Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
They might not welcome the label but Godspeed You! Black Emperor became, for a while, the most important band on the planet that no one had heard of. They were the darlings of the music press, even appearing on the front of NME, back when that meant something. The acclaim on the whole was an irrelevance to a band (or were they a collective?) They eschewed the traditional behaviours expected of artists in the music industry. Politics were at their core, not an affiliation to a movement but a set of shared ideals and principles. There were no leaders, with decisions being taken collectively. This garnered a reputation for unpredictability, for being true mavericks in a corporate landscape.
From 1997 through to 2002 they released four albums. Their live shows were intense. Whilst band membership morphed slowly over time it was always daunting to see them enter the stage en masse: two drummers, multiple guitarists... and a cello player? Within minutes the wall of sound they generated took the audience to another place, somewhere heavier, somewhere in which you’d need to complete the journey yourself. The limited interaction, the lack of interviews just fueled the enigma.
In the early 2000s politically the climate changed dramatically. Pre-9/11, GY!BE were perceived as being anarchic exponents of a counterculture, albeit a benign one. Post-9/11 they were the enemy. The us-or-them mentality, the increasing militarisation, the talk of crusades, the second Gulf war, all set a landscape in which the band seemed lost. Rumours circulated that whilst touring Yanqui U.X.O. in the Midwest they were mistaken for, and arrested, for being terrorists. The sporadic communiqués turned to a silence until their record label reported that they were on an “indefinite hiatus”. What might initially have been perceived as a phase that may pass in a matter of months consumed years. Band members went on to pursue other musical directions. Their time was over, but it was great while it lasted.
And then...and then. Reports began to circulate of the band making concert appearances in 2010. These one-off events became tours mainly drawing on their back catalogue. The membership had changed a touch but at its core this was the band as it was from ten years previously. The approach the band were taking was still in doubt. Was this an exercise in nostalgia or something more? In some concerts they began to play new material but as always, communication was limited to the extreme.
It’s against this backdrop that with a minimum of fanfare a new album has arrived. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is a title that blends easily into their conventions - and the content does too. Whilst the years away may have taken them in different directions this album is vintage GY!BE. This is neither musical cliche or exercise in winding the clock back. This is simply the act of a fine band committing to record a collection of tracks that are quintessentially of themselves, standing outside of time and musical trends as ever.
This is a four track album. Tracks one and three, 'Mladic and 'We Drift Like Worried Fire' respectively are long, near twenty minute affairs, whilst tracks two and four, 'Their Helicopters Sing' and 'Strung Like Lights At Three Printemps Erable' are shorter, more musically focused affairs that build on layers of feedback on discordance. 'Mladic' is recognisable from their recent live shows. On record, if anything, it is louder, guitar-laden with an acute atmosphere of violence and menace, whilst retaining a raw recorded sound. 'We Drift Like Worried Fire' is more reflective, being mournfully melodic and at times beautiful. These are tracks that take their time and go in unexpected directions.
If this is a world of nihilism, filled with people and politics whose agenda and motivations you can’t recognise but easily abhor, then welcome back Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And ascend! Ascend!