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Album Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! [Constellation]

The small subgenre of music known to most as post-rock seems to have run its course. That’s not to suggest that the steadied and beautiful hands that craft such intricate melodies have stopped doing what they do best. No, like any particular style of music, there are ebbs and flows, and what was once popular suddenly becomes shunned by the fickle masses as they search for the “next big thing.” You take a look at bands like Sigur Ros and Mogwai, and simply glancing at their catalogues will show you how the quality of their recordings appeared to drop compared to their earlier, late ’90s efforts. Of course the more you create the more material there is for comparison and criticism. Had there been more Nirvana or Beatles records, maybe their legacies wouldn’t have heen as strong as they are today. And while some of the disdain for many modern-day post-rock efforts stems from recycling old sounds and failing to make forward evolutionary progress, nobody seems to be entirely sure where to go next. A band like Swans certainly qualifies for the post-rock label, but have always had a large following among heavy metal, industrial and post-punk fans too, and being able to keep toes dipped into multiple pools has benefited them greatly. It’s helped their new record The Seer rank among some of 2012’s best. But when you break the genre down to its basest instincts, the ultimate goal is to make primarily instrumental music that speaks to our emotions and sends chills down our spines. You don’t even need to be original if what you’re creating pushes the right buttons. That principle applies to all music, with the understanding that it’s better to be good than cool.

In a sense, with their return from a hiatus along with their first album of new material in 10 years, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are filling a void we didn’t know was there in the first place. Though their music has little to no vocals save for the occasional sound clip, the band’s mission is far more politically oriented than you might expect. They’ve never shyed away from commenting on world issues, and the collective’s unofficial frontman Efrim Menuck has been called an anarchist on more than one occasion. They insert themselves into this commentary and these situations even though you won’t hear it addressed in the songs that they play. Well, as they argue (and it’s one of the reasons they took nearly a decade off), their music is created based on both physical and political pain happening around the world. They vanished about a year after 9/11 and as the U.S. was starting to become involved with Iraq and Afghanistan. You’d suspect these things would inspire the band, and their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O. was its own political statement, with missiles on the album cover and interior artwork drawing connections between major record labels (AOL Time-Warner, BMG, Universal) and various arms manufacturers. There’d be plenty more political fodder and terror to draw from moving forwards for the band, but they chose to explore side projects and other avenues of creation for awhile. Now with the U.S. all but out of Iraq and Afghanistan wrapping up as well, one would hope that a period of relative peace was right around the corner. Yet Godspeed came back to life in late 2010 bigger and bolder than ever, though existing solely as a touring entity. Then came an October surprise. At the start of the month they announced there’d be a new album called Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, and that it would be released in two weeks’ time. They dropped that bomb on everyone.

Yet GY!BE would save their biggest shocker for those that actually listened to the new album. They haven’t changed their sound or done something drastic and unexpected. Quite the opposite in fact. These new songs sound more focused, beautiful and impressive than just about anything they’ve ever done. Nobody quite sounded like them during their initial run in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and nobody still sounds like them today. To those that would say this is a classic case of absence making the heart grow fonder, there’s an equally compelling argument to be made that expectations have only grown for the band in their time away. Just take groups like Pixies or Pavement as examples. Both went away for awhile and left some seriously important and great music in their wake. Upon their return, they chose to tour and only play their old stuff. Pavement has once more vanished into the ether, a band of myth and legend, while Pixies continue to tour and rake in cash almost exclusively because they can. But for so many success stories that don’t want to or are afraid to mess with their back catalogue and legacies, there are the ones that push forwards and hope for the best. Dinosaur Jr. and Guided By Voices are two good examples of bands with solid second halves of their careers (so far), while grunge stalwarts like Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden seem to be having the opposite effect with their “comeback” records. But getting back to Godspeed, perhaps they avoided some of the backlash that’s associated with comeback records because of the quick turnaround they pulled. Announcing a new album and then immediately selling it at shows followed by a traditional store release two weeks later didn’t give anybody time to react. With prejudging almost entirely removed from the equation, the collective listening experience has been tempered and thoughtful and understandably gobsmacked at how excellent these songs really are.

