Asunder Sweet and Other Distress

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).

I Saw Them Live! Memories From a Godspeed You! Black Emperor Show

With the release next week of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s new album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (which is now available to stream), this is the perfect opportunity to reflect on one of the most remarkable concerts I have ever experienced.  Seeing Godspeed live was such a mind-blowing event that I spent weeks after the show contemplating the fundamental nature of music.  When a band forces you to engage in philosophical debates with yourself, it means that it was a pretty special performance.

For years, I was only a moderate fan of Godspeed You! Black Emperor; I was intrigued by the unusual name (including the shift in the exclamation point over the years) and the odd facts I had read about the group, from the fact that they were some sort of amorphous collective that conducted “post-rock” songs to the claim that the band trafficked in extreme politics despite the fact that their songs were strictly instrumental.  I picked up a few of their records in college and was often content to leave them playing as ambient drone music during study periods, rarely fully engaging myself with the individual songs.  It was pleasant background music, but I often struggled to maintain any focus on the individual songs during my attempts to listen with greater intent.

The band had fallen off my radar when they went through their lengthy post-Yanqui U.X.O. hiatus, but when they announced they were reuniting to go on tour in 2011, I immediately decided to snatch up a ticket.  I had heard excellent reports about their live show, and the fact they were playing an unusual venue (a Masonic Temple in Brooklyn, I believe) indicated that it would be a memorable experience.  However, my excitement was short-lived, as circumstances changed and I ended up missing the concert–I attended South by Southwest instead, the thought being that the thirty shows that I would end up seeing would make up for the one that I had missed.

Soon after the initial success of the reunion tour, the band released the fantastic comeback album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!  Unlike previous albums, I had a much more instantaneous appreciation of ‘Allelujah, and it made me reconsider my assessment of the band.  The band announced a tour in support of the album, and I finally had the chance to atone for my previous absence.  GY!BE swung their way through Portland’s own version of SXSW, performing at the Roseland Theater for two nights during MusicFestNW.  Back in 2013, the “festival” was still a week-long affair of loosely-affiliated shows at venues all across the city, and because of the necessity of tickets for each show and the vast distances between them, it was a significant decision to choose a specific show like this because of the additional opportunity cost.  The stakes were high.

Initially, it seemed that I had made an unwise gamble with my time and money.  The band took its time getting to the stage, arriving one at a time, and once they were there spent several minutes seemingly attempting to get in tune, creating a cacophonous drone that gradually enveloped the theater.  For a good ten minutes I was having serious doubts about whether or not it was a good idea to see a band for whom I had previously only mild feelings, knowing full well that the live experience could very well end up being a compilation of the most boring aspects of the band.  Then, there was a sudden shift, and the music coalesced into something that can only be described as pure beauty.

“Mladic” may be the closest that Godspeed has ever come to writing a “hook”, with a melody that evokes Slavic motifs that bring to mind my own Mediterranean roots.  With this melody stuck in my head, I now had a toehold within the morass from which I could explore wherever the band ventured.   In other words, there was now a purpose in the noise.  Once I had this realization, I began to analyze the sounds circling around venue, and began questioning my assumptions as to what constituted “rock” and what defined “music” itself.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor has often been described as a “post-rock” band, a term with little meaning to most people, but it was at that moment that it seemed that the band had embodied the meaning of the signifier; it seemed as if the band was commenting on the nature of the form, a hallmark of “postmodernist” movements.  Godspeed eschews the verse-chorus formulation, but simulates their effect by playing with dynamics, utilizing huge crescendos that build over several minutes and sudden diminuendos.  The band also explores dissonant tones and plays around with pure cacophony, with several members playing extremely disparate parts that seemingly have no relation, but will gradually blend into recognizable melodies.  The result is music that creates the effect of a rock show, without including many of the more recognizable elements that one would expect from “rock”.

By the end of the show, as the band exited in a similar manner as they had entered, screen flickering all the while, I had a completely different opinion of the band.  Now I can’t wait to see them again.