The best and worst thing about Godspeed You! Black Emperor is that however long the silence between one album and another lasts, their discourse barely changes or evolves. It’s been seven years since “Yanki U.X.O.”, and when you listen to this comeback for the first time, you feel like nothing has changed in how they operate internally, nor is there anything on the outside to link it to 2012 or to justify such a long-lasting hiatus. Many times the Canadian band gives one the feeling that they record albums because they have to, because there are some old songs that they have performed and squeezed all they could out of live, and now a record of their existence must be left - not because they were thinking of the recording of an album as a necessary process for the survival and maturing of the combo. No, they continue to declare their desire to escape from any conventions and orthodox rules applicable to a rock group.
This line of continuity is exactly what their most faithful followers expect and appreciate, keen for new progressive mega-constructions that hark back to that fascinating idea of a devastating sulphuric bar mitzvah that we still associate with their songs. But their less fundamentalist audience might miss some curves in their progression and signs of refreshment in their sound, a complaint that we already made about “Yanki U.X.O.”, the difficult follow-up to the creative, but also media, explosion of “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” (2000). The same can be said of this “‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!”, in which the band tries to stylise its sound without ever leaving its own stylistic comfort zone. By stylisation, I mean a softening of the forms (the violins have a greater presence, and not as an aggressive, screeching support in explosions of noise, while the bass rhythm is less violent and more present) and a slight modification of the structures (there are crescendos, but not those nearly apocalyptic ones that seemed to be urging us to invade a foreign country), but all done very cautiously, with many reservations.
The fact that “Mladic”, the opening piece, and “We Drift Like Worried Fire”, which few would deny to be the high point of the entire album, come from afar and have been around for several years helps the GY!BE sound to hold onto its own credentials: they are two orthodox songs within the group’s own particular idiosyncrasy, each one lasting twenty minutes, with the predictable calm-tension-calm-climax design that has always characterised their little symphonies of terror. The second of these two songs impresses and stuns, especially in the melodic rocking of the guitars and the changes of rhythm and tempo involved in its construction. This memorable hymn alone already makes it worth having made this comeback release. The other two cuts, the freshly-minted ones, are also the ones that give it a certain freshness, as they dispense entirely with the trademark elements of their sound: “Their Helicopter’s Sing” and “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable” approach ambient from various points of view, but without the presence of drums or spiralling guitars. The first one does so with a combination of bagpipes and avant-garde wind and string instruments; the second does it with a feedback drone that evolves until it expels a ball of noise to put the final touch on the song and the album.
As I see it, “‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” isn’t the result of seven years of waiting, but rather a graphic demonstration that the band hasn’t been napping all of this time, which isn’t the same thing. And you can tell by the result. It’s hard to get the idea out of our mind that we are looking at one of their minor albums, not only because seventy percent of the music on it comes from a handy updating of old songs, but also because it constantly gives the impression that this is more a comeback than an ordinary new album. It is a comeback full of good news, it’s true. First: that monumental “We Drift Like Worried Fire”, which takes us back to the best side of the group; and second, that in spite of the rustiness of sounds and trends that is inherent in the passing of time, Godspeed You! Black Emperor still fit into our present.