'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, 2012)
In this album, GYBE returns, in a way, to the formula which brought them almost to the verge of mainstream attention after the release of their third record Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven back in 2000. Since then, they released Yanqui U.X.O. which exhibited a much more mature compositional sense, at the same time abandoning the low-fi production and found sound samples which trademarked their earlier work. But then they kind of disappeared for about seven years; Efrim Menuck, the band's guitarist and ideological spokesman, focused on other projects, and didn't reconvene the GYBE collective until 2011. Since then they've done some touring, and released a new album; they're back.
We are in well-staked Godspeed territory from the beginning: the police-scanner chatter which opens the record could have fit right in on any of the group's first three releases. The composition which follows is much more ominous, foreboding, and heavy than anything they've done before, except perhaps "Moya" from the Slow Riot EP. The two guitars are the dominant instruments here, with the violin given important melodic lines as well. But the sonic palette is much more restricted then the band has ever previously worked with. The guitars sound identical, with the same overdriven distortion employed consistently. Similar sounds are used on "We Drift Like Worried Fire", the other "composed" piece on the album, although instead of the grim minor-key atmosphere which characterized "Mladic" this one is more optimistic-sounding, more hopeful. It also grants more license to the timbres of the guitars and bowed stings. Along with these two pieces, there are two "drone" tracks, thick gummy static pieces with similar sound to the rest of the album and to each other.
The defining characteristic of this album is its homogeneity: from beginning to end, its sonic language is made almost entirely of a limited vocabulary of guitars, bowed strings, and drums. Absent are the guest woodwinds and horns of their previous two albums, and the glockenspiel and piano, which played vital roles in their earlier recordings. Their signature found sounds and sampled voices are limited to the formerly-mentioned police band radio and some percussive noise as bookends for "Mladic". The most exotic sound on the album is Efrim's hurdy-gurdy on "Their Helicopters' Sing".
In emotional tone the band haven't changed at all. None of the members of Godspeed could ever be said to be technically gifted, and their compositional abilities rarely reach beyond two-part homophony with a pedal bass. But the attraction of Godspeed's music has always been it's raw moodiness. The band carefully craft their compositions to exploit the full emotive connotations of key changes, cadences, and melodic structures to convey a mixture of sadness and hope, joy and despair. The songs on Yanqui U.X.O. didn't have this emotional quality; although I think that album was brilliantly executed and compositionally superior to anything else the group has done, it didn't deal in the group's standard emotional fare and therefore didn't showcase what made the group special. It could be said that Godspeed's formula is tired and predictable and that they are merely treading water on this release, but they do it so well that I don't mind.
An interpretive difficulty is encountered when the CD and vinyl versions of the album are compared. On the CD, "Their Helicopters' Sing" and "Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable"1 come after "Mladic" and "We Drift Like Worried Fire" respectively; on the vinyl version, they are relegated to their own 7" disc. What is the track order of the album? With the vinyl version the effect is almost of two separate artistic works, related yet distinct; on the CD the drones are more like palate-cleansers after the two extended compositions. This ambiguity gives the drones much more importance than they otherwise would have.
What is with these song titles? I’ve been following GYBE and Menuck for fifteen years and I still can’t figure out the appeal of the clunky, awkward names they like to use.