Album Of The Week: Godspeed You! Black Emperor Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
When a big and great album comes out, and when we give that big and great album a Premature Evaluation, I often use this space to point out that the album you’ll be reading about below isn’t the real album of the week; it’s the one that ended up in this slot because we already wrote about the big dog in the room. This could be one of those weeks. Sufjan Stevens’ lovely and mournful Carrie And Lowell is certainly a hugely important record in Stevens’ career, and it’s his best work in at least a decade. But it’s not clearly the best album of the week. There are a lot of great ones this week. Lower Dens twisted their motorik dreampop toward slow-release pop music on Escape From Evil and came away with something shatteringly beautiful. And Violent Reaction’s Marching On is one of the finest, most ferocious slabs of straight-ahead feral hardcore in recent years. Those two albums, along with Carrie And Lowell, are absolutely in conversation for the week’s best album. Most weeks, any of those three could’ve taken the honors. But when Godspeed You! Black Emperor, that shadowy Canadian anarchist collective, rumbles back to life, they have a way of sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
It doesn’t make much sense to pit this Godspeed album, or any Godspeed album, against other albums made by other people. Godspeed don’t come across as artists trying to express a particular idea, or as craftsmen attempting to piece together the best possible version of their own chosen sound. Instead, they come across like druids, summoning vast forces beyond their control. Godspeed albums are, of course, the product of musicians working together, making choices, assembling pieces of music from scratch. But they don’t feel that way. They feel like celestial events, or like crazy storms. The only way to process them is to stand back and admire their grandeur. And make no mistake: Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress is a grand fucking album. At 40-or-so minutes it’s shorter than most Godspeed albums, and it’s the first time since the group’s early days that they’ve fit an entire album onto a single LP. But there’s nothing bite-sized or digestible about it. Instead, the difference this time is that they’ve done away with the gathering clouds, the feints and crackles that characterize their slow-build approach. Instead, this time, they dive right into the meat of things.
We’re less than 20 seconds into opening track “Peasantry Or ‘Light! Inside Of Light’” when the whole shit breaks wide open. After a few heartbeat-style drum thunks, the band rips into a titanic, surging riff, a mystic quasi-eastern stomp that any doom metal band in history would be proud to call its own. It’s a huge sound, and Godspeed work it for everything it’s worth. For 10 solid minutes, they ride that riff, traveling with it through mountains and gorges, rising and falling with it. On “Peasantry,” Godspeed sound more like a rock band than they may have ever sounded. In the past, Godspeed’s triumphant loud moments have pulled a ton of their impact from the vast and sometimes laborious stretches of quiet that come before them. But this is Godspeed saying fuck it and jumping straight to loud, then pretty much staying there for a very long time. And it loses none of its impact in the process. There’s beauty in that stomp, especially when guitars and violins come in to play a new melody on top of it. But they always come back to the riff.
There’s a beautiful symmetry to the way the album comes together. After that burst of loud, there’s a long stretch of quiet. Two songs, the 10-minute drone-piece “Lambs’ Breath” and the six-minute tingler “Asunder, Sweet” drift by with no riffs, no melodies, nothing much loud happening. These songs could feel like endurance tests, but they never do, mostly because you can lose yourself in the simple fullness of the sound. The members of Godspeed know how to record organ-sustain and feedback, to make those things move. You can see ripples of change on the surface, and you can know that something big is coming. And then suddenly, blessedly, they lock right back into that sense of enormity. “Asunder, Sweet” exists entirely to build to the roaring, heaving 14-minute monster “Piss Crowns Are Trebled.” “Piss Crowns” is, if anything, even huger-sounding than “Peasantry,” though it takes its time more than that track did. “Piss Crowns” almost works as a conversation between grumpy-ass guitar-fuzz and loving, beatific violins. They’re arguing, or maybe debating, circling each other until they finally lock in and spiral upward into something monumental. Listen to it on headphones, while staring out a window and losing yourself in your thoughts, and you will feel things.
If the members of Godspeed ran their band as a business entity, rather than a flickering and mercurial ghost of a thing, they could’ve been the defining film-score composers of our age. (Instead, they ceded some of that position to Explosions In The Sky, who are great but whose sound is a more approachable version of Godspeed’s earth-rumbles.) Things sound bigger and bolder and more emotionally loaded, for whatever reason, when Godspeed’s music is playing. A lonely pigeon flying past your window can look like an ominous harbinger of doom, or like a symbol for collective hope, depending on what part of the album you’re at. With Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress, they’ve cut out some of the more atmospheric elements of their sound — the scratchy found-sound samples, the faraway ambient crackles. But they haven’t lost any of the primal force that makes them something more than a band. If it catches you at the right moment, this is music that can make you glad to be alive.
Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress is out now on Constellation. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Sufjan Stevens’ sweet, lovely, elegiac Carrie And Lowell.
• Lower Dens’ humid, layered dreampop move Escape From Evil.
• Violent Reaction’s bruising, rigorous hardcore blitzkrieg Marching On.
• Ryley Walker’s old-school psych-folk seance Primrose Green.
• Death Cab For Cutie’s cleaned-up return Kintsugi.
• Johnny Jewel’s score for Ryan Gosling’s Lost River film.
• Death Grips’ surprise-released The Powers That B, Disc 2: Jenny Death.
• Fort Romeau’s spacey, layered house album Insides.
• Garage rock legends the Sonics’ fuzzed-out reunion This Is The Sonics.
• The Soft Moon’s postpunk brood Deeper.
• Iceage side project Marching Church’s debut The World Is Not Enough.
• Lost Boy ?’s DIY garage-popper Canned.
• Faith Healer’s ’60s-addled dreampop debut Cosmic Troubles.
• Follkazoid’s zoned-out psych-rocker III.
• Only Real’s quintessentially British ramble Jerk At The End Of The Line.
• The Prodigy’s reliably blaring, thumping The Day Is My Enemy.
• Simon Joyner’s spindly, poetic Grass, Branch & Bone.
• Houndstooth’s antsy dreampop/alt-country fusion No News From Home.
• Jodeci’s triumphant R&B reunion The Past, The Present, The Future.
• Murg’s old-school black metal attack Varg & Björn.
• Madeon’s slick dance album Adventure.
• Wale’s narcissism-rap opus The Album About Nothing.
• The Godmode Records compilation American Music.
• Upset’s ’76 EP.
• TCTS’s Body EP.
• Elsa’s Never Come Down EP.
• Geronimo!’s Buzz Yr Girlfriend: Vol. 4 – Why Did You Leave Me? EP.
• Zero 7’s EP3 EP.
• Free Cake For Every Creature’s Moving Songs tape.