For the Records | Leading the Cheer! on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!”

For the Records is a series of articles by special guest writer Mike McCubbins on his favorite albums of the 2010s. Click here to read the entire series.

“With his arms upstretched?”
“With his arms upstretched.”

[Over a radio voices echo back and forth. It sounds like a rescue.]

“Do you see him? Can you get him?”
“Hang on.”

[Or is it the chain of command? Is there a man in the crosshairs?]

“Do you see him? Can you get him?”
“Hang on.”

[The airlift rises high above the scene. Down among the small chalky buildings, almost unnoticeable against the dust, a lone child. Her dark hair blows around her face. She’s watching the airlift rise and rise. From a nearby doorway, a woman emerges. Her black robes, her headscarf, they blow back against her, walking in a low stance. She pulls the child back inside, her tiny face still skyward. The airlift is gone, swiftly across the flat desert. The streets are emptied. Two young men and a girl break away from the buildings and are noiselessly lost in the dust. The strange chatter of carrion birds fills silence in the helicopter’s wake. As they come into view the birds fight midair and drop down in broad mean swoops gracelessly bounding into the street, strutting and vocalizing in the emptied spaces. Eyes watch them from a doorway, and then disappear into the dark. Dust rises high on the border road, through the advancing cloud pokes the first row of turrets.]


Or perhaps you pictured some other scene in the tense opening minutes of Canadian post-rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s 2012 album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

If one borrows the scant few impressions given by cover art and song title, it’s easy to populate the rich cinematic violence of its sprawling opening track “Mladic” with nightmare visions of war atrocities, “Mladic” likely being a reference to war criminal Ratko Mladic, the leader of the Srebrenica massacre, the most horrific chapter in the Bosnian War. It’s likely also a play on “melodic.” A forceful Arabian melody dominates the track and when it is raging near the song’s center, it’s the most thrilling moment in the most vivid, dynamic, dramatic, and enormous 20 minutes the genre has yet produced.

Godspeed disbanded in 2003. My own aha!-moment with post-rock didn’t come until 2005 when I found Explosions in the Sky’s 2000 album How Strange, Innocence. My love of post-rock expanded in those years, but somehow Godspeed remained on the periphery. It wasn’t until they returned in 2012 with ‘Allelujah! that they had my undivided attention.

Then again, undivided attention isn’t exactly what all post-rock demands. If this list were based on the albums I’ve listened to the most, the top spot would have to go to Mogwai’s 2014 album Rave Tapes. While it came out close to the middle of the decade, I’m certain I’ve listened to it more than anything else. But I can’t necessarily say much about it. I put it on when I can just let it wash over me. It’s like some kind of emotional baseline, a musical recalibration. A meditation.

‘Allelujah! is instead a roaring cinematic force. It’s rarely small enough to ride sidecar, even in its long drone passages. It sweeps you into its enormity. It makes you listen on its terms. But this is just what Godspeed wants to do. They’re serious young men/women. They defy presenting themselves to the media in ways that might diminish the force of their work or blunt its hard edges.

They broke a long running policy of not doing interviews on the release of this album, and gave a single English language interview on the terms that it had to be done over email (to retain the collectivity of their voice) and their answers must be published in their entirety. Their terse and barbed tone in the interview is the earnest counterpart to their music. Like all those exclamation points they use, there’s a Nietzschean ecstasy they’re trying to maintain, a transcendental fervor that can’t survive in the glib habitat of interview banter, but which thrives on the rich musical stage they’ve built for it.

Thankfully, their return stuck. They’ve released two more excellent albums this decade, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress in 2015, and Luciferian Towers in 2017. If anything, they’re tilting further at the windmills of “normalized decline”:

“Things are not OK. Music should be about things are not OK, or else shouldn’t exist at all. The best songs ever are the songs that ride that line. We just try to get close to that perfection. We drive all night just to get closer to that perfect joyous noise, just to kiss the hem of that garment. We love music, we love people, we love the noise we make.”

What Godspeed really are, with all those righteous exclamations, are cheerleaders. Their big noise is a rally cry in the fight for a saner world. | Mike McCubbins

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