After re-forming in 2010 for a series of live shows, Godspeed You Black Emperor! (GYBE!) returned to the recorded music scene following a decade of silence, slipping their latest album “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” on to the merchandise table at a gig in Boston on 1 October.
This gesture, a refusal to play the commercial game, is symptomatic of the band’s approach to the music industry and capitalism in general, balancing somewhere between sullen indifference and outright contempt.
The band, formed in 1994 in Montreal, operates as a democratic unit, working on its instrumental music without a leader or front-person, and issuing no press releases, photos or interviews. They recently broke this last habit, assenting to an email interview with the Guardian, in which they explained, “We were proud and shy motherfuckers, and we engaged with the world thusly... We played sitting down and projected movies on top of us. No rock poses.”
GYBE! insist, believably, that they are not self-consciously carving a niche for themselves as creators of “political music” (“All music is political, right? You either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls”). Their modus operandi has remained consistent since the mid-1990s, making a virtue out of opposition to the existing order of things rather than responding directly or mechanically to the rising tide of political discontent.
Dismissive of the post-Berlin Wall, pre-9/11 triumphalism of the Clinton era, the “bands that reacted to that by making moaning ‘heavy’ music that rang false” and also the “self-conscious good vibes [of bands who] react to the current heaviness by privileging the party times,” GYBE!’s music is free from any obvious didacticism.
GYBE! specialise in long instrumental tracks which not only burst the shell of traditional rock music forms but also go beyond conventional combinations of instrumentation. Their music is at once apocalyptic and transcendent, reflecting the philosophy that “every tune started with the blues but pointed to heaven near the end, because how could you find heaven without acknowledging the current blues?”
Hints of political themes sometimes glimmer from the murk but nothing is ever stated. Consequently, the inclusion on the album artwork of the slogans “Fuck le plan nord”, Quebec’s five-year environmentally destructive economic development plan, and “Fuck la loi 78”, referring to the bill banning student protest, is uncharacteristically straightforward, though it does not necessarily feel forced.
The first track on the new album, “Mladic”, named after the Serbian war criminal, is a re-working of a piece that has been performed live since 2003. It is GYBE! at its heaviest and most menacing. At times it approaches the realm of black metal without ever settling into any pre-existing musical categories.
At the other extreme, “We Drift Like Worried Fire” borders on joyous, developing a minimalist guitar figure, augmented by tuned percussion and strings, to a beautiful crescendo of e-bowed guitars and drumming. Such an idea would not sound out of place on an album by Mogwai, Mono, or Explosions in the Sky, but here it is developed far beyond the scope of anything attempted by other so-called “post-rock” artists.
Such music, both doom-laden and cathartic, reflects the tension in a world gripped by a crisis which seeks resolution one way or another. We can be glad at least that GYBE! have returned to provide a soundtrack to the current interregnum.