It may be an understatement to say that Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s time has finally come. Not their musical time ~ that arrived when they first appeared on the scene a quarter century ago. But their socio-political time ~ the time they warned us about, album after album, concert after concert, in prophetic swells and images. The band writes that when they returned from lockdown, “the apocalypse pastors were still there, but yelling END TIMES NOW where they once yelled “end times soon’.”
We could have prevented Trump, and children in cages, and Brexit, and a global pandemic. We saw the signs of such things ~ racial profiling, the 1%, puppet dictators, xenophobia, melting icecaps, and yes, those pastors ~ but we dismissed them, or overlooked them, or ignored them as we went about our business of consuming and polluting, expanding the Pacific garbage patch and lining the pockets of Amazon, saving money while mutilatng the very rainforest that lent the company its name. And then the bill came due. And of course GY!BE is mad about it. There is no glory in saying “I told you so!” when the world is in self-destruct mode.
GY!BE has never really participated in “the system.” The collective ~ ten strong on this release ~ disdains social media and the trappings of commercialism. Touring is important to them, but they’ve been forced off the road by COVID, composing and recording in both pre-pandemic and pandemic phases. The album is a treat for long-time fans, revisiting iconic imagery while adding retro tints and classic phrasing. We look forward to stealing the t-shirts. As to the construction, two twenty-minute pieces are counter-balanced by two six-minute pieces, like noise to signal, bombast to exhaustion. Field recordings ~ a long-cherished feature of the band ~ make multiple appearances. But while the album is entertaining from start to finish, entertainment does not seem to be GY!BE’s goal. Instead, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is an explosion of pent-up frustration, a public venting, an exhortation. “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN,” they declare in the title of the closing song, but the words seem a plea, clinging to the final breaking branch, a Hail Mary from the brink as the earth collapses beneath their feet. Little stands between humanity and the abyss.
The four-part opening track begins with what seems like a countdown, but the jumbled numbers seem more like shortwave code. Something is being transmitted: a virus, a meme, an idea, a threat. One can sense the projectors firing up, the fuses being lit. And then a vintage melody, a soupçon of nostalgia, the panacea to which many have retreated over the past year. The first guitar enters like a national anthem. GY!BE simultaneously reflects and challenges its host culture. But long anger takes too much energy, which is how “Job’s Lament” finds a home in the second quarter. There is sound and fury, but also exhaustion. How long can one scream into the void without growing tired and hoarse? And will one be prepared for the answer?
The military drums convey the sound of ancient warfare, but also serve as a call to arms. The military does not have a monopoly on militaristic sound or metaphor. If anything, the loudest passages recall the ending of “Do the Right Thing:” Wake up! WAKE UP! The capital letters of the album title hammer the point home, like sticks and snare. When eight minutes remain, a repeating riff plunges the piece into its final glorious phase. And then the barest hint of choral vocals. For ninety seconds, someone shoots into the sky.
If GY!BE produced hit singles, it might find one in “Fire at Static Valley” ~ slow, sweet, inexorable. But this is just the calm before the storm. Side B begins with an interview, a world-weary man complaining about the government taking everything. Soon after, Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The juxtaposition of evangelical fervor recalls earlier albums, the religious right continuing to inject itself into political conversation. Earlier today, The New York Times reported on white evangelical leaders who are keeping the pandemic going by preaching against vaccinations. The strings swirl; the guitars rise; the cliffs fall. A glockenspiel appears toward the end, bearing more spirituality than the specifically religious passage. The title of the closing section, “ASHES TO SEA or NEARER TO THEE” references funeral services (“ashes to ashes”) and the apocryphal story of the final hymn played on the Titanic. Now we’re all going down. Ironically, these final minutes are among the most melodic and accessible GY!BE has ever produced. As if in apology, or as a reminder that religion can in the right hands be beautiful, the piece collapses in peals of church bells.
It can be no mere coincidence that the album was released on Good Friday, the culmination of a war between organized religion and prophetic vision. On Good Friday, an indictment becomes a sentence of crucifixion. The sky is covered in darkness. The people mourn. “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN,” the band declares, the closing piece a eulogy and a prayer. We don’t deserve another Easter. But will there be grace? And how will we behave if we suspect none is coming? (Richard Allen)