It’s a huge help that two of the songs on Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! are tracks the band was playing around with since 2003. There are live recordings of “Mladic” (formerly known as “Albanian”) and “We Drift Like Worried Fire” (formerly known as “Gamelan”) from the pre-hiatus period, making their studio recorded inclusion here a satisfactory note for long-time fans. What’s most fascinating is how much both of the songs evolved due to time and the addition of new players. They’ve kept many of the same parts so they’re recognizable as the same songs from years ago, but so much has also been re-imagined and re-purposed to give these songs a fuller and more dynamic feel. “Mladic” is heavier and more visceral than ever, slowly building over its 20 minutes with Middle Eastern-style guitars before hitting its stride in the final seven minutes with pure noise and intense orchestral changes. Rarely have GY!BE gone so dark, but it’s also immensely important that they do take those emotions to heart as part of a healthy balance with the lighter fare. It’s an exploration and ultimately expulsion of their demons, filtered through the glasses of an influential band like Swans. Once all that hand wringing finishes in dramatic fashion, relief and calm take over and provide solemn guidance through the rest of the record. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is positively placid by comparison, and in fact shows off the band’s tender and minimalist side. Starting with precious few notes on a guitar, the track accrues more and more elements to create a lush stew of infinitely measurable beauty that is likely to make the boys in Sigur Ros jealous. At that point in time, about 10 minutes in, a peak is hit and there’s a sudden explosion of joyous emotion and sonic glory that is just about enough to restore your faith in humanity whether you lost it or not. The whole world suddenly fades away so you can be fully present in that moment because it is a knockout punch.

Naturally, the two shorter tracks on Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, clocking in at 6.5 minutes apiece, can feel like stopgaps compared to the duo of big showcase 20 minute monstrosities. If you buy the album on vinyl, “Their Helicopters’ Sing” and “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” don’t even make the main 12″ but are instead relegated to a separate 7″. That doesn’t make them outcasts though, and if you buy a digital or CD copy of the record their placement at tracks two and four creates a nice buffer between the longer pieces and allows the group to continue to throw curveballs and variations in their already distinct sound. Both tracks are drones that are positively hypnotic when listened to with eyes closed and a clear mind. “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” shows off a little more instability than its nearly equal length counterpart, but both bear an eerie sonic resemblance to some great moments on the F#A#∞ record. It’s just another great reminder that no other band has quite the mastery of sound or has carved such a distinct place for themselves in the world of post-rock. No matter the state of the genre right now or in the future, there’s very little that can change the power and emotional wallop this record packs into its four tracks and 53 minutes. We’ve missed you, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Welcome back.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Mladic

Buy Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! from Constellation Records

Album Review: Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care [Temporary Residence Ltd.]

Explosions in the Sky have reached what some might call an impasse in their careers. After churning out 5 albums in 7 years, almost all of which featured their signature and exciting instrumental post-rock sound, they simply vanished for a period of time. 2007’s “All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone” may not have been their strongest effort, but it did do the best for them sales-wise, a likely response to their relentless cycle of recording and touring over the previous few years. Explosions in the Sky are, after all, a thrill to see live, often attacking their songs four electric guitars at a time and not being shy about meandering into extensive and thrashing solos. When you don’t have any singing or lyrics to back you up, that just puts more pressure to keep crowds engaged in what you’re doing, and these guys handle it better than most vocal-heavy bands. They’re also smart and creative enough to differentiate themselves from a number of their counterparts such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor via the way they approach each song, sticking to their guitars and meandering through soundscapes rather than establishing the long-running dynamic of the slow build to explosive noise. This is the style that has sustained the band for the entirety of their existence, which hasn’t really needed changing because of its originality but nevertheless might have been getting a little tiresome around 2007. So they vanished for just a little bit, hopefully to think about what they’ve done and where they’ve been and if they could creatively sustain themselves for presumably another few records. So unlike the amazing TV show “Friday Night Lights” which they soundtracked, which is ending this year after five seasons, Explosions in the Sky have chosen to return for their sixth record, “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care”.

