REVIEW: Godspeed You! Black Emperor - "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!"


Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
Record Label:  Constellation
Release Date:  October 15, 2012

Godspeed You! Black Emperor was one of those bands that marked my musical maturity.  Flush with that self-confidence and idealism that marks kids who go to semi-prestigious liberal arts schools, my first encounter with GYBE was in the form of their miraculous EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada.  Subversive, orchestral, anarchist, with a flair for dramatics, Godspeed used to put up banners at their shows saying:

In the later days of the dot com boom, GYBE represented a harsh check to a continent that was getting too ahead of itself.  Their music was hard.  I mean, incredibly hard.  It's almost impossible to listen to a song in one sitting. The albums are arranged into tracks but they're really more like movements of a tidal wave that you're trying to keep track of with bits of found sound, interviews, off-kilter string lines merging into spastic guitars floating to the surface.  If there was a sound for post-modern haunting it would be GYBE.  And for a kid who knew nothing but suburban madness and comfort, whose ideology was as naïve as it was deeply rooted, GYBE was the perfect tonic.  It wasn't long after being exposed to GYBE that I told my parents I was going to vote for Nader.

Allelujah! Don't Bend!  Ascend!, the group's 4th studio album, appeared (rather magically) at a merch table on the group's don't-call-it-a-reunion tour on Oct. 1, springing the internet into a mini-storm as the release predated the actual release date by 2 weeks.  Perhaps out of a need to capitalize on the tour's success or just having something to tour with, GYBE's effort on this record surpasses most anything else out there this year.  But, the real question is -- does it surpass their other efforts?

If there is something which has been rankling my music criticism bones recently, it's our (and I'm including myself here) recent trend of ignoring context when it comes to bands and albums as if a record suddenly sprang to life of its own accord without historical, social and cultural factors.  What this leads to is incredibly superficial judgments (and often lack of judgments) where we take a record only as music, track by track, communicate this to our reader and leave it there.  What I want to make clear here is that I'm not talking about the old indie standby -- "well, their first album was better" -- but about forces outside of the context of just the band.  For a band like GYBE such critical blinders would be detrimental.  GYBE's heyday was is in the late 90s and early 2000s.  It came when we were fighting a war with no substantive cause, when American extravagance was sucking the soul out of culture and when they told us that irony was dying.  GYBE was a victim of the rampant paranoia streaking across the continent during the early part of the last decade.  They were pulled over and detained somewhere in Oklahoma (the state where I first heard them) for being suspicious.  You can picture their van, emblazoned with Arabic and driven by some scruffy-looking Quebecois, being not at all "normal" in the red state insanity of Oklahoma.  It was this paranoia and lifelessness of corporate culture that GYBE, in their leftist sincerity, exposed with albums like Slow Riot and Lift Your Skinny Fists like Antennas to Heaven.  However, by the time Yanqui U.X.O, came around (in 2002) the album itself seemed like old news.  By then, many of us had lost faith in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and W was in the White House looking more and more like a hawk and less and less like a president.  Our anxieties came indexed and color-coded, and rumors would periodically go around about putting duct tape on your windows.  The paranoia and fear-mongering had come true and we were all caught in it.

There's no doubt that the clarion call of GYBE is still needed.  We've become more corporately co-opted in the decade since their last release.  The injustice of capitalism is still overtaking the streets and wars have still not ended.  However, with a presidential race that's been divisive and focused on working all of this out, it's difficult, for me at least, for the seemingly populist title of Allelujah! Don't Bend!  Ascend! to resonate with the strength that it did when I was in my early 20s.  While the album is an engaging listen and portions (most notably the opening of "We Drift Like Worried Fire") are some of the band's best work, if we're going to call it a comeback record, then it brings some of its decade-old baggage with it.  To ask a political group like GYBE to somehow change their politics with so much left unresolved or to somehow start making music that shouldn't live up to their ideals would be sacrilege.  However, to listen to a band like this and forget those ideals at the same time is just as bad.  This is an album that I've listened to pretty much non-stop since its unofficial and official release. More than likely, that's because it brings up more questions than answers.  In a way, that's probably more telling about me -- most of those questions are about myself.  Looking back at that early 20s self, have I changed so much that to hear GYBE again feels like being haunted?  Have I somehow lost what I believed in?  I mean, Nader wasn't even on the ballot this time.   


  1. This the type of writing that should make anyone with any sort of love for music scream out for more. I have read this blog on and off now for quite some time and I never fail to fall for something new and reading someone with a total love of godspeed you! black emperor is heartening as I have felt the same way about them without anyone ever quite able to put into words exactly why they are such a special, incredible band. It really does remind me why I love music so much when I read about it on here. So thanks.

  2. Not much of an album review, but I like it. I've listened to some GYBE but had no clue of their (or your) politics. Thanks for sharing. Also:
    - Your war dates are a bit mixed up.
    - Nader didn't run for the first time in 20 years, but his spirit lives on:

  3. You know, for someone who says he want to but context in it's criticism I think you missed one important piece of context to appreciate fully this record. It came out in a context in Montreal and Quebec province all troughout 2012 winter, spring and summer that you had to be there to understand, unfortunately. At the time the streets were stormed by millions of students rioting peacefully for their rights and free education. The first track has a lot of recorded footage of this time --«Printemps Érable» riots-- the drumming at the end of the piece is legit the drumming we heard all spring and summer long in the streets. This album may not have a universal echo as "Lift your skinny fists", but it tends not to be. This album is a love letter to people who resisted in spring 2012. For I walked the streets on that year i see solace in this album, a proof it was not made in vain, a proof that we ascended somehow.