Godspeed You! Black Emperor punctuates chaos with hope

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor punctuates chaos with hope

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Album: Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
Label: Constellation

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It’s easy to be put off by the punctuation in an Efrim Menuck release. Exclamation points abound, haphazardly strewn throughout his work in both Godspeed You! Black Emperor and prolific side project Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (who else would write a song called “Sisters! Brothers! Small Boats Of Fire Are Falling From The Sky!”?). And you’ll find them here as well: The first track of Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress, GY!BE’s follow-up to 2012’s scorching Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, is called “Peasantry Or ‘Light! Inside Of Light!’” Exhausting, yes, but the exclamations serve a very specific purpose. Consider them pumping fists, icons of revolt and solidarity. Menuck’s music is loud, aggressive, and pissed off, but those exclamation points let listeners know that hope prevails and the fight against tyranny, commodification, and apathy is still very much alive.

In many ways, GY!BE has forged its own language. There’s the biblical, antiquated nature of the group’s words (“O! How we sallied ’round the roses,” they write in Asunder’s liner notes) and, of course, the music itself, which has always conjured images without the aid of lyrics: Think of the seagulls brought to life by Menuck’s squawking guitar in “Mladic,” or the way the end of “Rockets Fall On Rocket Falls” sounds terrifyingly like an actual air strike.

On Asunder, the imagery is no less foreboding—the lonely drones of “Lambs’ Breath” are what you could imagine solitary confinement sounding like—but there’s light at the end of these tunnels. Isolated guitars, violins, and drones sound alien and ominous on their own, but as more instruments emerge, they interweave and coalesce to spin sludge into triumph. This motif hearkens back to last year’s Thee Silver Mt. Zion release, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything, which posited noise as the opposite of surrender.

“Peasantry” is a perfect example. Dominated first by swells of distortion, the song nearly drowns in heavy-metal riffage before the upward spiral of Sophie Trudeau’s violin unites and guides each instrument, resulting in GY!BE’s most joyous movement since the first six minutes of 2000’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. Its cinematic closer “Piss Crowns Are Trebled,” however, feels most indebted to GY!BE’s early work. Slow builds, symphonic flourishes, and a storm of crescendos unfold patiently across its nearly 14 minutes, the last five of which will be candy for anyone who savors the prolonged catharsis of post-rock.

As with Allelujah!, Asunder complements its Side A and Side B centerpieces with smaller, more atmospheric movements. But, unlike those on Allelujah!, “Lambs’ Breath” and “Asunder, Sweet” feel neither ambient nor like interludes. The ugly, otherworldly drones of “Lambs’ Breath” serve to smother the celebration of “Peasantry,” while the nightmarish “Asunder, Sweet” fosters a Lynchian sense of unease with ethereal strings and rumbles of distortion. Each is integral to forming the album’s arc, which is darker, more triumphant, and better defined than that of Allelujah!, a strong record that nevertheless felt slight in the scope of GY!BE’s catalog.

And, at just 40 minutes, Asunder is also 13 minutes shorter than Allelujah! But despite its brevity, Asunder has more meat on its bones. And though it calls back to many of the strengths of early GY!BE albums, it also highlights an evolution of intent. Whereas Menuck and company once seemed intent on eliciting outrage (see Yanqui U.X.O.’s chart connecting major record labels to defense-industry funding), they now seem more concerned with inspiring hope. Look no further than Asunder’s final moments; nearly every previous GY!BE release concludes with either a gasp of chaos or a lingering melancholy ambience, but here the band leaves listeners still reeling in the warmth of its explosive, emotional climax. It leaves us with an exclamation point.