Album Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor—“Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress”

By Cole Firth

Anyone who has been lucky enough to catch one of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s more recent live shows has likely heard some iteration of a lengthy new composition archived by die-hard fans under the working title “Behemoth”. This is a particularly astute title as the piece winds its way through an expanse of sonic ground and emotional affect over the course of its forty minutes. Much like their contemporaries in resurrection, Swans, the band has a knack for refining their nascent live material into extravagant but digestible recorded affairs.

Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress borrows from the structure of its 2012 predecessor, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend, offering two bombastic epics split up by a pair of complimentary drone tracks. While the previous record separated off its ambient songs, going so far as to put them on a separate 7” for the physical release, Asunder works them in as part of the overall composition and these “movements” are arranged such that the music plays out teleologically. The record works meticulously towards its chaotic ending, playing on Godspeed’s wide dynamic range in order to build and release tension.

Album art for 'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress'

Album art for ‘Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’

These dynamics do not manifest in a slow diligent march to crescendo, however, as has become the stereotypical norm in this particular strain of instrumental rock music. Their palate remains grounded in a pseudo-orchestral format but they put it to a more subtle use. Opener “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” kicks off with a straightforward drum introduction before dropping into immense layers of riffage, painting a barren landscape with charcoal smudges of guitar and washes of feedback. The sound is powerful and saturated but has an open, desert-like feel, slipping in hints of Middle Eastern modal touches reminiscent of those found on ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend. It emphasizes the group’s newfound weight through the space inserted into the din rather than simply plunking its layers down one after another.

The packaging for this LP release reveals static-filtered images that come close to simulated pointillism upon close inspection. This is a reflection of the fuzzy tone taken on by the guitars and drones, which gives the music an aspect of heaviness felt far more acutely than any of the band’s previous work. “Lamb’s Breath” is thick and guttural, raising its metallic foundation up into a claustrophobic womb of sound through a clever manipulation of aural space. It gives way to the titular song, which begins as a peaceful, though appropriately “sundered” opening up of its predecessor. Pretty guitar harmonies yield to thick scuzzy slabs that crack and crumble over themselves as they build. Asunder feels fierce and blunt but filled with detail underneath it all, much like its cover art. This is by far the most psychedelic Godspeed has ever sounded.

They use this to their advantage, running an emotional zig-zag from the foreboding first section to an almost pastoral plateau; descending into peaceful drone before swelling up into the crushing apex of “Piss Crowns Are Trebled.” Any devotee who might be turned off of this LP by its short run time or lack of field recordings should give it a chance for this last movement if for nothing else. It is a complex and beautiful slew of pummeling noise that evokes the fire and brimstone of the band’s older work. They drive the song’s atmosphere into a tumultuous frenzy, cutting swaths across it with soaring guitar tremolos and reverbed violins that coalesce harmonically into one of their most memorable and distraught melodic climaxes to date.

While Asunder ends with the cathartic explosion expected of a Godspeed record, it occupies a unique place in their canon. This is the first piece of new music the band has shared since 2003 (Allelujuah! featured old, road-tested compositions from their prior era) and it seems to echo the changing social context they find themselves in as well as the context surrounding the band itself. When they quietly disbanded in the early 00s, Efrim Menuck cited their monolithic stature in performance, worrying about the lack of discursive communication and humanity in their art.

The band now exists in a climate where their mystique is both uncovered and distorted by the Internet. While Efrim still makes intimate and vocal music with his Silver Mt. Zion project, Godspeed plays an integral role in tearing through the now-cacophonous and muddled social conversation with their mighty roar. In 2015, there is no longer a safe place for them to speak anonymously through snippets of field recording in this over-saturated sphere. They reluctantly won a Polaris prize two years ago and have since toured with the likes of Nine Inch Nails. The cloak of obscurity has been torn away. The band now speaks pointedly, purposefully, and concisely through their music and it is up to us whether we listen attentively or cling to the tatters. (Constellation)

Listen: “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”

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