10-year awaited album fulfills expectations
Montreal’s sprawling community of experimental rock bands can sometimes resemble a commune more than a group of musicians. Famous for composing rock music on a grand scale with orchestral flourishes, crushing dynamics changes, and extended song structures, these bands have made a sizable impact on the music world at large. Fly Pan Am, Set Fire to Flames, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor share members, some stylistic sensibilities, and a home base. Yet it is to the last of those bands that we turn, arguably the premier group on that list. Their latest release, “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!,” has arrived, their first in 10 years, and it fulfills all of the expectations that such a long fallow period might engender.
“Allelujah!” begins with confused radio chatter, reminiscent of many of their previous compositions. The first track is called “Mladic,” a reference to Serbian alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic. Once the chatter subsides, long guitar drones swarm in, accompanied by subtle string playing and occasional instrumental chatter. GY!BE spends more than four minutes of the track maintaining this tense stasis, with sounds morphing almost imperceptibly until a rhythm emerges from the murk. Heavily indebted to both ambient drone music and minimalist compositions, the band’s mastery of slow sonic evolution nearly matches its knack for drawing those long periods of tension toward immense crescendos.
Unusually, however, “Mladic” is at its best in a section that evokes Eastern European traditional dance music, connecting to the title of the song and creating a vibe usually alien to this kind of music. The track as a whole is far from a joyous romp — it’s far too fixated on doom and dissonance for that — but it shows off a band that is straining at the edges of what is “normal” even in such experimental music.
“Mladic” runs for precisely 20 minutes, and is joined by another epic, “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” whose unfolding is even more portentous and desolate. There is the same aching build followed by a similarly thunderous burst of activity. It feels not at all repetitive, however. As the title implies, there is much rhythmic drifting and wandering. Cello-led interludes clash with clattering percussion and resolve in more sections bursting with noise. At one point, the cacophony gives way to a quiet guitar and strings that build, inexorably, toward a final climax. These long-form pieces are the highlight here, but they are not the only output on the album.
The second and fourth tracks on the album are smaller, six-minute pieces. Generally less energetic or malleable than the longer epics, they serve as important breaks between cycles of quiet and crescendo. Throughout the whole album there is the sense of something momentous happening, and the second composition, “Their Helicopters Sing,” acts as both a recovery time for those still shell-shocked by the first track and a premonition of dread. By far the darkest of the four tracks, it feels almost without a beginning or end, just a gradually building, increasingly piercing sound where distinctions between instruments are difficult to discern. Its companion piece and the concluding track, “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable,” is similar in style, and listening to either of these tracks is more an act of immersion than enjoyment. Remarkably, despite the overwhelmingly black prospects and desperation suggested by the whole record, “Allelujah!” concludes with a relatively hopeful (single) note.
Without lyrics, the music can only be so overtly political, but the abstractions here, even without titles, clearly point outward into the real world. A troubled, distorted world whose very foundations seem shaken by turmoil. Though many of its basic elements are unchanged from ten years ago, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s music retains both its primal force and its compositional sophistication. This reunion was fully justified.