Hail the returning Emperor: Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Of course, Godspeed You! Black Emperor would just release its new album at the merch table, unannounced.

Part of me that wishes the ever-mysterious band had just kept it at that: have the album at shows for a while, letting it circulate for a few weeks before officially telling the world, but alas, that’s simply not how the world works. Had Constellation records not issued a press release the next morning, every hip music website would have had a story about this mysterious release up within five or six hours, and eventually someone would put together that it was the collective’s first album of new material in almost a decade.

So waking up to that press release only served to remind me about how much has changed since I first discovered gy!be in the late 90s.

gy!be’s career, up until 2003 when the collective went on hiatus, spanned the first decade of the Internet, a time when it suddenly became possible to share and learn about things well beyond our personal borders – but not quickly, and not on a massive scale. gy!be was a band that we passed around on message boards and IM chats, a sort of simple teenage clarion call about our musical tastes: have you listened to f#a#oo? Are you the type of music fan who’s down with 20-minute slow-burning instrumentals or not?

Nowadays, of course, I shared the announcement about Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascent! on Facebook and Twitter the moment I read it, ensuring that hundreds of people who probably couldn’t care less about instrumental post rock also see the news. The networks that we use to navigate the web now are broader, more based around us as personalities than in communities of subcultures interests or passions. Which makes me wonder how I’d handle discovering a band like gy!be in 2012: if we’re not spending as much time buried in subcultures anymore, can a band that once served as a subcultural status symbol stand on its own musically?

At first, I’m not sure: Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! lacks the visceral beginning of gy!be’s best work (f#a#oo‘s “Dead Flag Blues,” or the heart-stirring first movement of “Storm” from Lift Yr Skinny Fists). The first of the albums two lengthy pieces, “Mladic,” begins in slow escalation, an ominous guitar drone with swift skirting, strings overtop, suggesting a chaotic power waiting to be organized. (The falling guitar notes that follow, like canaries dashing out of the coal mine, cry out their own warning.) But as the momentum rises, and a distant sleigh bell picks up at about the 3:30 mark, my heart begins to race as it remembers: nobody does slow apocalypse quite like gy!be.

(Another thing that my heart, and the rest of me, forgot: I’d heard this song before. Not just at the band’s one and only Halifax show in April 2003, a mere month or two before going on hiatus, but in a bootleg MP3 I’ve had on my hard drive since 2002, labelled with the song’s original name, “Albanian.”)

Once it gets going, “Mladic” is heavy, maybe among the heaviest pieces in the band’s catalogue. While lesser bands would fall victim to the urge to just let the song explode, gy!be never rush things, and instead just keep building layer upon layer on the track until it’s a massive, distorted, minor-chorded beast, staring you down and growling at you without mercy. That willingness to dwell patiently in the space between loud and quiet — as opposed to alternating between them with force, as most guitar-based alternative rock bands have done since the Pixies — is what made the band such a thrill in the late 90s, and by the time “Mladic” reaches its second movement, and it begins tearing itself apart before escalating back together again, my patience feels rewarded.

(Oh, and it ends with audio from the Montreal student protests because, duh, this is gy!be. The pseudo-anarchism is part of the charm.)

The other longer piece, “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” plays to the other side of gy!be’s strengths: not force, but swoon. Here, the repeating guitar riff leads the charge, slowly adding bass, xylophone and more before a staggered string vibrato cuts in and elevates the song to dizzying heights. Listening to it, especially in its first half, I’m sent back to standing in the Marquee Club, almost 10 years ago, on the hottest of April nights, the venue waaaaaaay over fire capacity, swaying side to side as the band just kept adding more tremolo, more drums, more noise onto every track, only letting things break when we absolutely couldn’t stand it anymore.

There are a few things on the record I’m still wrestling with. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” peaks at the midpoint, and while it ends strong, the build to the final moments is nowhere near as exciting as what surrounds it. The other two pieces (included as a separate 7-inch with the vinyl release) are more mood moments than anything, like short segments that bookend or wrap around the more significant pieces. The feel inconsequential. And most importantly: this is a band I’ve got a long history with. We never really listen to old favourites with fresh ears, and nostalgia is always all-too-eager to fill in the spaces in a 10-year gap between records.

But sometimes we can be so wary of nostalgia that we miss when our past actually shows intact, not just reminding us of thoughts, ideas and perspectives we’d left behind but actually bringing them back to us. I’m certainly not spending time days  into IM chats or message boards anymore (though, you know, “Hello Twitter” and all), and I certainly don’t spend a lot of time with instrumental post rock. But in waves of noise, it’s all coming crashing back.

You can listen to Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at the Guardian. The news site also snagged an extremely rare interview with the band, which is best read in its unedited form


One response to “Hail the returning Emperor: Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

  1. Great article, and I agree with much of what you’ve said.

    One of the things that has struck me is that two of my post-rock (or whatever) bands released albums this year: GY!BE and Sigur Ros. What I find curious about them is that neither release feels as cathartic as past work, but it feels purposeful. Sigur Ros’s album, for example, ends with a three track decrescendo — compare that with the bombastic finale of ( ).

    The same bombastic release of “We Drift Like Worried Fire” never quite comes the way I want it to, but maybe that’s the point. After so many post-rock (primarily) instrumental groups have repeated the traditional format of gradually building a song until its epic finale, it seems like these groups are trying to retool their instincts for better or worse. Let’s call it post-post-rock.

    Great blog by the way — just what I’ve been looking for. :)

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