Album Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress'

Godspeed's new record is a tense but imperfect piece of program music hearkening to images of rebellion and revolution.

It's a surprise to hear the new GY!BE album immediately launch into something that's recognizably rock music. Of all their post-rock peers, Godspeed was always the one that hewed closest to the name of their genre.

They were always so much more abstract than their peers, drawing clear influence from noise and drone and contemporary classical music and approaching them all with punk rock verve and instruments.

They seemed the closest to the no-wave aspirations of their peers, tapping into something a bit more ambitious in its punk spirit than over-long songs with now-stereotypical quiet-loud-quiet slow-building crescendos.

The closest comparisons to them were, of course, some of the best in the genre: Sigur Ros, with their ethereal fairy music; Mogwai, with their abstract guitar symphonies; Rachel's, with their sometimes honest-to-god symphonies sold to rock and punk audiences; and, of course, the inestimable and rightfully legendary Talk Talk, who turned in two records at the close of their career that not only clearly inspire the genre but stand as clear testaments to the potential breadth of rock and pop music as art genres.

All bands which created music which, whether we needed to go there or not, transcended the boundaries of rock and punk and pop into the worlds of contemporary classical and avant-garde composition using the tools of rock bands.

It's a pleasant surprise, however. Godspeed, like their peers, has gone too far in their career to trade in on the same compositional ideas.

And, honestly, we don't need another record in the same cast as their legendary initial run. They seem to be aware of this, both with this record and their previous, 2012's 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!.

The opening is still dramatic, of course.

It weaves a dueling violin and cello sawing melody backed up by bass and drums and percussion, leaning back on their Eastern European influences as well as what sounds like a more somber stab at klezmer music.

(Klezmer kind of took off in punk- and rock-derived avant-garde music sometime in the late 80s and early 90s; it has a lot to do with the Jewish and more generally Semitic background of many of the players in these scenes tapping into their own cultural heritage to find their punk rock.)

Bandleader Efrim Menuck overlays this rich Eastern European and klezmer piece with some of the wildest guitar playing I've ever heard on a Godspeed record.

It's not completely unhinged by the standards of general rock or punk music, sure, but the band's remarkably tight sense of unity and incredible ear for complementary, enriching tones is discarded; instead, Efrim plays as much against his band as he does with it, wielding his distorted electric guitar like a wandering fire threatening to burn up the composition.

After ten minutes, the composition gives way, reduced by musical fire bit by precious bit. It hovers, not quite dead, in an unnerving drone, like the deathsong of the cellos and violins.

It's a necessary shift of pace; Godspeed are veterans, and even on their weakest material, they still retain certain compositional knowledge.

They slide effortlessly away from potential ear fatigue and instead play in tension and ambiance: strings swell, but only so much; low notes rumble and decay.

Stray percussion reminds you that the band is still alive, but this hideous burnt thing is tending its wounds for its inevitable return.

(Structurally, this also allows Godspeed to break the album, which plays as a single 40-minute piece, cleanly in the middle for purposes of dividing up the material on vinyl sides.)

The dramatic build kicks off the transition between the second drone/ambient track and the final lengthier piece.

The narrative of the music begins to assemble itself more clearly here: the opening track, "Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'" burned up before segueing seamlessly into the dual drones of "Lambs' Breath" and "Asunder, Sweet" before resolving in the final track "Piss Crowns Are Trebled." Their radical leftist flags are waving; a song-cycle of oppressed peasantry rising up against the oppressive forces that destroy them, that burn up their homes and lives like conquerors and colonialists, biding time in deathlike slumber before rising sabers drawn to depose the piss crowns that lay upon them.

It's a tense and vicious closer, perhaps the most aggressive in Godspeed's discography. Never before have they played with such clear King Crimson sturm-und-drang, both on the opener and the closer. Motions of King Crimson's cinematic and dark progressive rock from their first phase up to the more metallic middle years of the group have always been a part of Godspeed's sound, but here they are wielded with startling directness.

