Despite their enigmatic presence, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have been around enough to leave calling cards in their music. Indeed in such dense post-rock albums that Godspeed produce, listeners often need something solid to hold on to, else they get sucked into the music’s intense oblivion and then spat out an hour later without being too sure what happened to them.
The first sign is an overriding theme binding the album. Godspeed have indulged us in their unhinged musical interpretations of apocalypse, religion and politics. This time the collective focuses on modern warfare. The album’s cover is of a bunker, and contains songs like “Their Helicopters Sing” and “Mladic,” named after the Serbian war criminal. In fact “Mladic,” the first and best song on the album, seems to be a 20-minute project on the Bosnian War, where it begins with corrupted radio signals, followed by what seems like flares being shot off and concluding with a Balkan sounding klesmer-jam. The album name Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend! also suggests a religious aggression, which was not only apparent in the Christian-Muslim conflicts in the Bosnian war, but also in the present troubles in the Middle East, thus making this album very much a contemporary cultural document.
Godspeed’s second calling card is a healthy ratio of tense sounds and loud catharsis. The two are often connected by a single riff that pervades throughout the entire song, kept alive by the various instruments. Their new album certainly delivers this ratio. “Mladic” formulates itself into a driving battle cry that even reaches the frontier of danceability, albeit in the vein of a violent barmitzvah. The other 20 minute song “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is a more drawn-out catharsis not dissimilar to a Sigur Rós one-last-stand number. The two shorter songs that alternate the longer ones share not this ratio but are instead pure tension. “The Helicopters Sing” sounds like an orchestra slowly decaying and the final song “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable” emanates a giant grinding machine. These are possibly the two shortest songs in the Godspeed oeuvre, not even topping the 10-minute mark, and so one has to wonder why they were included in the album. For they are not really songs on their own by Godspeed’s goliath standards, and only really add atmosphere to the album. Perhaps the two songs are segues, there to insist that the album is not a diptych of huge independent songs but instead a blended whole. Perhaps they are hints of Godspeed’s transition from post-rock to ambient music, in many ways a purer version of post-rock.
The final calling card, which this album lacks, is a significant speaker. In F#A#∞ there is narrator describing the post-apocalypse landscape in “Dead Flag Blues”. In Slow Riot For New Zero Kanadathere is the protester being interviewed. In Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend!, the only voice we hear is the repeated radio signal “with his arms outstretched,” which nicely combines the themes of war and relgion. For it could describe either a man praying, or being arrested. Of course Godspeed is not required to include spoken word in their music, and in fact the album operates perfectly without it. Perhaps this lack of speaking is a statement within the album, expressed earlier in Slow Riot, that freedom of expression has been quashed by religious and military oppression, and the music relates this crushing pain.
Thus Allelujah! delivers. For it harks back to the band’s greatest strengths of intense focus and feeling, while also giving new impetus to a future sound. Above all it is the album most immediate to our times, and should be treated with care.