion; the two drone tracks on the separate vinyl are the icing on the cake. Their exclusion from the main album demonstrates their bonus status, although they slot beautifully between the two 20-minute tracks on the CD.
It’s hard to understate the grandness of GY!BE’s return. Post-rock was made famous by these folks, and in the long period between their first album and their latest, the genre has mutated, splintered, produced a few headline acts, found its way into TV and film, and has been pronounced dead so often that its death has become a cliché. So if we’re supposed to be living in an age after the post-rock, what is this? Is Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! the final document of a dinosaur collective, coughed up like the last hairball of a dying cat? Is it a statement of an elder king, once more emerging to fight back the contenders to the throne? Is it a political statement? (The liner notes declare, “Fuck Le Plan Nord. Fuck La Loi 78. Montreal right now forever.”) Is it an anti-religious diatribe? (The band seems to knock organized religion, but often performs in churches, which even atheists must admit is pretty cool of both.) Is it a puerile religious joke? (Technically, the band credited here as “God’s Pee.”) Did we ever really know what these anarchists were about? (A slack-eyed retailer at the merch table seemed angry when I suggested I might run off with a t-shirt without paying.) Does it matter?
When appraising an album, one seldom says, “I like the album because of the liner notes” or “the track titles did it for me”. It’s all about the music. Does the album engage the listener? Is it original? Is it transformative in any way – emotionally, intellectually or spiritually? Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! deserves to be judged on its own merits, without the accompanying baggage. In terms of GY!BE’s discography, it’s fair to say that the new album is better than the last two releases, but not quite as good as the first two, which are all-time classics. But it’s still a contemporary classic, which is all one can say without the benefit of time. If we did not know this was GY!BE, we’d be writing that it sounds like GY!BE, and that someone had finally nailed the eminent band’s template. We’d be both happy and sad – happy to hear such sounds, but sad that the new band was not entirely original. It would still be one of the year’s best post-rock albums.
The long track has become to many a post-rock joke. The typical formula, loud-quiet-loud, was never quite so easy with GY!BE. There’s no particular schematic to the band’s songs; they will get loud, but the timing and duration will vary. Many of the band’s tracks are simply quiet-loud, build-explosion. The not-knowing adds to the appeal. And while many bands try to satisfy their listeners, GY!BE seems more concerned with the music itself. Consummate players all, the band members feed off each other in both ideas and execution. A studio track can sound like a live track because essentially it is a live track, and as such unlikely to be performed in exactly the same way again. The two crowd favorites, when translated to wax, also changed their names, like Jacob to Israel; “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire” are the new names. Each builds to a finale whose magnitude is only made possible by the strength of the players and the complexity of the composition. In the first, the listener experiences angry resolution, and in the second, transcendence. On the CD, the alternating drone pieces are needed like the first breath after a dive; on vinyl, the listener must pause to flip the disc. Two of these tracks in a row would be too much, even with the introductory buildups.
The album title seems apt in light of the band’s triumph. This band has never bent, and on the new album, it ascends (or re-ascends) to the heights of instrumental favor. Those waiting for the return of the king may yet raise their voices to the skies and cry, Allelujah!, even if all they get in response is God’s pee. (Richard Allen)