You’d be forgiven to think the post-rock genre obsolete. Our present era of serious pop music, defined by challenging rap and innovative sound, has little use for wordless guitar drones. The bands that defined the genre are decades old, and seem to be repeating themselves in a futile attempt at pleasing a crowd that is growing smaller and less interested year by year as they watch more innovative music rushing past them at thrilling speeds. Still, under the circumstances, who can blame Explosions in the Sky for over-licensing, or Sigur Rós for clinging to stadium rock or Mogwai for being boring?
One certainly can’t blame Godspeed You! Black Emperor for continuing to wave its own tattered flag among the ruins of the genre. It’s always carried a passionate punkish attitude that’s held it at arm’s length from the rest of post-rock, and it’s that same attitude that’s fueled its comeback, which began after a 10-year absence with 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! That effort trumpeted Godspeed’s best and most defining features: its musical majesty, its tones of dread and rapture, and, perhaps most effectively, its urgent political anger. It was a triumphant blast of emotion, one that has carried Godspeed to relevance again, against all odds.
That momentum continues in 2015 with Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, and in these four new tracks the remaining eight members seem intent on blasting away the bullshit — of post-rock, of cultural emotionlessness, of backwards politics and civil inequality. The record is a 40-minute colossus of drone and catharsis, big and unsettling and packed with feeling. It’s a masterpiece. It’s Godspeed’s most cohesive and unified effort to date.
Containing four tracks with no breaks between them, Asunder feels like a full symphonic piece. Indeed, it is derived from a single composition called “Behemoth,” which the band has played in concert several times since 2012. The track divisions designate movements-of-sorts within the full piece, and mark shifts in tone. Thus, the slow, staggering beat of the strings- and guitar-led “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’” morphs into the thinning metallic drone of “Lambs’ Breath,” which itself becomes the shivering, seething noise of “Asunder, Sweet.”
The entirety of those three movements demonstrates a remarkable patience (read: slowness) in composition, even for a band known for its huge drone passages. For the half-committed, this could be a death sentence for Asunder, but the patient listener will see that mounting anticipation erupt into one hell of a release, in the form of the 14-minute “Piss Crowns are Trebled.” The track brings forward familiar Godspeed tropes, as drum-corps snares lead a parade of fiery guitars, but uses them to magnificent, mournful effect enough to break new ground in their repertoire — no small feat after two decades of recording.
In fact, it’s an enormous feat, one that makes Asunder relevant, listenable, and cathartic. It’s also emotionally challenging: Though Godspeed’s body of work has always resembled a Molotov cocktail of blistering anger, aching despair and desperate hope, this mixture feels especially potent. When the final track’s skyward guitar sonics in 3/4-time shift into a 4/4 barrage of death-chord artillery, the effect is as dreadful as it is impressive. This is intentional: Godspeed makes music meant to unearth tough emotions, and Asunder digs particularly deep.
In one of maybe two press interviews in their history, Godspeed told The Guardian in 2012 that they have always “tried to make heavy music, joyously. For us, every tune started with the blues but pointed to heaven near the end.” The fact that the Montreal collective is still able to conjure such complex emotions with mere chords and rock instruments is remarkable. Their sound is a lonely and singular niche in contemporary music, and Asunder affirms that it is, above all else, alive — loud and proud and one-of-a-kind. Regardless of context, political or personal, this is compelling music, and though it won’t sit well with most casual listeners, Asunder might have you waving Godspeed’s flag by its final sizzling fade.