There’s always been some debate in my head as to whether Canadian instrumental noodling oddities Godspeed You! Black Emperor (you have to get the exclamation mark in the right place, or people will shout at you on The Twitter) are maverick pioneers who delight in breaking down the barriers of modern popular music, or utterly self indulgent indie hipsters who wouldn’t recognise a melody if it came up the them, shook their hands and said ‘Hi, I’m Melody.’
Over the course of nearly a decade they pushed the outer boundaries of ‘post-rock’ with meandering songs that mostly last longer than time itself, and which at times manage to fall into that magical place where the only response the listener can have is to stare listlessly into space and think about the absolute futility of all existence. Which is nice. The rest of the time, however, they are the sonic equivalent of talking to someone who has cats or children about their attachment to them. It’s all very nice and you can kind of see the point, but you’d rather be doing almost anything else. After a handful of albums and almost the same number of songs, they disbanded, possibly after a conversation that revolved around whether they were all wearing the wrong type of knitwear.
After a hiatus of a decade where they all individually decided their previous work was somehow too mainstream and all went off in search of musical endeavours that were even more obscure and meandering, Godspeed are back, with the not-at-all-gratingly-hiply-monikered album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’ This album is of course only available on vinyl, and possibly only if you order it from the back of a Humus truck in Vancouver on a chilly morning before the bakeries open and you are wearing the right lapel pin on your corduroy jacket and you are friends with Ryan Gosling.
The four tracks split into two halves, each with one long sprawling twenty minute epic that reminds you exactly why you liked Godspeed before, followed by a pointless, shorter (relatively speaking, this is still Godspeed after all) song that reminds you why they annoyed the living piss out of you as well. Opener ‘Mladic’ starts with a portentous build up that has a definite tinge of eastern influence, its frenetic freewheeling mood somewhat at odds with my memories of them, and very welcome. It doesn’t really go anywhere with the motif it uses, but then it doesn’t really need to. Gradually layers of violin drop in, the beat goes on, the guitars drop back and it transforms into something quite beautiful. Then the final five minutes crank up the bombast, and you can’t help but think that a decade away was exactly what this band needed, because this is pretty bloody good. At which point, of course, they go and shoot themselves in their collective feet.
The grammatically challenged second track ‘Their Helicopters’ Sing’ may only be a fraction of its predecessor’s length, but its brevity does not mean they are suddenly flirting with traditional song structures. Far from it, this is nothing more than a dull traverse of a flat field of noise. Herein is everything frustrating about not just this band, but every band who followed in their footsteps. Drone without anything to make it more than that. You can just sense the band sitting in their studio, eyes shut in manic concentration as they hold onto an atonal collective note, convinced somehow that this will transcend into something profound. Maybe they did, but the profundity fails to make the leap across to their audience, and after six minutes I’m massively relieved to be confronted with something approaching a melody.
The second half opens with ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire,’ and while it takes a little while to get started, when it does it reveals itself as a haunting and epic bit of loveliness. While they may have practically invented the scene they now find themselves in (or at least contributed amply to its foundations) you can tell that they’ve not been oblivious to the bands that followed in their footsteps, most notably the Scottish band who you should never, ever feed after midnight. Much lighter in tone than the opener, it is delightful, sprawling and grandiose, which makes the fact that they follow it up with the woeful ‘Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps’ all the more disheartening, seeing as it actually sounds like they left the room with feedback going and forgot to press the stop button on the recording console until the cleaner came in ten minutes later and knocked it with the duster.
As a return from a much loved and lauded pillar of the underground then, you could say this does an effective job. No doubt fans of the band will be heartily pleased as they clutch the artwork to their knitwear and knock their skinny jeaned knees together in sheer joy, their lenseless glasses fogging up with excitement. As a standalone album it is an almost complete representation of a band’s strengths and weaknesses, their ability to find moments of beauty, then muddy those moments in pointless tracts of noise. At turns bewildering and boring, this is a welcome return, if not always a convincing one.