Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend’

GY!BE's first album of new material in ten years is an absolute triumph.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson


Godspeed You! Black Emperor

‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend

Constellation Records

There are things in life that defy explanation. At points in time we stand before such beauty that our soul feels as though it might burst. Tears come, hearts flutter, sound alters and all you can focus on is the transcendent beauty of that which you were gifted to experience. Those are the feelings that will be generated by the return of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and their first album of new material in ten years. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend is a fluctuating and living source of constant beauty. It is more than a record; it is a force of nature.

Open with? I can’t even begin to write a review for this album that coexists with others I’ve done. There is no first track here; there is only an entire album of complex textures, emotional ranges and intellectual challenges. ‘Allelujah is a thousand strands of audio string woven together in a lush and gorgeous tapestry of creativity and sound. GY!BE are more of an artistic collective than just a band. I say this because, unlike so many bands, even instrumental ones, GY!BE doesn’t have one focus in what they do. Each instrument, each bit of noise, all the rhythms and pulses and chirps and beeps and strings, it all is equally as important. It allows their work to be more than just the sum of its parts.

Some things are different with ‘Allelujah. This is by far the nosiest and most aggressive record GY!BE have done to date. “Mladic”, a twenty-minute opus, begins with just sound. The way the feedback and guitars are layered “Mladic” opens like the dead of night on the surface of the ocean as Dolphins communicate to each other. It’s a foreboding sound that also has great comfort to it, the way the ocean can seem at night. Granted this is my pretentious take on how “Mladic” begins, you’ll figure out your own. From there the band uses silence as the main ingredient in the second movement. There are chimes and bells and sounds, but the heaviest thing in this section is the silence. How does a band make negative space so heavy that the tension begins bursting through your chest? Beats me, but that’s exactly what happens.

When “Mladic” crescendos it explodes into dissonant wave of guitars that both groove with each other, and battle each other, but never stop moving. Nothing involved with this song is a “guitar part” or “bass part”; it’s the never-ending clash between sounds that create this kind of sonic chaos. Where GY!BE excel is their control of it. Out of this chaos is born a soaring Middle Eastern vibe that makes the heart sing. So much emotion is pushed through these twenty minutes you become addicted to the record almost instantly. The crashing end, the slow density of what follows, is devastating after such elation.

 “Their Helicopters Sing” continues this notion of tension and emotional conflict. A wall of sound slowly ebbs over the quiet. GY!BE begin injecting other sounds to this tension. The brain can’t focus on any one thing so it’s forced too open completely to the experience. It’s amazing how this band can take their sonic crowbar and crack your mind open. Strings follow, played against their grain creating broken sounds of dissonance and pain. Mixed with the silence, the pulsating beacon and the other bits, ”Their Helicopters Sing” becomes a sonic dust storm, something that catches you up in the power of all the elements coming together.

What you don’t notice until the finale is how “Their Helicopters Sing” pulls at your heart. By the end I was thinking of memories, of people and events I had pushed into the back of my mind. I was only halfway through the album and already a sentimental wreck. GY!BE understands the power of subtle emotion through music. There are those who will focus on the noise and ambient elements on ‘Allelujah,but that’s only part of it. This effect all of this has on your heart and your soul, that’s the real backbone of the record.

Another twenty-minute epic follows with “We Drift Like Worried Fire”. The intro to this piece of music is among my favorite of the year. Light and airy strings dance in a repetitive series of notes. It’s inviting, calming next to “Their Helicopters Sing”. As you lull into that state of ease, your mind catches the slow burn of pure noise behind it. As that ends, a gorgeous guitar line picks you up from your mortal state and carries you off to another place. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is a calming force that grows slowly more aggressive as it continues. We are experiencing an organic structure being put together here.

As each bit of music comes in it builds on what’s already happened. Without each part of the movement, it would collapse. As busy at it is, “We Drift Like Worried Fire” never stop being comforting. It’s one of the few songs I’ve heard that is an actual journey. You travel with it. It’s as if GY!BE wanted to let you see the universe in such a way you could understand it and never be afraid again. In a funny side note, I kept comparing this song to the musical translation of Bill Hicks’ “It’s just a ride” speech. When the end comes, though much more straight forward than the rest of the song, its more a deliverance. GY!BE is giving us something easier to understand to bring us back from the journey.

“Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable” is the calm after the storm, a dark soundscape that eases the mind against the rest of the record. There are bits of tension in it but the whole of the movement is like a mental rub down. At points it must work harder to relax the knots, but overall its there to help. By the end of these eight minutes you are at peace, relaxed and completely drained from the album.

What has always made GY!BE a cut above the rest is that they think of and create music in multiple dimensions. The work on ‘Allelujah uses depth, mass, form, structure and texture to create a fully realized and emotional piece of art. As complicated as GY!BE are, their work never loses the romantic idea that, above anything else, music must nourish and speak to your soul. Few other bands can really do that. Neurosis have always been pioneers with it, Isis had that ability before breaking up, and these days I hear it in Menace Ruine as well as The End Of The Ocean and Tides Of Nebula

The new Godspeed You! Black Emperor is an absolute triumph. Ten years since the last one and they have lost nothing. Challenging, emotional, dramatic, tense and noisy, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! uses everything that is in the human soul in both joy and turmoil and translates it to sound. Simply. Fucking. Staggering.