Nobody liked Justice League. DC’s slapdash 2017 attempt at a superhero team-up movie was doomed from the start. After two operatically grueling Zack Snyder dirges, DC wanted to lighten things up. Even when Snyder was first filming the movie, he assured the world, again and again, that this one would be less intense. Then, because of a family tragedy, Snyder quit the movie, and DC brought in Joss Whedon, the since-disgraced quip specialist who’d directed Marvel’s first two fantastically lucrative Avengers films, to finish it. The result was a two-hour tonal clusterfuck, and it sucked real bad. DC distanced itself from the movie almost instantly, and it died a pathetic box-office death.
Last month, Justice League returned in a weirdly triumphant state. After years of fans begging and demanding and hectoring for a nonexistent “Snyder cut” of Justice League, DC’s overlords at Warner Bros. went ahead and commissioned the thing. Zack Snyder had never finished making his movie, and he spent $70 million of Warner’s money on reshoots and edits and effects. The end result arrived in March as a four-hour movie. I loved it. The whole idea seemed impossibly stupid before the movie came out, but in this final end stretch of a year-long pandemic winter, submitting myself to sincere grand-scale man-as-god storytelling was bizarrely pleasurable. Somehow, I needed this. Maybe I was just starved of spectacle. Maybe all of us were just starved of spectacle.
The members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the mercurial team of leftist Montreal punks, would almost certainly barf at being compared to Zack Snyder, the favorite studio filmmaker of the nerd-bro right. For the group’s entire decades-long existence, Godspeed’s whole approach has been a direct assault at any and all inclinations toward cults of personality. They play in the dark. They don’t sing. They don’t pose for photos. They have no leaders. The band once temporarily broke up because they were worried that the act of playing music onstage had become too much of a one-way communication system. Godspeed You! Black Emperor exist in opposition to the glory of the individual, which is arguably the entire point of superhero cinema in general. This group of musicians is collectivism at work. And yet their new album G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! hits me in much the same way that Zack Snyder’s Justice League did. It hits me as spectacle.
If you’re new to the Godspeed experience, then please be advised that there’s no ideal point of entry. You can just jump in anywhere. Godspeed’s sound has not changed in the 27 years of this band’s intermittent existence. Godspeed’s pieces of music are long — often around 20 minutes — and they are expansive. They start out with fuzz and crackle and drone, and they well up into epic vistas of wordless rock grandeur. The sounds are mostly analog — guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, violin — and they blur into hurricanes of pure feeling. This is what the group does on G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! This is what they have always done.
I have been living with Godspeed’s ringing, tingling, overwhelming cascade of sound for my entire adult life, which is saying something because I am old as shit. With that said, I was not fully prepared for how fully G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! kicked my whole soul in. When this current version of Godspeed builds up to full wailing apex, I feel like I can barely breathe. Their sound fills me up like little else. Listening to them feels like swimming out into the ocean until your feet don’t touch the sand anymore — like letting vast forces lift you up and slam you back down.
Because Godspeed don’t use lyrics, they use other means to tell you what this music means. In a statement released when the band announced G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, Godspeed specified that the album is about both “waiting for the end” and “waiting for the beginning.” It’s about living in a world where “all current forms of governance are failed,” where change is imminent and inevitable. The band uses soundclips from shortwave radio, that most apocalypse-friendly form of communication, to frame the two longer tracks on the album, and you usually can’t pick out individual words or sounds. (The one exception: a couple of militia guys with thick Southern accents harrumphing about government intervention at the beginning of the third track.) Instead, we get a general sense of unease — warped military chatter, helicopter-rotor thumping drowning in static, muffled gunshot cracks juxtaposed with birdsong. And then the guitars kick in.
G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! has four pieces. Two of them are long, about 20 minutes each. Their titles are long, too; one is called “A Military Alphabet (five eyes all blind) (4521.0kHz 6730.0kHz 4109.09kHz) / Job’s Lament / First of the Last Glaciers / where we break how we shine (ROCKETS FOR MARY).” Those songs do the classic Godspeed thing, the buildup to the raging catharsis. The other tracks are slimmed-down mood pieces, about six minutes each, that mostly function as long exhales after those gigantic swirling arias. But if you’re listening to the album, you’re probably not thinking about it in terms of individual tracks or movements. It works a whole lot better when you just let the thing wash over you, when you let it help you feel things.
On G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, Godspeed don’t really speak the language of tension and release. It’s all tension, and it’s all release. Even when the band is working at a full climactic roar, it sounds like something else is about to arrive. Even when they’re at their quietest, the loudness is implied. There are no binaries in this music. It all functions together: Rage and acceptance, beauty and decay, fear and bliss, violence and peace. Within the context of Godspeed’s music, a single ting of a xylophone can feel like an earth-shattering experience. If this album really represents Godspeed’s hymn to the end of our current world, then it plays out like one long, satisfied sigh: We lived in a society. Welcome to whatever’s next.
G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is out 4/2 on Constellation Records.