It’s hard to find a good starting point when talking about the Montreal-based Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Unless you’re discussing the music itself, their elusiveness makes it difficult to find any other context to broach. Nonetheless, what is certainly indisputable is that the experimental collective asks a lot of questions and makes a lot of statements, often of a political or introspective nature. This is not unique to bands or musicians; however, there are not many bands that can do it so effectively without speaking a single word throughout a 25-year-long career.
Yet, this ideological angle crafted by the post-rock legend seems like it’s rarely ever the first thing to come up when referring to the band. This is mostly because the music itself spurs so much conversation on its own. Undoubtedly, GY!BE’s indomitable and colossal sound signified a shift in the rock ethos. Its influence on crescendo-core in the 90s and 2000s was influential across the entire music landscape. Following the 2012 release Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, the band hasn’t been able to capture that raw and intense battle between the sounds and the ideas that underlie them. So for many fans, upon the announcement of a new album, there was a slight disquiet brewing beneath the requisite excitement. It’s safe to say that G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, their latest release, asks a lot of questions and provides quite a bit of commentary.
It’s convenient that I brought up Allelujah! earlier because it’s easily the most comparable record across the band’s discography. Both albums are broken up into four tracks, alternating between 20-minute monoliths and short (about five minutes) interludes that function as a brooding slap in the face to get us down from the 20-minute musical high. There’s also the fact that both are easily Godspeed’s most frontward-facing political pieces to date.
With Allelujah!, it’s clear from the first track “Mladic” that the band is trying to make a statement, with its clear Eastern European modality that quickly builds into the perfect accompaniment music for inside an attack helicopter. Francis Ford Coppola could have easily used this as a replacement for “Ride of the Valkyries.” The war sentiment — or in this case anti-war sentiment — does not only apply to the music, as the title “Mladic” is either a reference to the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who was arrested for war crimes, or simply the Bosnian and Serbian term “youngster.” Both have chilling implications.
Meanwhile with G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, the band literally just gives you its political intentions in full on the liner notes. In all honesty though, these liner notes should probably be required reading. They present the world as transitioning from collapsing to collapsed. They lay out a list of demands, calling for the emptying of prisons, the abolishment of the police, the cease of all wartime aggression and the taxing of the rich until they are impoverished. For any other band, this could easily be seen as a gimmick, yet GY!BE’s commitment to reclusiveness and its absolute disdain for the capitalist structure of the music industry seems like too much trouble for anything other than authenticity to be the driving force.
All this being said, it’s really what the band does musically on this record that inserts more questions regarding their position. Because, for the first time in their career, the band has actually made something optimistic.
Their trademark post-apocalyptic sensibilities only act as part of the overarching atmosphere of the project. Take the first track, “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).” For the most part, it fits the standard mold of a GY!BE track: It’s colossal, it’s driving, it’s triumphant. It almost sounds like something you would soundtrack over a large battle, as if they are staging a war against the injustices highlighted in the notes as well as the people that represent them. It seems like it would set the tone for the album, and yet the interlude that follows, “Fire at Static Valley,” slows everything down to a depressing crawl. Its morose, orchestral groans are a harsh thrust toward reality.
It provides intense imagery of a scorched world that still remains to stay alight as we all watch, huddled in our respective corners. This track as well as the final one are by far the best interludes the band has ever done. The third track phases in, starting in a similarly dour headspace to the previous one, though the intensity levels are increased substantially. However, the second half completely drops the nihilistic atmosphere and creates what is easily the collective’s most overwhelmingly uplifting moment ever. It’s almost too uplifting, perhaps even patriotic. The final track “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (for DH)” provides clarity and more confusion. It confirms how GY!BE intends to establish an “us versus them” commentary, but its devastating sound seemingly contradicts the hopeful ending hinted at by the previous track.
Throughout G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!’s entire runtime, the band vacillates between pure sanguinity and absolute bleakness. At the same time, all of the context we’re given around the album seems to suggest impending doom. The question it leaves us to ponder is how they want us to feel about this looming failure. It’s clear that they want us to feel some way about it. Should we be taking the emotions as they stand? Forcing a sense of hope out of something truly hopeless? Or do we look at this optimism as a farce? The uplifting finale to the second half of track three could signify the people taking over the dominating culture. At the same time, the overly patriotic tone of it could signify the culture taking over the people.
In typical GY!BE cryptic fashion, they might have hidden the answer in the notes. They state, “this record is about all of us waiting for the end. all current forms of governance are failed. this record is about all of us waiting for the beginning.”
They present a duality of the future, one where the despair hasn’t been relinquished but the fight for something more is still prevalent. Godspeed You! Black Emperor were never ones for giving a straight answer, and in doing so they’ve created an album that forces us to directly face the road ahead of us, paved with gold and brimstone alike.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.