If you’ve heard an Explosions in the Sky record before, you can take comfort (and care) that “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” doesn’t do anything to change that dynamic. If anything, this new album is more like a reboot of the EITS sound, bringing things back to their most basic elemental core and doing away with any small indulgences that may have been made on the last couple records (see: piano). Once again the carefully crafted songs are distinctive only to this band, and they prove not only to themselves but everyone else that they know exactly what they’re doing. Many other, relatively similar bands have come and gone these last 10 years, but these guys remain because of their tenacity and smart compositions. The power as well, that invisible driving force behind the music, remains intact along with the ability for these songs to evoke strong emotions ranging from a dark sadness to trembling joy and everything in between. While the band does more often than not take the studious approach with 6+ minute passages, at times they’re able to collapse their ideas down to a normal song length, as “Trembling Hands” does with 3.5 minutes of pure energy, a deft pace established at the outset by some heavy percussion and later met with equal vigor by the guitars. The 8 minutes of “Human Qualities” is purely fascinating for the way it slowly spirals downward into near silence before naturally rebuilding to an even stronger place than where it began. The true highlights of the record though come with the final two tracks. After two sparsely plucked electric guitars spend the first three minutes of “Postcard From 1952” meandering and weaving around one another, the drums begin to stir along with the harmonic mixture of the guitars. The notes themselves prove to be just as compelling as two human voices harmonizing on the high and low end of the same note. The heaviness builds to a tipping point, and as the chords begin to reach red levels, there’s a pull back where everything just calms down and peters out. It’s not about denying what might otherwise be viewed as a tension-relieving payout, but rather exercising restraint in the face of mounting pressure. Very few bands can pull that off in a compelling fashion, and Explosions in the Sky is one of them.

What the closing track “Let Me Back In” does is point squarely in the direction of a future for a band that until recently questioning whether it even had one in the first place. Beginning with a highly muffled tape of a woman speaking slowly twists and turns into a soundscape that is at war with itself. One minute it’s subdued and wandering in a daze while the next it’s charging forwards with the force of a thousand elephants complete with machine gun drumming and white noise guitars that consistently pile on top of one another. It is both a spectacular example of where they came from and their roots inspired by way of Mogwai but also marks progression. There are small pieces in the track’s 10 minute duration that mark new and unexplored territory for Explosions in the Sky. The progression of the song itself is more structured and strategic than before, with not only a clear beginning, middle and end, but also a full circle logic where the song ends exactly where it began – with 30 seconds of this muffled woman crying out into the darkness all alone as the world fades to black around her. Not the most pleasant thought, and it’s not the most pleasant song from the band, but not many people listen to this band to be put in a good mood. It’s the epic closer “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” needs though. While the record itself doesn’t feature the band at the height of their 2003 “Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place” powers, it does serve as a strong reminder of exactly how this band has lasted so long, and why they’ll probably survive another 10 years if they really want to.

Buy “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” from Amazon

Show Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor [The Vic; Chicago; 3/28/11]

Upon announcing their impending return nearly a year ago, Godspeed You! Black Emperor laid out a plan that essentially involved touring around the world from December through the end of March and nothing more beyond that. They would not be considering any offers for interviews nor would they be booking any more tour dates beyond the pre-determined countries and cities until they had some serious time to think about it. Well, the band has done exactly as they said they would, save for the couple of Canadian tour dates that were added for the end of April. Those Canadian dates are all that’s left, save for the final U.S. date in Detroit this evening. But for the past three nights, GYBE has established a sold out residency in Chicago, playing at the historic Metro twice and The Vic Theatre last night. If you know anybody that attended all three of those Chicago shows, or multiple dates in a row in another city, you might want to check on them to make sure they’re okay. Seeing this band live puts a tremendous physical and mental strain on a person, and to do so over and over again can destroy the unprepared.

