Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress

Writing a review for a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album can be an exercise in futility.  If you have time to kill and want to have some fun, be sure to peruse some of the awkward attempts to describe to the untrained ear what one should expect to hear on a GY!BE album.  It is a challenging task to convey into words the kind of music that Godspeed creates, as their songs buck traditional styles and structures; complicating matters is the nearly-wordless nature of their work, which leaves most reviewers out to sea without the benefit of the potential life preserver of lyrics to help guide a review.  An added difficulty for reviewers is the problem of distinguishing the band’s current work from its previous output, since Godspeed more or less relies on the same tools for each of their albums.   The result is that many reviewers find themselves out of their element, often using technical musical terms incorrectly and employing flowery language in an overwrought manner in an attempt to impart on the listener their emotional response to the album, but reveal very little about the actual music.

The point is not to disparage the attempts of others, but to point out the particular predicament that arises when attempting to review a Godspeed album.  The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to keep the analysis simple, and to cite easy-to-grasp concrete examples.  Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s most accessible album, with its shorter length and more easily identifiable melodies, which makes it the perfect entry point for anyone interested in the band.  After repeated listens, it may also be my favorite.

For the most part, one can consider the track listing on Asunder as a mere suggestion–four tracks are listed, but the album is constructed as more of a three movement suite.  The middle pair of songs (“Lambs’ Breath” and “Asunder, Sweet”) can collapse into one, as a few minutes of respite to allow the listener a chance to breathe between the two epic bookends; both play around with different kinds of distorted feedback, with the first acting as a gradual extended breakdown of the opener and the second as a slow build that serves as an intro to the closer.  Even that characterization may be imposing too much of a structure on the album, since the songs were initially conceived as a single piece that was appropriately named “Behemoth”.

The highlights of Asunder are its two epics, the opener “Peasantry or ‘Light Inside of Light!'” and the closer “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”, and both show Godspeed at their most triumphant.  In an unusual maneuver for the band, “Peasantry” immediately asserts itself with a bombastic beat and a monstrous, lumbering guitar riff.  Over the course of ten minutes, this riff gradually inverts itself into a more expressive Middle Eastern motif, but without any of the intensity subsiding.  The drums play an indispensable role on the album, more so than on any previous Godspeed record in the past.  On “Peasantry” they are a vigorous, robust force that pierces through with precise accents, while on “Piss Crowns” they show off an impressive array of subtle rhythmic tricks (listen to the oddly placed hits and ghost notes at the beginning of the track) and dazzle with expertly placed fills.

Asunder shows Godspeed at their most conventional, but it is also shows them at their most impressive.  Try not to get caught up in the emotional buildup of “Piss Crowns”, as the band unleashes possibly their most triumphant riff in their history, and marvel at how they play around with a relatively simple melody in different ways that augments both its symphonic and rock aspects.  It makes for an engrossing album that begs for heavy rotation (and the loudest speakers that you can find).

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