Album Review – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress / Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed You! Black Emperor are back after a mere two years to once again make people weep with their music. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is actually a relatively quick follow up to Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! which came out in 2012 following the lengthy hiatus/pause from 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. Godspeed trades in orchestral post-rock and are widely regarded as the flagbearers for their respective genre. Their brain-melting mix of sludgy guitars, droney ambient sounds and sometimes ‘field recordings’ (which is absent on Asunder) has led them to become something of a cult band who seem to refuse all notions of identity, prize collecting and corporate appreciation, instead crafting sprawling expanses of music that regularly bust the 20-minute-mark. Whilst Asunder… does stay true to their traditional sounds, it varies slightly – but only just.

The lack of ‘field recordings’ or found sounds that made something like 2000’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven so creepily compelling is absent on Asunder…, leaving the album feeling slightly botched together and this shows in the instrumentation too. Whilst Godspeed have never been one for singing, Asunder…’s instrumentation feels like it is missing something, the orchestration is never put to proper use until ‘Piss Crowns Are Trebled’, instead completely contrasting the doomy guitars of ‘Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ with some sickly sweet cinematic orchestration that feels oddly out of place. Godspeed reuse the same screaming electronics that they have been using for their entire career, though this never feels like its been repeated a million times. Godspeed have a knack for making the repetitious, hulking music into something compelling and not samey. You’ll never get bored listening to ‘Piss Crowns Are Trebled’ because Godspeed make the repetition hypnotic and achingly beautiful. In fact, if there were two words that summed up Godspeed and their back catalogue, it’s ‘Achingly Beautiful’. ‘Piss Crowns Are Trebled’, arguably the best track from Asunder… explodes into something that is up there with the greatest Godspeed songs, even rivalling something like ‘Sleep’ from Skinny Fists… It begins with the end of ‘Asunder, Sweet’ leaking in, before introducing what sounds like someone torturing their guitar. Then the sludgy riffs from some sludge-metal album come riding in, followed by some of the best use of orchestration on a Godspeed album. Short, quiet break with some repetitious guitar and then exploding into a fully-fledged black hole of sound where everything Godspeed know about music gets sucked in and spat back out at a higher intensity.

However, the performance of Asunder… can’t solely be placed on ‘Piss Crowns Are Trebled’, otherwise this would be one of my favourite albums of 2015 so far. The lead-up tracks, ‘Lambs’ Breath’ (great title) and ‘Asunder, Sweet’ amble along in preparation for the centrepiece, but rarely go anywhere apart from yanking guitars, echoing sounds that sound like the wind in your ears and blades being sharpened. This could be a good atmosphere, but it can’t pull it off for half of the album and not go amiss. The second half ‘Lamb’s Breath’ is almost entirely one held note on the piano and not in a good way like Bjork’s ‘Black Lake’. It just comes across as pretentious after listening to it for three minutes without the ghostly swirls that it began with. The latter end of ‘Asunder, Sweet’ finally picks things up, with sounds that sound the apocalypse is upon us all and the bells are being rung in the church for the final time, but they let out a horrific mournful noise that deafens everyone.

‘Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside Light!’ is something of an anomaly in the Godspeed catalogue. Whilst all of the tropes are here: Droning guitars, orchestration, even a guitar solo here and there, screaming noises, it begins straight into the song without the Godspeed build-up that we’ve come to expect. This somehow erodes the impact of the song. The song is good, but it definitely doesn’t live up to the second half of the album.

If I had to judge this album on the latter half, I might have been more generous with the points. Godspeed are known for being a band consistent across their album, which is why Lift Your Skinny Fists… was such a deal breaker; all the songs were amazing. There’s no denying Godspeed are still on top form after more than twenty years in the game, they can still reduce anyone to a blubbering wreck and know their way around a post-rock gem. I doubt they’ll be going anywhere soon, even if they take another ten year break. They refuse to make a bad album, but instead Asunder… is an underdeveloped gem that possibly needed more time for polishing and needed a few more tracks to create the full expanse of sound that is needed for a Godspeed record. 40 minutes might be fine for a pop album, but Godspeed are probably better off looking at their contemporaries, such as Swans’ To Be Kind, last years’ amazing double LP, for inspiration on where to go next. However, saying that, I hardly think they’ll be replaced from their post-rock pedestal in the foreseeable future.

5/10

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