A distinct sense of shock has been reverberating around this release ever since its surprise announcement two weeks ago. With the dust only now beginning to settle after the unveiling of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first record in close to a decade, it is becoming clear just how difficult it will be to gain any sort of perspective on this album.
Indeed, the sheer astonishment that ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! even exists will inevitably colour the majority of encounters with the music inscribed within the vinyl’s grooves. On listening to this record, what is even more surprising is just how little things have changed since their last album, 2002’s Yanqui UXO. Godspeed’s nine members construct post-rock instrumentals of epic scale, erecting vast sonic cathedrals of aching violin melody cloaked in swathes of frayed guitar noise and marching percussion: this is music that tugs at the heartstrings whilst fiercely assaulting the viscera.
The staunchly anti-commercial nature of ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’s (lack of) marketing has garnered a nagging suspicion that the entire episode was in fact carefully calculated. An act that will surely be interpreted widely as signifying resistance to commercialised forms of mass culture will only serve to add yet more layers to the enigmatic aura surrounding the band, deepening their elusive mythology. Indeed, it seems likely that the removal of the option of pre-orders from their label’s website (“due to overwhelming demand”) is precisely because of, rather than despite, the album’s surprise emergence.
In this context, it can be easy to view this record with an undercurrent of cynicism: the front cover is suitably bleak and monochrome; the album and song titles are sufficiently awkward in their phrasing; and the music’s balance between the desolate and the sweepingly uplifting deftly frames the eventual (and inevitable) emotional payoff as something that has been profoundly earned rather than passively received. Start thinking like this and the entirety of ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! seems laden with contrived artifice buried beneath a façade of authenticity.
Yet, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s music was never supposed to be overthought. The anarchic polemic with which they surround their music works best when utilised for its fleeting sense of empowerment (when raising one’s “skinny fists”, as it were) yet inevitably falters when scrutinised for any sort of coherent political or economic critique. Despite commonly being labelled as a thinking person’s music, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s searing instrumentals primarily aim for the heart and the body over the head. The rush of excitement induced as opener Mladic builds from the contorted, crystalline beauty of its opening to a crushing climax of guitar noise is irrepressible despite the striking simplicity of the track’s construction.
The curious familiarity of ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is due, at least in part, to the fact that the majority of its music was composed prior to the group’s hiatus. The two long form tracks, Mladic and We Drift Like Worried Fire, were both mainstays of Godspeed’s live set following the release of Yanqui UXO. As such, both continue in the direction indicated by that album, achieving a diminution of sentimentality by increasingly submerging the string section in waves of abrasive guitars. The two new compositions are built around sustained drones, acting as an interlude and an epilogue respectively, and whilst perhaps lesser compositions in the context of the album, both are remarkably engaging in their explorations of aural texture. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! rewards immersive, though somewhat uncritical, listening: a glorious hymn to the visceral and transformative power of sound.