On their fourth and best album, Montreal’s slow-burning celluloid heroes Godspeed You! Black Emperor rarely bother with “rock music,” and when they do, it’s probably just out of habit. Roughly 18 of the 53 minutes of Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! could be described as “pulseless drone”: crazed strings waging serpentine battles, sirens moaning, bass tones gurgling, ghost tones emerging from chemtrails, lightning bugs swarming, neon smog, Neurosis campfire staring contests, La Monte Young Battles the Pink Robots, you get the picture.
When the band reunited after a seven-year hiatus to curate an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, their lineup choices promised a weekend of gelatinous, hellish miasma (Throbbing Gristle, Daniel Menche, Sick Llama) and womblike elemental vibrations (Charlemagne Palestine, Tim Hecker, Tony Conrad). When they finally re-toured America, they played to a young, enthusiastic, Internet-bred cult hoping to hear their plaintive-to-epic builds, their endless Morricone-rock grooves, and their orchestral chamber-punk blowouts (as featured in actual films like 28 Days Later). Instead, they got a two-hour set that led off with a 35-minute Hieronymous-Bosch-doing-yoga demon-drone invocation with dudes stabbing guitars with screwdrivers. What the hell happened?
Who knows exactly what turned these aggro goosebumpers from romantic crescendo enthusiasts into dead-eyed, dust-kicking wasteland wanderers. But in the 10 years since their last album — the glacially rocking death march of 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. — that simple, sentimental rising, rising, RISING! action that they’d built their reputation on devolved into Explosions in the Sky’s music being used to soundtrack Paul Blart Mall Cop, Isis dropping 12-disc vinyl box sets, and Mono jamming with orchestras in churches. In 2012, “builds” are a bloated artifact, a completely manipulative “ATTN: MUSIC SUPERVISORS” gimmick.
So Godspeed have flattened their sound and built horizontally instead of vertically. They’ve discovered the haunting joys of repetition. Coincidentally, they’re actually occupying a similar space as the new Swans record, constructing 20-minute suites that sound like heavy-metal odes to the constantly cycling work of Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham. Album opener “Mladic” takes about nine minutes to reach a melody you can hum, and even that’s an endless boogie on a wooden shjip to nowhere, Satanic psych that sounds like the Stooges’ Fun House if they’d only known one chord. Instead of another teary-eyed crescendo, they slow the song down like a doom-metal band. The album’s other 20-minute epic is basically Einstein on Chernobyl Beach, a gamelan pattern played on guitars and glockenspiels and whatever Einstürzende Neubauten junk percussion washes up onshore. And those drones? Well, let’s just say that with eight people hammering away in the lurch, the devil is in the details, and it’s lush enough to make Tim Hecker himself sound like he’s poking at a Casio.
But at this point, the bravest thing they could do is finally make art without the pomo hobo #yolo trappings that has defined their entire output. GY!BE’s 1997 debut F♯ A♯ ∞, their 1999 EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, the 2000 landmark Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, and even the vinyl version of U.X.O. were bulging with signifiers to make sure we understood all those surges as harbingers of the apocalypse, lessons for living off the grid, Molotovs flung at the bloody gears of the American capitalist death machine, etc. There were train sounds, monologues about bloody wallets and preachers, talk about radio antennas, samples from Godspell, lost-in-the-A&P intercom announcements, cut-up George W. Bush speeches, and interview subjects who spilled things like, “America is a third-world country, and people don’t recognize it. And I think that that’s pretty goddamn sad, that they don’t recognize their own country as a third-world, third-rate, third-class slum.”
No more of that on ‘Allelujah!. From the shack-in-the-desert cover image on down, this album is a sovereign nation free from government intrusion, free from religious persecution, free from cheesy college-green moralizing, and certainly free from the shackles of crescendo-dependent indie rock. There’s an Occupy-style drum circle, but it feels like it’s occupying a cactus. The album allows for just one prominent sample: a voice repeating, “With his arms outstretched,” which could be about Christ or about cops or about sex or about triumphing over adversity or some combination thereof — the point is that it’s open to interpretation for once.
Godspeed is all about wide-open spaces here. And it’s easier to find transcendence in the desolation, to get hypnotized by a single note, or get lost in rearranging the four vinyl sides into your own personal manifesto. To infinity and beyond.