Review Summary: “So at some point we decided to record – it’s what bands do.”
Very few genres have had quite so much questionable material written about them than Post-Rock, that nigh-on indefinable inexplicably deep collection of soundscapes and noise, and no groups more than Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Exhibit A: “In Godspeed’s world view, everyone is a marginal prophet.[...] Their lexicon of faith, hope and tenacity is written in every glockenspiel chime.”
Of course, the band do little to discourage such an approach, answering interview questions with deep, political answers that John Lennon would be proud of, filling their music with mysterious titles and producing vinyl copies packed with weird and wonderful photographs.
It’s very easy to impose this depth of meaning on this kind of instrumental music: it sweeps out of the speakers and it layers sound to create amazing pieces of music – it just sounds deep. At least, it usually does.
Given that this is GY!BE’s first studio album in a decade, I can understand why people are excited, but it seems very few reviews have actually critiqued the music itself, most reviews not really saying much beyond “yup, it’s still Godspeed.” It’s good, don’t get me wrong, it’s really good – there is always a baseline of talent and engaging music with this group, but there’s something just a little bit off about this record.
The opening track, ’Mladic’, is angry. It throbs with distortion, with squeals and shrieks piercing though the wall of sound amid more conventional guitar lines, there is fantastic melody based on middle-eastern-sounding tunes boxed in by waves of cymbals and white noise, a small cello line almost lost and it ends swirling chaos that dissipated into crackles, out of which march a solitary snare drum. Everything you’d expect from Godspeed album, but it just sounds a little… shallow. That edge of substance that the band have captured so well across their entire discography just seems a bit lacking; the riffs sound a little repetitive at times (which they always are, but never feel like that), and around 11:20 there’s something resembling a guitar solo. A guitar solo. It feels a little tired, written for the sake of it.
Which leads me onto my next point, the structure. Quite short by album standards, the record is divided into two ‘songs’ and two noise/drone tracks, alternating. As soon as the first noise ‘Their Helicopters Sing’ track started, I really began to sink into the music. It was dramatic and dense, slowly evolving into something difficult but intense – incredibly, out of the scratching of strings and low drone, a small, light melody line built on harmonics can be hear briefly before it melds into the noise, around 4:20 – it was truly beautiful, and brought the track together into a slowly pulsing wave. Similarly, the last track, ‘Strung Like Lights’, was equally engaging and tense, a masterclass in creating musical texture. It ends with what can only be described as light in musical form, audible clarity, and an excellent way to finish the album. But splitting these two tracks away from the more ‘musical’, longer tracks seems like a strange, arbitrary decision. To some extent, they act as a sort of clearing tone, breaking up the length of the two ‘songs’, but… not really. They’re so complex in themselves that they require as much, if not more, thought than the more conventional tracks 1 and 3, and prolonged intensity and concentration has never been something the band has shied away from before. And why not integrate these drone themes into a larger track, like they've done before? In their extended interview with the Guardian, they write “So at some point we decided to record – it’s what bands do.” And that the kind of impression I'm getting – an album recorded for the sake of it, one that ticks the Godspeed boxes – it feels a little too thought-out, when previous records have had the organic and smooth sound of a jam, despite their meticulous orchestration.
The third track, and the second of the ‘songs’, ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’, has received a huge amount of praise, and quite justifiably so. From the beginning, it’s ethereal and haunting, rhythmically and structurally complex, littered with beautiful, sad harmonies shifting easily and naturally between sections and volume levels to change the prominence of individual instruments and melodic lines. But, there is a moment that really epitomises my thoughts on the album; at around 18:10, a very standard 4/4 drum beat enters, and rather unimaginatively slowly speeds up, not the only noticeably boring drum beat on the record. The drumming in Godspeed has been truly outstanding in becoming a musical addition to the sound, in adding something of its own, and this was just thoroughly disappointing. As with any part of a Godspeed track, you can make an argument that such a move is entirely purposeful, and serves to represent something beyond the music. Which is fine. Art is defined by interpretation, but unlike any moment in a previous Godspeed track, it sounds… lazy. Wrong. Not meaningful. Which is a tremendous shame, because overall the track, and the album are good. Very good.
Many fans and music critics will be overjoyed that GY!BE have returned to previous form, given the length of their hiatus and fairly negative reaction to the direction the band took with Yanqui UXO, but the range of adorations and five star reviews is not really warranted. It is a fantastic album, and it is only because the group’s work has been so consistently good that I analyse it in this way. It’s no F# A# ∞, or Lift Your Skinny Fists, not by a fair margin. That said, to have produced such a record after so long is testament the the bands musical talent. I can only hope that having got their feet back in the stirrups, they’ll be galloping again soon.