To call Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s music challenging is to scrape the surface of their 20+ year post-rock innovation. But it’s true, nonetheless. The collective’s approach radically differs from the two-three minute structure that defines the 21st century pop hit. Interfacing orchestral instruments, arrangement and song structure with textures and progressions traditionally found in rock, GY! BE yearns for the age-old while simultaneously beckoning forth the distant future.
Here, Luciferian Towers is no different. The album is immense, at points nearly exploding. Yet, cooling off at 44 minutes, the album’s magnitude is found not in its length, but rather between the huge swaths of noisy ambience and fractured chaos it lugs you through.
“Undoing a Luciferian Towers” is a clamoring call to arms. The drum pattern evokes images of Civil War drummer boys leading marches down the battlefield. Waves of feedback pierce the empty space between whispering guitars. Woodwinds shriek; trumpets whimper; in jazz-like fashion, the instruments compete for attention. For a burgeoning seven-off minutes, we approach Judgment Day.
One of Luciferian Towers distinctive footprints is its obsession with and manipulation of noise. While GY! BE has long been interested in inharmonious sound, what is striking about their most recent is its distorted, fuzzy timbre. At its most gentle, the instruments bear a slight whirr, while at its most intense, everything seems like it’s been run through a Bit Crusher. The sound of the pick running down an electric guitar string is manipulated into a dial-up crinkle in “Bosses Hang, Pt. II.” On “Anthem for No State, Pt. III,” clangorous feedback saturates the soundstage, only the guttural kick drums finding space to escape.
Now, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s music has long drawn influence and been critical of the political sphere. Consider the album’s track titles: “Undoing a Luciferian Towers,” “Bosses Hang,” “Fam/Famine” and “Anthem for No State.” Even on its Bandcamp page, each track comes with a series of cryptic remarks aimed to contextualize the sound. On “Bosses Hang,” they write “Labor, alienated from the wealth it creates / So that holy cow, most of us live precariously! / Kicking at it, but barely hanging on!”and — “The proud illuminations of our shortened lives!”, also — “More of us than them!”, also — “What we need now is shovels / Wells, and barricades!”
While Luciferian Towers oscillates between densely packed pandemonium and gentle, minimal soundscapes, the album’s flaw lies in its dynamics. For one, the album seems engineered entirely around the strings. To be fair, this is the majority of the collective. Yet, even in those few occasions where electronics, brass or drums emerge in the foreground, the mastering seem more concerned in letting the strings breathe rather than focusing on their melodic complements. Where “Anthem for No State, Pt. III” has a brilliant drum section that could’ve exploded into a movement resembling “Providence”, guitar melodies overtake the composition. On “Fam/Famine,” the kicks and snares flail in every direction, but they sit so far in the distance behind walls of reverb-induced guitar and violin that their complexity is difficult to notice.
While this album is instrumental like the rest of their catalogue, there is a marked absence of field recordings and vocal samples that littered their earliest LP’s. So, even though the music is gripping and rife with conflict, the only contextualization of the sounds are the track titles. It’s clear that GY! BE wants to make contact with the political, but they seem to offer nothing more than emotional reprieve, which, of course, might be the point.
Luciferian Towers is one massive event — one single, cathartic release — rather than a series of less significant moments strung together in succession. Although distinct points do beg to be re-listened, these moments feel incomplete without the context of what comes before and after it.
Like the rest of Godspeed’s catalog, running through the entirety of Luciferian Towers comes with a sense of accomplishment. When the album’s main theme makes its final reprise on “Anthem for No State, Pt. III,” we feel resolved. Few artists today can make music as rich and cathartic, let alone without lyrics or field recordings. And this is ultimately what makes their music so challenging, because we can step away from the music and feel as if we gained something. But it’s nothing physical; it’s nothing we can point to and claim de facto.
Maybe it’s defying norms. Maybe it’s just learning to focus.