Album Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

[Constellation; 2012]

During a 2003 tour, Godspeed You! Black Emperor were detained in the parking lot of an Oklahoma gas station for three hours on suspicion of being terrorists. Even now, such an anecdote hardly seems surprising. When the band played Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, they did so with no video tracking their movements, with no lights on the stage, with their backs to the audience, with a video of fires and desolate roads the only visual marker. Both instances illustrate how the band stands apart–even aggressively apart–simply by virtue of placing their music ahead of everything and washing their hands of the rest: stage presence, audience pandering, how it looks to have ten unwashed white dudes file out of three rusty touring vehicles and mill about aimlessly. But by placing that music–wordless but undeniably powerful, lacking narrative but seeming rich in subtext–at the forefront of their character, the question of what the band “means” by their music is only answerable by latching onto the implications of stories like these, of quotables from interviews, of any hint of who these band members are outside of Godspeed.

Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is the band’s first album in a decade, following the enormous but muddy largesse of Yanqui U.X.O. For a Godspeed record, it is downright brisk, clocking in only at 53 minutes. This is probably a good thing. While Godspeed has always been a haunting band, or a perfect exemplar of “apocalyptic music,” on their first two LPs they tempered their anxious, righteous anger with moments of genuinely moving beauty, reminding you to unclench. Part of Yanqui U.X.O.‘s failure was that it never unclenched, and seemed interminably longer than their Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennaes to Heaven pinnacle. Allelujah!‘s “We Drift Like Worried Fire” has some glockenspiel, mimicking a circuitous guitar riff that is gloriously uncomfortable, and prefacing a classic Godspeed freakout that finds triumph in the push/pull of its alternatively dissonant and heartening melodic leanings. The shorter runtime of Allelujah! means that each of these aspects of Godspeed is merely touched upon and never overlived. They inspire a clarion call to the band’s best moments rather than attempting to imitate them.

Also noticeable on Allelujah! is how tailored it is to the live experience. Previous Godspeed records, Lift Yr Skinny Fists in particular seemed more suited for headphone listening than for the actual, uh, lifting of skinny fists. Even when the furious onslaught of guitars came–and it always came and satisfied–you never got the impression that the music wouldn’t be nearly as an effective call-to-arms if you could see that it was played by real human beings. Godspeed seeming apart may have led to them being detained as threats to national security, but it also made them larger than life. Maybe that was just the wide-eyed nature of youth; Allelujah! seems more immediate and more organic, but instead of feeling blown away by it’s unreachable drama and grandeur, with a decade of age behind us and the band, it feels inhabitable in a way Godspeed never has before.

If there’s a complaint to be had about Allelujah! it’s how much it feels like a reminder rather than a renewal. The two primary tracks here, the twenty-minutes apiece of “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” have been in Godspeed’s live repetoire since the Yanqui U.X.O. days, and set between them are six minute drone/noise pieces “Their Helicopters Sing” and “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable,” which are both beautifully rendered but hardly qualify as anyone’s new favorite Godspeed tracks. While the band hardly comes off as releasing Allelujah! as a way to clean house, it does leave a weird yearning behind, like seeing an old friend, one you’ve missed for ages, come through town for a spectacular night without making any promises for the future. The memories of that friendship are refreshed, but you can’t be sure if the friendship itself is.