Godspeed You! Black Emperor (or, often, GSY!BE) are a Canadian post-rock band (or, perhaps, collective). They’re purveyors of a style of post-rock where guitars, bass, drums and (usually) violin are strung together into soaring soundscapes that build to crescendos of noise; full of melody and harmony amongst the walls of sound. They’re not unique in either sound or genre, but since they first appeared in the late 1990s they’ve been considered forerunners of the modern wall-of-guitar post rock.
Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is GSY!BE’s fifth studio album, and the first featuring new material since their return in 2010 from a long hiatus. Their prior album, 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was put together of music they’d been playing live up to a decade previously, and melded closely to their prior recorded sounds of wall-of-guitar mixed with lengthy found-sound, tape effects and drone segments.
Here, immediately as Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress kicks off with the opener, “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” there’s an audible sense that the band has moved on – perhaps not to a new sound, but to a different way of expressing musically the emotions they’re attempting to capture. Raw, live-sounding drums start the track off, mixed clear and upfront, before in comes three (or more) electric guitars playing a heavy stoner-metal riff. The riffs build and build, loosely played, taut yet not exact, the guitars and bass swarming over the loping guitars before a violin joins in, lifting the timbre and allowing the guitars to spread even further beneath. The melody is gorgeous, uplifting, spine-tingling.
Then, just as the opening track reaches a climax, the sound collapses into the the album’s next two tracks, “Lamb’s Breath” and “Asunder, Sweet”. These two tracks are ominous drones, guitars trembling and looming, washes of feedback sliding in and out. Together, the two tracks are enthralling, seemingly not going anywhere but, each time your attention flicks back to them the sounds have modulated and crept elsewhere. Dark, sometimes even terrifying, with the mid-section of this album GSY!BE are inhabiting a space they’ve hinted at before, but usually with found-sounds. Here its guitars, drones, and violin, feedback and natural sounds from amps, rumbling and rolling over each other, drawing the ear ever closer and closer.
Until the catharsis you know is coming arrives, with the album’s closing track “Piss Clowns Are Trebled”. There’s no gap or break between the tracks on the album thus far, but here a single droning guitar comes in, hinting that the previously fifteen minutes of noise is about to evolve. A violin shrieks, and the background wall of sound drifts away leaving a sole, overdriven, bassy guitar sliding between two notes.
A steady, thumping drum beat joins, while another guitar rings out a distorted trebly note above, mirroring the droning riff, as the violin begins to sway with a complex little pattern. With the violin providing the anchor the drums expand, the bass returns, and with a jarring note a lurching guitar riff overpowers the scene. It’s back to a near-stoner rock sound, swaying, rumbling, the focus all on the riff. Power through repetition, the instruments and the ear all finding ways to add or subtract sounds from the riff, as the track stomps on a huge climax of sound, walls of distortion, feedback providing soaring melodies and a release from the dark terror that filled the album’s middle.
Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’ sound is remarkable – the guitars are front, centre and dirty, the drums present and cavernous, the whole album possessed of a very live sound. But within the grit and intertwined walls of instrumentation is space and clarity. Each instrument can be heard, and heard to be played live and sympathetically with the other instruments. There’s nothing meticulous or clean about the sounds, but it still manages to be intricate and precise.
It’s very much a guitar album, certainly the heaviest entire album this band’s done – they’ve touched on this level of heavy guitar and 70s-influenced stoner rock before, but here it’s the centrepiece of the sound.
Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is, quite simply, superb. By choosing to focus on a live-sounding recording of loud guitar, drums, bass and violin, GSY!BE have managed to create a post-rock sound that could almost be described as timeless. Walls of noisy, stoned guitars are nothing new in rock music, but with this album GSY!BE having managed to combine their ability penchant for epic soundscapes with that style of immediate guitar rock, to create something that almost could sound like almost anything else but, really, could only be produced by this band at this time. There’s a lightness and playfulness amongst the dark heaviness, uplifting, exciting, inspiring.
Absolutely worth checking out.
Beer match: An intense interplay between light and dark? A sound hinted at by others but could really only belong to this band? A uniquely light interpretation of something that, on surface appearances should be dark and heavy? Epic’s Apocalypse IPA tastes like this album sounds. A perfectly matched pair. And I’ll think I’ll have some more to say about that beer in another blog post shortly…