When writing about Godspeed You! Black Emperor, it’s nigh impossible to go for long without dipping into the world of superlatives. Godspeed, both in spite of and due to their perpetually enigmatic profile, are commonly regarded with a blanket sense of awe and wonder. Their every move is scrutinized heavily (helped by the fact that the band rarely makes any public communication on their own behalf), and each bit of new music released is a legitimate event. And rightly so at that. As one of the most famous and influential post-rock groups (there are those superlatives) out there, they’ve more than earned the right to have lavish praise heaped upon them on a regular basis. So when critically writing about their music, it’s really not so much a matter of determining whether any given release is a great piece of music as it is trying to somehow quantify and qualify that greatness.
That brings us to Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress. When the album was announced earlier this year, the most surprising aspect of it was that it was happening at all. After simply dissipating from our lives in 2002 and making a more than triumphant return in the earth-shaking ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! one decade later, expecting an entirely new album within the confines of the conventional album cycle felt almost greedy. Asunder feels like a particularly generous gift, and as an album it has plenty to give back. That rapturous glee feels mirrored by much of the music itself, as if Godspeed want to reward their listeners for the many years of loyalty. Opener ‘Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ is positively joyful, brimming with the fanfare of its usual mixture of horns and strings in its melodic theme. It’s not without its vague sense of menace creeping at the edges, but as far as Godspeed goes, ‘Peasantry’ is sheer jubilation. And it’s brilliant jubilation at that. While not as heavy or intense as ‘Mladic’ or as fragile and emotionally stirring as ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ off of Allelujah!, ‘Peasantry’ feels like the perfect progression from the work of that album. It’s an anthem begging for a cause or revolution to be the theme to.
If ‘Peasantry’ feels like a particularly generous gift or reward though, the 16 minutes that follows feel more like a punishment. Like Allelujah!, Asunder is comprised of 4 tracks, 2 of which are atmospheric “drone” tracks. Whereas the drone tracks of Allelujah! were spaced out to follow each of the larger melodic tracks though, the two here — ‘Lambs’ Breath’ and ‘Asunder, Sweet’ — are placed in a bloc squarely in the middle. This may seem like a trivial difference, but in terms of aural experience it’s the difference between having two welcome come-downs following two emotionally-exhausting pieces of work and playing a cruel game of forcing the listener to endure an emotionally-vacuous negative space for what feels like an eternity. The nearly 10 minutes of ‘Lambs’ Breath”s monotonous and soul-scraping droning more than accomplishes its seeming goal as an emotional palate cleanser. It completely wipes the landscape clean of all color and tone and prepares the listener for whatever might come next. So it’s somewhat baffling why the band felt it necessary to follow that with an additional 6 minutes of madness in the dissonance and swelling chaos that just swims beneath the surface of ‘Asunder, Sweet.’ It would certainly be unfair to claim the two tracks are one in the same, but they certainly both achieve the same goal, and their pairing makes neither of them stronger for it. If anything it takes away the subtlety and nuance of each and lumps them into a single amorphous blob that tests the very patience and loyalty of the listener that Godspeed appeared to embrace with open arms just previous to that.
‘Asunder, Sweet’ does swell and bleed perfectly into the album’s conclusion in ‘Piss Crowns Are Trebled,’ however, and it’s a climax befitting an album so full of joy and hollow pain. ‘Piss Crowns’ is a perfect foil to ‘Peasantry,’ an emotionally-soaked anthem filtered through the lens of crushing anxiety, pain, cynicism, and defeat. Its core is darkened, but its swelling strings provide a glimmer of light at the edges. As it settles into the main theme of its bludgeoning back half, all of that conflicting emotion is channeled into pure energy and momentum. It is a truly astonishing climax, one that only a band such as Godspeed could ever hope to achieve. It’s these moments that one fully understands the aura and untouchable mythos surrounding the band. It is a masterstroke for a band who specializes in masterstrokes.
But in the end, the entire experience of the album still rings just a smidge hollow. For an album that is only 40 minutes in length, there is an inexcusably gaping hole in the center that threatens to drag the entire thing down. It is true that Godspeed create noise unlike anyone else, and on their own, both ‘Lambs’ Breath’ and ‘Asunder, Sweet’ are impressive pieces. In context of the greater whole though, one cannot help but wonder if that time and space could have been more wisely used, or at the very least if there could have been another melodic piece or brief interlude to break the space up. Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress is undeniably a great piece of work. But in the scope of the band’s body of work, it finds itself unable to fully rise above the rest. The potential and elements are certainly there, but the final package is not. And that’s truly a shame. Asunder may be a gift. But it’s not a blessing.
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Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress gets…