Godspeed You! Black Emperor have never painted a vivid image for their fans. Prone to 10-plus minute instrumental suites, the band has always spiced its songs with field recordings of maniacal street preachers and withered old men, and their excellent packaging has always hinted of extremist political dogma. U.X.O., their third full-length album and first under heralded knob twister Steve Albini, finds them heading in an even murkier sonic direction.
Save for a complicated diagram linking major entertainment giants to military organizations, U.X.O. eschews the spoken word segments and stands as the band’s simplest, most coherent statement to date. Consisting of three compositions stretched out over five tracks and an intimidating 75 minutes, U.X.O. is still chock-full of reverb-heavy guitars, weeping strings and marching rhythms that mount to infuriated, if foreseeable, zeniths.
Sonically the band breaks little new ground here. If anything, the mix is dimmer and the guitars battle for the same sonic space as the violins. The drumming often sounds buried and flat.
Despite this, the band is still capable of crafting thrilling passages. Highlights include the waltz-time cacophony of “09-15-00,” which builds on a tiptoe arpeggio. The addition of woodwinds to the middle of “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls” is a brief sonic expansion, and although the song’s apex is predictable, the phasing guitars spin it convincingly around the room. U.X.O.’s brightest moment is the chiming, astral explosions seven minutes into the final composition. “Motherfucker=Redeemer.” The drums finally pop like they’re supposed to and the song even picks itself up for another round after a long bout with distortion and delay.
GYBE is all about tension and release. U.X.O. has all of the release – often in glorious, jarring explosions – but it’s the first of the band’s albums to suffer from a lack of tension. Chalk it up to hazy production, dormant percussion, or a stale formula, but U.X.O. doesn’t tease and lead the listener like past albums. From a band that has treated listeners to such dizzying experimentation and excitement before, this album feels routine.
Rating: Three stars.