Godspeed You! Black Emperor were wavemakers back in the day. In the brief “golden age” of the post-rock genre during the nineties, this was a band with endless ambition, a hefty sound, and something to say. With their nebulous arrangements of rock guitars, marching snares and droning strings, they spun long, wordless symphonies of despair; illustrating the broken society they railed against, and accumulating a devoted fan base along the way.
For years they carried the banner of the genre, until, after 2002’s Yanqui UXO, they disappeared. Indeed, post-rock was out of style, and the album was too much of a downer for a country that was still reeling from 9/11. So the band kept silent, even as the world limped through an era of deepening political bleakness and class hostility.
Now, a decade after their exile, Godspeed returns with a statement that more than makes up for lost time. Consisting of only four tracks, the product is fifty-two minutes of their most astonishing music to date. The title, spelled in capital letters and punctuated with three exclamation points, is a frantic call for hope amidst a tumultuous moment in history that is writing itself as we speak.
Unashamedly, Godspeed is a political band, one that tries to fit the compounding struggles and injustices of the modern world into their music – as a result, their music is heavy with real-world gravity and ideas, and the result is evocative unlike any rock act, past or present.
In that sense, Godspeed is the ultimate anti-escapist group. Their tracks illustrate great conflict, and would be a suitable soundtrack for such grim, decisive moments as a protest, a war, or the apocalypse. Labeled as prophets by some, their wailing guitars and crashing cymbals seem to cry out for the listener to pay attention: the world is a bad place that is getting worse, and something has to be done to shift the tide.
If the band uses their music as a weapon, then opener “Mladic” is their Molotov cocktail: it is a ferocious, fiery opus that builds to a sky-high climax only to swing around and clobber the listener time and time again. It rocks like Godspeed never rocked before, and achieves a peak of astonishing anger that even this characteristically angry band had not reached for in years past. It is a titanic twenty minutes of music, ranking among Godspeed’s best and most insistent symphonies.
Its fraternal twin, the equally long and provocative “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” has a less direct approach, covering a wide range of emotions and devoting adequate time to each movement. The mournful strings and complicated composition could suggest any number of things, and it should be left to the listener to decide what the band is ultimately trying to say.
Indeed, Godspeed comes off much like great literature: it is dense, affecting stuff, worthy of multiple doses and scholarly interpretation, but requiring a certain amount of patience and mental endurance. Fortunately, the band splices in drone tracks to follow both of the longer pieces, beautiful on their own but serving as a necessary pause in the action as the listener recuperates. They could also serve as echo chambers of sorts, allowing for any lingering, enduring ideas and thoughts to bounce around in the wake of what came before it.
It goes without saying that listening to this or any Godspeed album is arduous and intensely cerebral, but it is hardly a chore: the music is exciting, surprising and remarkable even without the accompanying political baggage. However, the band has chosen to emerge at this particular time for a reason: the world is as troubled as ever, and their music is just as relevant, if not more so, today than ever before.
ALLELUJAH! more than proves that point. Godspeed is still one of the most energetic and challenging bands of our time, and this could be their strongest and most affecting record to date.