The Canadian post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which has earned a fair amount of acclaim despite operating in near-total obscurity since its inception in 1994, doesn’t need lyrics to channel a sense of impending doom and apocalyptic dread. Instead delivering their radical message with even more weight and urgency on G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END, their newest makes for a suitably chasmic dissection by Matt Taylor.
“We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine / And the machine is bleeding to death.” In the twenty-five years that have passed since Godspeed You! Black Emperor opened their debut album F# A#Infinity with a foreboding monologue which describes the imagined decline of western civilisation into a post-apocalyptic hellscape of corrupt governments and burning skylines, the ragtag ten-piece orchestra have devoted themselves to conveying this sense of dystopian dread using only their wordless instrumental suites. With a sound that runs the gamut from minimalist drone through to chaotic sheets of rapturous guitar noise, they helped lay the foundation for the genre known as ‘post rock’, a kind of soaring, guitar-driven modern classical indebted to the ethos of DIY punk and the experimental musical textures of 1980s no-wave music.
However, where their early albums relied heavily on found-sound recordings of ranting street preachers or the misty-eyed reminiscences of nameless strangers to add a sense of portent to their lengthy compositions, the ever-shifting ensemble (which at this point encompasses numerous guitarists, string players and percussionists as well as tape loop operators and even live film projectionists) have since perfected the art of conveying both tremulous optimism and abject despair without uttering a single word. Now, on their fourth album since returning from a ten-year hiatus in 2012, the band seems more at ease with looking back at (and borrowing liberally from) the acousmatic roots of their classic albums, all while displaying a renewed sense of the restless energy that made them such a unique and engaging proposition to begin with. Since their return, the fundamental structure of new GY!BE albums has become codified to the point of feeling like an intentional self-imposed limitation, almost a musical equivalent to the Dogme 95 rules of filmmaking.
‘The fact that GY!BE are still finding new ways to achieve it is a testament to the mastery they have over their dynamics.’
With each album we can count on getting four songs – a pair of long-form linear compositions that build to a cathartic post-rock crescendo, and a pair of shorter, textural drone pieces. G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is no exception, although as with 2017’s Luciferian Towers there is the slightest acquiescence to the realities of the streaming era; where once songs were presented as monolithic multi-part suites, usually tipping the scales at twenty-plus minutes, these compositions are now broken down into discreet, digestible tracks. Despite this, their albums are always best treated as one long, almost cinematic piece, so essential is the deliberate ebb and flow and sense of pacing to the overall experience. Where G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! triumphs above their other late-period albums is in the ratios, with a marked emphasis on surging crescendos and full-band vamps over plaintive drones.
If this rigid four-song framework seems limiting in theory, in practice it means that even subtle new additions to their stock sound feel like huge evolutions. Case in point is early album highlight Job’s Lament, which opens with a delicately plucked guitar intro underpinned by droning violin. Melodically, it so closely evokes the ‘Gathering Storm’ section of Lift Your Skinny Fists opener Storm (arguably the band’s most well-known track), even down to its A# key signature, that it feels like a subtle nod to long-time fans. When this placid refrain is then jarringly interrupted by an unusually coarse, chugging guitar part, it genuinely catches you off guard; this is compounded further as it builds into a tightly-coiled bass and guitar attack, with an astringent, metallic guitar tone that brings to mind (of all things) Dude Incredible-era Shellac. It’s among the most energetic and focused sections they’ve put to tape in years and, coupled with the ecstatically cascading lead guitar that brings the piece to its raging climax, adds up to an almost unimpeachable eight minutes of urgent instrumental rock.
First of the Last Glaciers lowers the energy level to the kind of mesmeric lilt the band is most at home with, as lashes of delayed slide guitar streak across a gorgeous violin refrain. Elsewhere, the gently drifting haze that opens “Cliffs Gaze / cliffs’ gaze at empty waters’ rise” builds layers atop a simple glockenspiel melody, until the band slips effortlessly into the instantly recognizable ‘motorik’ rhythm of krautrock at the midway point; it’s a pace that fits them so well, it’s remarkable they’ve never explored it before. Providing a propulsive backbeat to a soaring violin and guitar face-off, it swells to a bursting point, before collapsing into a mess of overlapping church bells. It’s moments like these that provoke the kind of involuntary, heart-swelling emotional reaction that post-rock was built on, and the fact that GY!BE are still finding new ways to achieve it is a testament to the mastery they have over their dynamics.
In keeping with its unwieldy name, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is also full of impossibly dense song titles; good luck parsing the exact meaning of opener A Military Alphabet (five eyes all blind) (4521.0kHz 6730.0kHz 4109.09kHz), for example. The one time they drop this obfuscating wordplay, however, is on the sombre closer OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (for D.H.); a gorgeous but achingly melancholy symphony of chamber strings and droning feedback that drifts the album to a dignified close. Tragically, in spite of its urgent plea of a title, it’s the most defeated the band sound on the entire album, thematically suggesting a lack of conviction in their ability to win when facing down insurmountable odds; more than anything, it brings to mind the house band of the Titanic, playing on while sinking beneath the waves. As one of the albums’ two requisite drone pieces, it’s an understated and welcome departure from their norm, avoiding the sometimes aimless noise experimentation that dragged down parts of 2015’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress by instead evoking the heart-rending slow-motion minimalism of Tim Hecker or The Dead Texan.
‘The band have always worn their politics overtly on their sleeve, with lengthy liner notes that read like radical manifestos.’
It can feel like searching for the subtext in a GY!BE album is an almost pointless endeavour, given how instinctually emotionally resonant the sound is; it’s music that aims for the gut more than the head, and at its best, it stirs genuine feelings of elation. Moreover, the band have always worn their politics overtly on their sleeve, with lengthy liner notes that read like radical manifestos and press releases more concerned with overt calls to political action than actually selling an album. The release announcement for G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! included a call to lawmakers to, among other things, “empty the prisons... take power from the police and give it to the neighbourhoods that they terrorise... tax the rich until they're impoverished.”
What’s most interesting is that, in the wake of major political protests throughout the past year, all of these ideas have become more a part of mainstream discourse than ever; wherein their early 2000s run the band often felt like an isolated commune of radical anarchists yelling into the void, in 2021 they feel more like a voice in-tune with an emerging generation. For a band that fundamentally seeks to convey a message of hope (the word itself often projected behind them on stage), the fact this message is finally being echoed en-masse by a wide section of their potential audience is both a vindication for them and an optimistic sign for society at large. It’s heartening to know that even several decades into their career, Godspeed You! Black Emperor refuse to stop hoping, and G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! might be their most vital clarion call yet.
Written by: Matt Taylor
Edited by: Olivia Stock