The Canadian instrumental rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. (Yannick Grandmont )
After nearly 10 years, two U.S. presidential elections and a near-complete global financial collapse, the Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor released a new album last week. Why is that contextualizing necessary? The band’s exquisite brand of experimental rock, which combines noise, guitars, strings and martial percussion, constitutes the most politically charged, instrumental music of the last 25 years.
It’s a curious paradox, but not without precedent. Jazz has a rich history as music of social consciousness, and Godspeed cited Ornette Coleman in a recent email exchange with the Guardian, which amounted to the band’s most direct statement about its self-described joyous noise.
Up to now, the nine-member collective did its talking through found-sound street preacher monologues as well as a distinctive design aesthetic, which matched the band’s alternately grim and hopeful sound with grainy photographs, outraged liner note poetry and, in one memorable case, an elaborate chart that drew a line from the major record labels to the military industrial complex.
The result was long-form music that allowed listeners to venture as deep as they wanted into Godspeed’s world, where its slow-building mix could be the score for the personal as easily as the political, and it wasn’t about to say whether either was right. It was a preference for ambiguity that in part helped send Godspeed into hiatus, as one member said in a 2008 interview that the band’s means of communication with its audience was “no longer valid” after the Iraq war, and maybe some “clumsy words” were in order.
So, after influencing a host of rock-leaning instrumental bands including Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed vanished, only to reform in 2010 for a successful tour that included a somewhat incongruous stop at last year’s Coachella Music and Arts Festival (musical references to a burning skyline and dead flags seem a difficult pairing with desert hedonism, but maybe it offered a perfectly surreal counterpoint). There were still no lyrics, of course, but Godspeed apparently realized it had more to “say.”
Which is what makes anthemically titled “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” such a welcome, even breathtaking listen at times, even as it’s a concise summation of what the band does best rather than some unexpected leap forward. Knowing the group’s anti-corporate stance, it’s easy to wonder whether the title could be read as a call of encouragement for last year’s Occupy movement. The powerful first track, “Mladic,” conjures images of the drum-circling crowds in Zuccotti Park as it begins with a recording of a ghostly harried voice repeating, “Can you get up?” and fades with a sample of jangled street percussion punctuated by car horns.
Then again, considering the 20-minute piece is a longtime live staple previously known as “Albanian” (retitled to share a name with an accused Serbian war criminal), maybe it just sounds that way. Therein lies the rare beauty and minor contradiction in such a passionately opinionated act that by definition demands the listener to do the talking.
Still, it’s a powerhouse, spiked with as much furious energy as anything the band's ever recorded. Merging dense, churning guitars with a battery of strings that occasionally seem born from a metallic cyclone, the song shifts through a variety of movements including a swirling melody reminiscent of Middle Eastern music.
“We Drift Like Worried Fire,” another long-form track pulled from the band’s concerts, is just as immediate and exemplifies Godspeed at its most hopeful. While the song’s flickering guitars and accellerating rhythms have become the stuff of films about plucky high school football teams, Godspeed adds twists to this sound that its followers can’t reach. The only new pieces are a pair of atmospheric drones that form a sort of comedown after the longer tracks (the vinyl version asks listeners to switch from the LP to a 7-inch single during play, while the CD version runs the tracks in sequence).
“Wreck’d us our countrie’s amok,” reads some of the album’s text (artful misspellings theirs) amid loaded references to a “plague of policemen” and sunken dreams. Taken as a whole, it’s a one-of-a-kind band saying more without speaking than most artists of their generation can muster.
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Live: Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Music Box