Aside from the central drone, this record is totally uninterested in the typical build-ups and haunted found sounds, musique concrete and sound collage that marked Godspeed's previous work. Instead: Prog rock cinema, almost as direct as can be.

And bleeding heart liberatory radical politics to boot, gesturing to populist uprising and reclamation of the world by those most oppressed by it. All wonderful things.

And yet, for all of its wonderful elements and brilliant programmatic playing, it still falls short in their body of work.

Granted, the most obvious reason is the aforementioned startling brilliance of their early material.

Their first three records, F? A? ?, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, and Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, are all destined to go down as masterpieces not just of rock and punk but also of contemporary classical and avant-garde composition.

This new record, like their previous, is a very good record, but doesn't live up to the lofty heights of their previous material.

There is the issue of the record itself, though. While the program that underpins the music comes together more directly than ever before, it is also because it is deprived of the same enriching digressions that made their previous music so lush and catastrophic and suffocating and apocalyptic.

It's not just a lack of movements; Slow Riot was composed as only two lengthy movements with no great subdivisions inside the tracks, and that resonates more deeply than this one.

This record loses something without found sounds and more earthy ambient material that previous records had. There are gaps that the group attempts to fill with musical instruments that simply can't be filled, at least not to the same effect.

These components become necessary as ways to rough up the sound. Post-rock in general, by approaching punk, pop, and rock from such an abstract and orchestral vantage point, can find itself becoming too pristine very quickly. Certain groups, like Sigur Ros, lean into the pristine elements and come out the other end successfully; others, like Rachel's, honed and refined their sound until by the end of their career they more closely resembled chamber music than a rock group, also to success.

But the domain that Godspeed sits in, the more ugly, visceral, politically-charged and punk in spirit, suddenly finds itself without the punk in sound.

The roughness and earthiness, the unsettling reality that found sound and musique concrete brought to their previous pieces is missing, and obviously so.

This, paired with a mixing and mastering job that in any other circumstance would be brilliant and lush and wonderful for its clarity instead winds up neutering these tracks of the apocalyptic skull-rattling power they reach for.

Part of this seems tied to the origins of the piece. Originally known as "Behemoth," the material on this record was played as one singular piece in shows for years as Godspeed was touring on the back of 'Allelujah. Their punk ethos extends to tape trading, letting fans tape and freely swap recordings of their live material; the upshot of this is that playing older material live doesn't really make sense, as the band begins to compete primarily with themselves. As a result, their tours supporting one record tend to primarily be testing grounds for material that will show up on the next.

In the case of this record, it became a long-teased 40-minute piece dating back a number of years prior even to their reformation in 2012.

There was film accompaniment and dramatic lighting to underscore the drama of the piece. But, moreso, there was a more prominent bass presence and feedback and noise and volume.

In the intervening years since the band's initial dissolution, not only has their material become a widely-regarded set of masterworks but has also found its influence extending to the realms of heavy metal, doom, noise, punk and psychedelia composers and groups.

Godspeed themselves have been active and collaborative in this process as well, sitting in with groups or running several concurrent splinter groups in the past decade.

And yet somehow this record seems to ignore the lessons learned over time by these other groups about ways to incorporate volume and noise and feedback and bass presence that would push this record outside of itself, lessons which Godspeed showed understanding of in live performances of the primordial version of this piece.

As it stands, the record feels a little closer to Godspeed by numbers, or just another piece by the group, rather than a deeply explored and fully realized new statement. For most other groups, this would be okay, but Godspeed set themselves a terribly high bar with their own legacy, and so the failure of this record to exceed being merely very good makes it feel much worse in comparison.

This is still one of the best post-rock records of the past 10 years, and shows why the spirit of this music is still a touchstone in the punk, rock, and metal worlds.

It's just less so than their previous albums. Which is a bit sad, because this album teases at something that could have been much bigger, much more violent, much more powerful, that we just don't get.

Image taken from Constellation Records' homepage.