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First and foremost, I’m just glad there is a new Godspeed You! Black Emperor record: the last time I saw the band, last year, they were on such elemental form that the nagging worry it was all just a nostalgia jag was kind of heartbreaking. But nope: out of the blue, here comes the band’s fourth album.
Or maybe not entirely out of the blue: if nobody seemed to know GY!BE had been recording, then versions of ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!'s two longer songs – ‘Mladic’ and ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ – were in the band’s set before they went on hiatus in 2003. This seems to have already disappointed a few folk who wanted more in the way of reassurance as to the band’s songwriting prowess as of 2012. I kind of see what they’re saying, but the band’s achievements really shouldn’t be understated: taking 40 minutes of doomy, dreamy neo-classical apocalypse rock, relearning it – presumably from decade-old tapes – and then rearranging and recording it for a different nine piece band to the one that played it originally, and then making it good... well that’s decent going.
It’s more new music than Blur, the Pixies, Pulp and My Bloody Valentine have put out, combined, since their reformations. And perhaps key to the record’s success, it’s actually a fairly pragmatic venture – the shadowy Montreal collective had an album’s worth of music, so they put it out as an album, bringing their commercially available repertoire of songs up from 13 to 17.
Spanning just a single CD or a 12-inch and a 7-inch, it’s a much more compact, modest affair than their transcendent 2000 masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antenna To Heaven, or its flawed successor, 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O.. It’s not a major statement, other than of GY!BE’s confidence in their ability to still do this shit. But that counts for a lot, because if ‘Allelujah! is a relatively minor record, it’s one that affirms Godspeed still have a place in this world.
On the 12-inch, ‘Mladic’ is the rocker, an initially delicate, eastern-tinged drone that, over 20 minutes, coalesces through flutters of detuned plucks into an almighty, grinding riff rendered in roars of distortion and screeching strings. It is harder and less expansive than their Noughties work - the return of Mike Moya seems to have refocussed them as a slightly guitarier band - and it gives ’Allelujah weight, heft and visceral impact. It is a good song to return with and regrab audience attention, troubled and desolate but also ready to deliver its crescendo payload early and stick with it a while, a long, lonely conflagration of fire and guitar that weaves and repeats and rebuilds and finally smacks home like the fury of God.
To really validate the record it needs to boast an actual classic, and that’s where ‘We Drift like Worried Fire’ does its thing. One of the dreamiest songs in the band’s repertoire, it vaguely brings to mind a giant size Dirty Three, strings meandering gorgeously over worried percussive chimes until lush smears of distorted guitar gradually join the strings, building and rising in pitch into a glowing wail of transcendent melody that sounds both futuristic and nostalgic, like an old Eastern European folk song rendered on some impossible alien instrument. It is intensely beautiful, and pretty much justifies the band’s decision to carry on in itself.
The new new pieces – ‘Their Helicopters Sing’ and ‘Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable’ – are shorter, drone-based compositions and I guess feel like slightly more minor works in comparison to the other two (I think, reading between the lines, that they were record as a Menuck-Moya-Amar-Bryant quartet rather than the full band). That’s something accentuated on the vinyl, where the two tracks are unhelpfully tucked away on separate 7-inch (on the CD it seems they are fully integrated with the other two songs).
But rather Godspeed did minor well than flubbed a full on double LP: ‘Their Helicopters Sing’ is a menacing seven minute whine that gradually thickens and distorts and disintegrates then rebuilds itself an unsettling folk reel (I believe the rusty throbbing noise at the end is Eftim playing a hurdy gurdy!). ‘Strung Like Lights…’ is quieter and more ambient, thick curtains of sleepy, gauzy sound that get progressively less stable and collapse with eerily calm grace, like watching the controlled demolition of a skyscraper with the sounds turned down. They’re mood pieces and they work, and even without drums and strings they feel essentially Godspeed-y, desolate and beautiful and outside of anything else really going on in music at the moment.
If and when it comes, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s next album will consist solely of material written post-hiatus - maybe then can try to regain the air of invincible greatness they had prior to the stumble of Yanqui. For now, though, they’ve made a modestly magnificent record that entirely validates this reformation.
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