Godspeed You! Black Emperor albums are typically so colossally overwhelming, so epic and expansive, it feels as if they should be accompanied with fanfare or a ticker tape parade. The release of an album as huge as 2000’s double-disc Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven was not the event it should have been, given the magnitude of the album, but the long-tail influence of its importance in the past decade led to an interesting side effect. After 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O., Godspeed went on an extended hiatus, though not a highly publicized one, with de facto leader Efrim Menuck primarily focusing on his continuously evolving post-rock collective Silver Mt. Zion. But when GY!BE reconvened late last year to launch a year-long tour around the world, they buried the lede about the possibility of new music. Then, about two weeks before its scheduled street date, the band dropped the bomb: Godspeed’s first new album in 10 years, ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND!, was finished, pressed and being sold at shows already. Oh yeah, by the way, we recorded an album.
The relatively ho-hum manner in which the band made the announcement, ironically, couldn’t keep this, an occasion with all the potential to become a massive event, from actually being one. Pre-orders of the physical album outpaced supply and Constellation Records‘ actual ability to meet the demand. Quiet a demographic as it might have been, listeners with a thirst for new Godspeed are out there, and apparently far outnumber estimates. It’s a good thing, then, that ALLELUJAH! is, as can be expected, a pretty massive beast of an album. And yet, it’s the band’s shortest album to date, unless you count the original vinyl pressing of F# A# ∞.
A shorter Godspeed album does not necessarily mean a lesser Godspeed album, though ALLELUJAH! takes a little bit more warming up to than previous releases, which is an odd thing to say for a band who routinely writes 20-minute instrumental suites. There are two such epics here, “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” along with a pair of shorter `drones’, “Their Helicopters Sing” and “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable.” The latter pieces are still fairly long, more than six minutes apiece, but act more as transitional ambient pieces between the two larger compositions. They’re still intriguing, texturally interesting, but they’re just not the main attraction.
Those two monolithic tracks, however, feature exactly the kind of dramatic, heroic and ominous emotional resonance that a listener should come to expect from Godspeed You! Black Emperor 14 years after sending shivers down spines with “The Dead Flag Blues.” First comes “Mladic,” a heavier, harder rocking doom symphony that pounds and plods with the harrowing intensity of recent Swans. In fact, it’s only fitting that ALLELUJAH! should arrive in the same year as The Seer, which coalesces beautifully with the 2012 apocalypse myth. And yet, the Montreal-based post-rock collective, for all their evocation of isolation and bleakness, is exceptional in their aims toward creating a joyful noise, as they do on “We Drift Like Worried Fire.” It begins with much the same chilling minor-key droning that “Mladic” does, but leads to a much different place. By one-quarter into the epic piece, it grows into a more elegant art rock triumph, melodic, soaring and beautifully arranged. If “Mladic” was battle, then “Worried Fire” is victory.
ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND! marks the rare occasion in which a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album’s release actually felt like an event of historical proportions, and that’s mostly because it’s the first time they’ve released anything in the last 10 years. Whether or not the music lives up to such a reputation depends largely on the expectations of the listeners who made it so. There’s no question it’s a powerful and quite gorgeous album, and one that on many levels lives up to the reputation GY!BE has built for themselves, but it’s hard to escape the almost unreasonable weight heaped upon the band in the time they’ve been absent. If ALLELUJAH! is not as affecting or resonant, it’s only because what came before marks some of the most dynamic and intense musical experiences of the past 20 years.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.