Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

by: L.P. Hanners

A “review” of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s latest album as told through one man’s journey with the band…..

Back in 1999, the only band I was listening to was Radiohead. My college buddy Geoff was into downloading concert bootlegs of new songs that they were playing. One of those songs was “How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found.”  Godspeed You Black Emperor!  (The exclamation point was at the end back then) were first introduced to me through the rumor mill surrounding that song. A fan site mentioned that they were going to collaborate with them for the recording of it. The UK was eating these rumors up as Godspeed had recently landed the cover of the NME. It’s hard to get a name like theirs out of your head, if it doesn’t get mixed up first (“Shine On You Crazy Black Man”). In the fall, I found out they were playing four minutes away from NCSA’s campus. I had no idea what they sounded like, and it was easy and inexpensive to get into the show. That show was a complete mess because the power kept going off in the middle of songs. I only stayed for the first 3 songs: “Sleep pt. 2,” “Sleep pt. 1,” and “Storm.” This was a full year before Lift Your Skinny Fist Like Antennas to Heaven came out. Their following wasn’t huge yet, the new songs weren’t polished, and the power failure situation was spoiling the experience for me. I filmed the whole thing though, and soon grew obsessed with them solely based on the performance of the one song I recorded where the power didn’t go off: “Sleep pt. 2.” I bought all their music, a little annoyed that everything I heard at the show hadn’t been released yet. Regardless, I was still hooked. I was a film school student at the time, and their music was the most cinematically inspiring stuff I had ever heard. It rearranged my brain in regards to how I listened to music, and the imagination I had for writing melodies. I used “Moya” in Geoff’s film later that spring, which I was editing.

A year later, in the midst of the my obsession with Kid A, I was driving down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, where I was living at the time. My girlfriend and our other roommate were getting very sick of hearing the album all the time. I did them a favor and switched to the radio, 8.93 WXYC, the only radio station any of us listened to. “Storm” was playing on the radio. I almost got in a wreck as I slowly realized what I was hearing.  We hurried home, hooked up the internet for the first time, installed Napster, and spent the rest of the night downloading the album over a slow dial-up connection. That winter I saw them again, and it was the greatest show I had ever seen. They played more new, unrecorded songs, which I again taped and grew obsessed with. A year later those songs came out. I saw them again at the Cat’s Cradle in 2003. The cycle I had grown used to abruptly ended after that and the unrecorded songs they had, “Albanian” and “Gamelan,” remained unrecorded, year after year after year. In 2008, I finally came across a sharp-recorded bootleg of one of their last shows: L’Olympic, Nantes, France 05-13-03. Both songs were played, and for all I knew, for all anyone knew, this was probably the best that my hunger for new Godspeed would ever be satisfied.

Their recent reunion hasn’t effected me that much. I’ve passed up two occasions to see them. I’ve had this intuition that something is wrong about their reemergence. They’ve been playing the exact same setlist at every show and Norsola, Bruce and Roger have left the band. I feel like they’re just a beefed-up version of A Silver Mt. Zion. If they really wanted to impress me they would kick Efrim out and go on a Set Fire To Flames tour. I will always respect Godspeed for how their sense of democracy played out and created an amazing catalog of music, but the band isn’t professional. They are bad musicians who barely care about good timing while they’re playing. Their recording techniques are worse than ‘lo-fi’, they are calculatingly wrong. Efrim and Aidan ramble like crazy people in their interviews, an amassed 5 to7 of them given in 15 years. They get agitated at each other during performances, which I’m sure has something to do with why Bruce quit (he claims it was to spend time with his children). Despite all this, I flipped the fuck out when I read on Pitchfork’s twitter feed around 9pm on October 1st that said they had officially announced a new album, and that they were selling it at the concession stands at their show in Boston that evening.

Their last album was sabotaged. It was recorded by the great Steve Albini but mixed and mastered by Helen Keller. Most audiophiles will tell you they can’t enjoy the album because it’s so “muddy”. The high end sounds, like the microphones, were 5 feet away from the drum cymbals. So right away, even on a shitty mp3 with the hum of the record player bassing up the background, I could tell Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Descend! was mixed with expertise. As expected, the album consists of the two songs they hadn’t yet recorded, “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” and two new six minute drone improvisations titled “Their Helicopters Sing” and “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable.” Those two drone tracks are the most breathtaking thing about the album. As of right now, I’m a little disappointed in how the rest of the album turned out. There’s a magic missing from this album that you can find on all their other albums, even their sloppiest one. For example, their best song, “Motherfucker=Redeemer,” is on their last album. It’s their longest song, taking up thirty-eight minutes on two sides of a full length vinyl. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” used to be that long, and it sounds rushed on the album compared to the bootleg I’m more used to. I do enjoy the first three to four minutes of the album version because it’s sound is so dense and rich in it’s ambiance, reminiscent of the last act of “Static.” I’ve come to appreciate their last album more when I compare it to this album. Besides “Motherfucker=Redeemer,” there’s that Hitchcock-esque slow marching part in the middle of “Rocket’s Fall On Rocket Falls.” Once again, that kind of magic isn’t on this album. “Mladic” begins so boringly, it seems forced. Every bootleg of the song I’ve ever heard that section sounds more natural than what’s on the album. I do, however, appreciate how Efrim, David, and Moya’s grungy and grimy guitar breakdown turned out at around the 11:25 mark. There’s an accomplishment there, so hopefully it will be moments like that that will prompt this album to grow on me in the future.

It’s a weird feeling to get through a new Godspeed album and be disappointed by it. It’s because I’ve spent years already familiar with the tracks on it. I spoiled it for myself, my expectations were unreasonably high, and it could be a masterwork that I don’t recognize yet. It could top Spin and Pitchfork’s end of year best album lists given what they’ve rated it. For right now, I’m not listening to this album that much because I’m not enjoying it. I’ve grown fond of the struggle that’s present in all of their other recordings, and I’m used to being challenged by them. If there’s anything they are good at, it’s fighting the bullshit by making noise. Maybe it’s not so much that they’re bad together, it’s just that 10 years is literally how long it has taken them to get their shit together enough to record 2 fucking songs. They wanted to make it perfect, and that’s where I’m left….feeling bewildered by them.

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