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Album Review
Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Constellation Records

Review Date
Reviewed by
Michael Harvey

The opening monologue to Godspeed You! Black Emperor's 1997 debut album F# A# ∞ is one of the most chilling and apocalyptic album openers ever. A low drone, then a deep, depressed voice intones, "the car's on fire and there's no driver at the wheel, and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides, and a dark wind blows." The album unfolds to a series of extended suites featuring melancholic strings, full-on guitar wig-outs and driving crescendos over the course of an hour. Fifteen years later, it still holds up in a veritable ocean of cinematic post-rockers all reaching for that ineffable climax in a storm of delay pedals. The band upped the ante on their subsequent releases, the New Riot for New Zero Kanada EP and Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, the latter containing two long pieces that built on the drones and crescendos on a scale so epic that it was hard to know where the band would, or could, go from there. Yanqui U.X.O. emerged in 2002 sounding very similar to the previous albums yet somewhat bereft of energy or new ideas. Members of the groups' core operated in other  more stripped-back ensembles (A Silver Mt. Zion being the most well-known and prolific), and when the band announced an indefinite hiatus in 2003, it seemed like it was the end of an era. 

However, the band returned to the live arena in 2011, and now a new recording is here. The title is classic GY!BE, all those punctuations and exaltations, and like the classic GY!BE graphic of a hammer emblazoned with the word "hope", the overwhelmingly ecstatic is countered by the dour and minor-key. Is the image of a building on the cover a clip from a nuclear test? A structure about to be obliterated and turned into dust? It acts as a visual allegory for one of the great things about GY!BE: astoundingly beautiful refrains derailed by voluminous feedback and primal rage channeled through musical instruments. 

The music here isn't entirely new - the main pieces are reworkings of songs that have been a part of the band's live set from before their hiatus. Opening piece 'Mladic' begins with a sample ("with his arms outstretched") before sustained percussion and droning chords transform into a Middle Eastern motif that is almost metallic in its unhinged aggression. As the song progresses you become aware that whilst the band haven't radically reinvented themselves, GY!BE are the progenitors of a form that, for better or worse, has become so sophomoric. It's revelatory in the sense that in the near ten years between albums or live performances it still feels fresh and raw, and there's as much polish on these recordings as there was on the band's tape-hiss-included debut. This is what makes Allelujah... feel like a connection in the punk/DIY thread that runs through instrumental post-rock's greatest (non) hits. That same buzzing grace that made Slint so dynamic and the hefty bombast that Mogwai achieved on their epic "My Father My King" is something this album harkens back to. Sure, if this album was released ten years ago it would have been accused of being part of a rapidly fading zeitgeist, but somehow it feels more vital in 2012 compared to recent output by the band's peers and imitators.

The album is segued together by shorter drone tracks, which are a testament to the band's ability to sustain eerie atmosphere throughout fairly simple pieces of music. On 'Their Helicopters Sing' found sound shudders against shrill stings and delicate chimes, like something captured for a Folkways compilation rewired for post-millennial tension and pre-apocalyptic anxieties. 'We Drift Like Worried Fire', the albums' other long track, is a more understated and subtle composition compared to 'Mladic''s almost freewheeling heaviness, with the violin and cello coming to the fore in leading the band. The band opt for a more suite-like approach, leading to a gorgeous melodic ending that is just about the most "hopeful" sounding of the group's canon. 

If a clearly renewed enthusiasm for touring (the band are making their first trip to Australasia in February) is the pay-off for what is essentially old songs freshly pressed to wax, then so be it. The shorter pieces on Allelujah!... do not point toward any new direction for this consistently iconoclastic of bands, but they do indicate that the time off hasn't dulled any of GY!BE's sonic sensibilities. If anything, this album is a reaffirmation that the band are content to do what they do best: just keep their heads down and keep those chords a'ringing toward the skies.


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