Sunday, 21 October 2012

Review: Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! By Godspeed You! Black Emperor

by Ben Wallis

In the world of cult bands, few have achieved the status of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. They began life in Montreal, Canada in 1994 as part of the growing post-rock movement, since then they have become the spearhead of the genre, representing the dark and challenging reaches of the genre. The band went on an indefinite hiatus in 2003, since then their legacy has been secured by a loyal fan base and internet popularity, but in 2010 they started playing live shows again and finally in October 2012 a new album was released.

Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! Is made up of just 4 tracks (I will avoid the term song, as there is no singing) two 20 minute long pieces and two ‘drone’ tracks that create negative space between the main movements. Keen Godspeed fans will realise that the two main pieces, ‘Mladic’ and ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ are not brand new and have been played by the band at live shows since 2003, just before their hiatus. But, studio recorded versions are certainly welcome and the album itself does not disappoint.

‘Mladic’ is the first track and it begins with a repeating vocal sample of two worried voices saying, “With his arms outstretched.” “With his arms outstretched?” “Okay” “Do you see him?” with this and the title of the piece, it’s hard not to read a political line into the music. This would not be uncommon for the band, who have made political points with their music before, despite the lack of lyrics, taking aim at issues such as Palestine and American government. The band were in fact arrested by US police and questioned by the FBI on suspicion of being terrorists, during their 2003 tour, but, political points are few on this album, similar to their previous album ‘Yanqui U.X.O.’.

The vocal sample ends and ‘Mladic’ then moves into a collection of chaotic and droning strings, that features violins, cellos and what sounds like guitars being tortured; this atmospheric and abrasive section continues until the tension is near unbearable. It’s not until 6 minutes into the track that an eastern flavoured guitar riff emerges from the noise; of course it’s worth the wait, layers of guitars build and power the track along in the closest thing to rock music you will get from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, until it crescendos in epic proportions several times, coming back in almost a chorus like way. The music is dark and menacing, and features some of the heaviest guitars on any of the band’s work, but after the 6 minutes of drone at the start, is surprisingly accessible.

The record then fades into the negative space track of ‘Their Helicopters Sing’ which divides the two halves of the album; it is full of moody (slightly out of tune) strings, ambient noises and strange humming. Then the second 20 minute piece ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ begins. Here we see a polar opposite to the darkness of ‘Mladic’, instead the music is light and beautiful, focussed on detailed clean guitar, rather than distortion. Towards the end the track changes to a face paced, string and guitar finale that is urgent, but still retains its beauty.

As a whole the album is a great return for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, showcasing the full range of their sounds, from dark and brooding to light and joyous. Certainly, this is not music for everyone and is not the sort of thing you can listen to casually; it is an acquired taste, but this is one of Godspeed’s most accessible works and I would encourage anyone with an open mind to take a listen. This is a challenging, but rewarding album; if experimental instrumental music floats your boat, then this is a record you will enjoy for years to come.

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