Godspeed You! Black Emperor ~ ‘Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’

AsunderIf any instrumental album could be called an event, this is it.  Godspeed You! Black Emperor has nothing to prove, and yet they keeping proving it.  ‘Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’ is worth the hype, although the band likely doesn’t care.  Their disregard for popular opinion lies at the heart of their continued success, because it has always allowed them to blaze their own path.  Many bands have followed in their wake, hoping to be the next Godspeed, but one can’t be the next Godspeed if Godspeed itself refuses to retire.

The hype around this release has been matched only by its secrecy.  No one saw this album coming; it sprung like a beast from the bushes.  Constellation has done a great job keeping it under wraps, with vinyl-only promos reducing the chance of leaks.  There’s something very exciting about this tactic, as it forces reviewers into a tactile interaction.  First comes the receiving, then the unwrapping, then the thick weight of the record, and finally the listening.  When I received my copy a couple weeks ago, the temptation was to immerse myself in the album and write a review the same day: to be the first to weigh in.  But such an approach does an album a disservice.  Better to wait, to play the album over time, and to confirm that it is as good as it sounds on first listen.  It is.

At this point in the review, we recommend that readers click over to The Guardian, where for the time being the album is streaming in full.  (The link will open in another window.)  Now we can have this conversation together.

When GY!BE released Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, many people thought that would be it.  After all, the album was a collection of songs that many had been hearing live for years.  The thought of newly-composed songs seemed completely out of the question: pie in the sky thinking.  And yet, here’s the band telling us, “We writ, wrung and ruined it … during all four seasons of 2013 & 2014.”  Creatively revived after the last world tour, the band has zeroed in on the key elements of their success: long builds (that seem even longer here, akin to those in concert), thick electrified clouds and a sense of impending doom.  Yes, some light does get in – one can see it shining on the sheep on the album’s cover, and one can hear a guitar’s imitation of a sheep on the title track – but overall, this is an LP of power and gloom.  Concise to a fault – 4 tracks, 40 minutes – Asunder drops the dialogue samples, makes only a slight nod to politics (the inverted, half-mast Canadian flag on the inner sleeve) and simply brings the rock, or if you prefer, the post-rock.  This set is strong enough to buy the genre another decade at least.  The only problem is that it also shows up the weaknesses of the genre, as most post-rock albums can’t hold a candle to this one.

So let’s be clear: GY!BE is not just going through the motions, not revisiting past glories, not attempting to stretch a career in a crass fashion with a sub-par set.  Instead, ‘Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’ is a magnificent collection that plays like a concept album, rivaling Pink Floyd’s Animals (the sheep being just a coincidence).  In concert, the set has come to be known as Behemoth, a fitting sobriquet.

Once a person has seen GY!BE in concert, one can’t unsee them.  This seems obvious, but in terms of the band’s music, it means that one can’t help but visualize the band, even when listening to new material.  The opening “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light” (literally) sets the stage by presenting what fans have come to see and hear: a loud, sure-footed, melodic builder.  One can imagine the dual-screened videos, the flashing lights, the anarchists at the merchandise table protecting copies of Steal This Book!  And yes, there’s pot smoke.  And it’s probably in a church.  GY!BE is nothing if not ironic.

But then the music slows down – way down.  The fans are already invested, in for the long haul, slightly deafened and eager for something deeper.  Midway through the first side, we reach “Lamb’s Breath”, and on this track, the band takes the chance that isn’t a chance for them, but would be for anyone else.  Thick drones waft through the air like medicinal marihuana.  This is not commercial, nor is it particularly accessible.  In this piece, the album is sonically rent asunder: distress that will be followed by sweetness.  The side ends in a locked groove, a drone that never ends unless one gets up and does something about it.  If this were almost any other band, one would consider this a pressing plant novelty, but with Godspeed, it seems more like a metaphor.

The title track lifts itself from the drone like a monster from the muck.  It all builds to the longest, loudest finale that one can imagine, nearly ten minutes of swirl: drums, guitars, organ, violin, and at the very end, a bagpipe recessional revealed beneath the debris.  At 13:50, “Piss Crowns Are Trebled” is unlikely to be played on many radio stations, but it’s certainly a crown: a track whose cathartic effect is made possible by all that has preceded it.  This is the track that will overwhelm concertgoers, causing them to stumble into the streets, ears ringing, trying to comprehend the profundity of what they have just heard.  In concert, GY!BE attacks with sound; we can’t imagine this track being played softly, nor do we recommend it.

Many bands are still okay after five albums, but few are still inspired after two decades.  Once again, the scene’s preeminent band has surpassed expectations.  We can all breathe a sigh of relief, and be thankful.  (Richard Allen)

Release date:  31 March

Available here

3 comments

  1. Great review. Can’t wait to see them again next month.

  2. Pingback: ACL 2015: Top Ten Rock, Post-Rock, Folk & Jazz | a closer listen

  3. Pingback: ACL 2015: The Top 20 Albums of the Year | a closer listen

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