Monday, December 17, 2012

04. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)

How to approach a new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album? The exciting reappearance of one of the most politically vital bands of the last 20 years, or as an intervention into a changed historical landscape that renders their critiques obsolete? Reaffirmation of the dignity of indie, so degraded since F# A# Infinity came out in 1997? Or as experimental (whatever that means now) miasma; as a fractional addition to a monolithic body of work, or the best thing they've ever done.

That title, with its almost parodically positivist screamers, is nicely misleading regarding the content of Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!. It would have been easy enough on re-emerging in 2010, especially given the somewhat lukewarm work that their sister act A Silver Mount Zion have been doing in the last few years, for Godspeed to play to the assumed image of what 'Godspeed' are: the big, parabolic structures, the soaring climaxes, the earnest politics that made sense in Seattle circa 1999. This would be to ignore the contradictions and ironies present in the band from the beginning.

The apparently total purity of intent expressed in fleeting interviews and lo-fi sleeve artwork (not to mention the infamously mordant monologue at the start of 'The Dead Flag Blues', the first track on the first album: "The car is on fire and there's no driver at the wheel...") was always altered in its charge by its presentation - the jokes (who didn't think the dedication to "the Reverend Gary Davis" was at least slightly funny?), the collision of different materials in the inner sleeve collages, the conflicting energies and textures of the songs, sliding and grinding from rage to placidity to uninvited noise to lullabies. The albums were, as the band suggested in a recent Guardian interview, "a joyous difficult noise": their aesthetics bear the closest relation to punk, detonating their conflicting materials through negation, antagonism, to produce works of strange and searing energy. (The distance from Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts' council estate branded ‘Land Of Milk And Honey' to "Fuck la loi 78" on the sleeve of Allelujah!... is shorter than we might choose to  think.)

All of this is a slightly roundabout way of saying two things. One: it turns out that the things about the band that enthralled the first time around - the sincerity, the leftism, the obscurity, the extremes of sound - were as much pop hook and manifesto as, say, anything in the early canon of Adam and the Ants (as masterfully analysed last week by Mark Sinker) - and that this is precisely where their politics, and their brilliance, reside. (Certainly when, on the last few Silver Mount Zion albums, Efrim Menuck's vocals have been unimpededly front-and-centre, the desperation seething within the collective's songs has been written in ten-foot-high slogans, untouched by context or irony, the results have been either comical or too painful to keep up.) Two: a decade's hiatus has given them the chance to sound more like themselves, as a collective entity, an idea, a mass of interacting forces, a project and intervention operating according to what they call their own "particular stubborn calculus"; more like Godspeed than 'Godspeed'.

via The Quietus

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