In this day and age when there are machines all over the house demanding our attention and, perhaps worse, telling us what to do, it’s rare – or just fucking fantastic – when something comes along that truly reaches out and grabs you, yes, grabs you, around the neck, until all you can do is sit stunned on the couch, a candle or two lit, and you just stare into the near-darkness until you’re weeping, or you’re up on your feet and doing air-guitar in front of the French doors (the blackness on the other side adoring thousands, although in reality it’s just a crumbling old house in the night). What is this something? Godspeed you! Black Emperor’s new album, Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend!
Godspeed you! Black Emperor, or Godspeed, or GYBE, or, as they call themselves on this album, God’s Pee, is a Montreal-based collective that combines a wide range of instruments into what often amounts to a truly cacophonous climax of distorted and disturbing sound. On Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend!, their first record in ten years, members play guitars, drums, violins, cellos, dulcimers, something called a ‘portasound’, something called a ‘kemance’, vibraphones, marimbas, glockenspiels, even a hurdy-gurdy. Think Sonic Youth mashed with a string-quartet mashed with a few blown-ins who will play whatever the hell they want to play, all of them in flannies and rip-torn jeans, bottles of vodka at their feed, and a hatred of rabid, rampant capitalism in their hearts.
I’ve been following the band since their extraordinarily epic Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven (2000), and then discovered their back catalogue, which was equally impressive. Godspeed is a post-rock band, so it’s all patient ebbs and flows until building into near-out-of-control conclusions, resulting in general devastation all-round. There’s no singing, though every so often there’s a field-recording of someone speaking, an unhinged street-poet, say, or a manic preacher. The band is famous for not promoting themselves – for example, there’s barely a mention of this latest album on the band’s website – and they’ve only rarely allowed their music to be used in films. This is not easy-listening music, nor is it summer music, which makes it even more miraculous that I just can’t turn this latest bloody album off.
To give you an idea of the terrain we’re in, Godspeed offer us a blurry photo of an abandoned farm-house on the cover and on the back are the following words: ‘WRECK’D US OUR COUNTRIE’S AMOK/TORN THRU/WITH BIRDS THEE SKY’S A BRUIS’D UNRECKONING/THEE SHORE’S BED DRY BUT TEPID WATERS’ (the capitalisation is theirs). The Bible-esque broken English and fly-blown poetry is perfectly appropriate for what’s on the actual disc: a collection of four relentless but never-the-less strangely uplifting pieces of music.
The first, ‘Mladic’, is an 18-minute masterpiece of noise and riffing, all of it rising and falling before rising again but never losing the tension that is at the song’s pained and twisted heart. It’s such a grand gesture, but there’s no mistaking the typical Godspeed anger – even on low volume this song makes your ears and nose bleed. ‘Mladic’ deserves to be heard through half-decent speakers, but you can get a taste of how it’s performed live here. Interesting that the band allow fans to record their shows; also of interest in this video is the use of looped projections, which have been a long-time feature of their gigs (they include the artists’ names in the list of band members).
Contrasting ‘Mladic’ is ‘Their helicopters’ sing’ (is that poorly placed apostrophe on purpose?). This is a 6-minute drone where the strings are more prominent…and is that the sound of bagpipes? It reminds me of something that the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once said, and I’m paraphrasing here: ‘I have found that sometimes it is enough for a piece of music to be nothing more than a single note played beautifully.’ Pärt has always sought spiritual beauty, but Godspeed are after something much more frightening. ‘We drift like worried fire’ begins in typically sparse fashion, being built around a simple plucked-string (guitar? violin? sample?) motif, before loose-limbed drumming kicks in and the song is off, traveling here and there, lifting and lowering as usual, finding lightness, darkness, and more lightness. This song is Godspeed at their most majestic; in fact, it’s almost triumphant-sounding, maybe even beautiful, though be warned that this band would find beauty in a pair of sodden socks left behind by a wino.
Like those other post-rock marvels Sigur Ros, who came back from near oblivion with this year’s Valtari, which is a profoundly moving collection of songs, Godspeed you! Black Emperor prove with Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend! that this punky, almost underground musical movement remains as valid and as valuable as ever. This record is a plea for solidness, for depth and resonance, for real living, the sort that doesn’t begin and end with the click of a button.