The stage setup is rather simple and unassuming upon looking at it with the lights up, but that’s kind of the point, as the focus is not to be directed towards the band members. Instead, when the lights do dim and the band members begin to emerge one by one on stage, they’re moving in the shadows and remain so for the duration of the show. Only minimal overhead lighting allows for them to see their instruments and one another as needed. The main visual part of the performance, nearly as important as the audio portion, is plastered onto a large screen behind the band via multiple film projectors. During the quieter moments, if you were standing in the right place, you could hear the clicking of the film and the whirring of the projectors as they presented stimulating and thought-provoking images as a companion to the songs. Speaking of quieter moments though, at a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show it is essential to show the utmost respect for the performance and hold your tongue for the duration and only applaud during the transitions between songs. Apparently some people at The Vic did not get that message, because between the two guys standing in front of me that insisted on talking much of the time and the drunk girl that kept yelling things at the band whenever the room fell silent, there were a few times when it was easy to get pulled out of the musical trance and back to the reality of being trapped in a large room with some idiots. As is their way, the band never actually uttered a word the entire time they were on stage, allowing their instrumental compositions and their visual counterparts do all the speaking for them.

One of the most fascinating things about Godspeed You! Black Emperor in general is just how they take the elements of traditional post-rock and turn them in many respects on their head. The way the violin and cello create this often sad symphonic side works in tandem with the ever-building guitar melodies until it all crescendos into a massive wave of punishing heavy metal is unparalleled today and a big reason why GYBE is such a revered collective. On its own, the band’s catalogue is best digested by yourself with headphones on and a dimly lit room free of distractions. Establishing the right atmosphere is key to opening your mind to the possibilities each track explores. Severe emotional states are also common when listening to the band, as one song may push your eyes to well up with tears and another might have you fearing for your own life. That’s a big part of the mental toll the music can take on you, and matched with the visual aspect of their live performance it gains even more power. The black and white footage of desolate country roads and empty buildings make you feel lonely even in a room filled with people. Billowing smoke and raging house fires help showcase the scary power that nature can play in our lives, though it may also have you wondering how you might be able to get out of the venue were a similar emergency suddenly emerge. Pages of the book “The Anatomy of Melancholy” slide past on one side of the screen, while on the other grainy strips of film are burnt, laying to waste captured images somebody undoubtedly hoped would remain permanent. No, the GYBE live show is not an exercise in fun or optimism, but then again neither is your average symphony or opera. The sweeping drama of it all and the way we relate to the elements at play determine what we get out of the experience.

The physical toll a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show has on you is also a comination of things. The most robust moments in any individual song can give your eardrums a heavy shaking both via headphones and at a concert venue, but when seen live that shaking hits your whole body. You get pummeled by a wall of sheer noise that only gets worse the closer in proximity you are to the stage. Adding to that is the general difficulty of standing in the same place for 2+ hours while experiencing this. In an ideal situation, GYBE would be playing in seated theatres or churches with pews. The Vic does have a couple of small seated sections, but everything else is standing room only, which is how most experienced the show on Monday night. I stood the entire time and by about mid-way through the set needed to lean on a railing next to me out of concern that I might collapse, the physical and mental exhaustion finally overtaking me. It may sound like an overreaction, but a number of people around me walked away at various points to seek out potential seats in a balcony area. The good news is that everybody seemed to weather the storm okay, though that’s not to say many weren’t shaken. And in the midst of the simply mesmerizing set, there was still a lot of excitement over both the general experience as well as hearing GYBE “classics” like “Gathering Storm”, “Sleep” and “World Police and Friendly Fire”. It was a night most if not everyone will not soon forget, a testament to the raw power of this band and the indelible mark their records have left on people that have heard them. If you’ve already seen them live, you understand what I’m talking about. If not, there’s but a few dates left for you to experience this before the band’s future once again falls into jeopardy. For the rest, live recordings and YouTube videos will have to suffice, of which many do a solid job showing off exactly what you missed. Godspeed You! Black Emperor start all of their shows with the song “Hope Drone”, during which the titular word “Hope” is projected onto the screen behind the band members as they each emerge onto the stage. As the show wraps up and things descend into white noise and visual static, and we walk away barely on our own two feet, that hope somehow still remains. Let’s try as hard as we can to keep it alive for as long as possible, that Godspeed will continue beyond their current expiration date of April 2011.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Yanqui U.X.O.

Buy “Yanqui U.X.O.” from Constellation Records
Buy “Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada” from Constellation Records
Buy “F#A#∞” from Concstellation Records

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