Godspeed You! Black Emperor less political, no less meaningful

We’re living in a sort of resurgence in post-rock, a genre characterized by a lack of vocals and an intense focus on composition, which had a faltering of sorts in the mid-2000s. Recently, bands like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky are finally coming out kicking again, and post-rock, practically a modern take on classical music, is rising again with them.
When the band Slint released “Spiderland” in 1991 to an unreceptive Kentucky-punk scene, the album faltered and fell under for awhile, before rising to the top years later and inspiring a generation of bands, all taking their own perspectives on what Slint had started: post-rock. Bands like Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor latched onto the new movement in its pupal stages, and while both bands happen to be recently touring again, the latter recently graced us with a new release: “‘Luciferian Towers.’”
Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GY!BE) are known chiefly for their 2000 masterpiece, “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven,” an album so densely packed with unspoken ideas that the avid listener is left emotionally drained by the end of the hour-and-a-half the album runs. The band struck again in 2002 with “Yanqui U.X.O.,” a more stripped down but no less political album, and then went silent for ten years.
In 2012, they came back with “‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!,” we were met in 2015 with “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distresses,” and now finally, two weeks ago, the band released “‘Luciferian Towers.’”
GY!BE, a Canadian band typically sporting ten members but now reduced to a nine-piece, are no strangers to political messages in their albums, for use of subtlety or through field recordings. While their songs never have any singing, they have an impressive way of getting their ideas across regardless, ideas that are overwhelmingly anti-war and anti-establishment. The band is typically considered as anarchist.
In their releases of the past five years, their political views haven’t seemed to change. “‘Allelujah…” features a grainy image of a hut in Afghanistan on its album cover, alluding to the album’s negative take on the conflict in Afghanistan at the time, while “Asunder…” features an equally grainy and distorted image of a herd of sheep, from which the inference of “sheeple” can only be pulled.
That all said, though, the ideas are expressed far less in the music now. There are definitely ups and downs that seem to represent moods, and the titles of certain tracks can help the listener get a feel for how the musicians feel on the topics, but the previous albums’ messages were made strong with a geniusly interwoven use of field recordings. The more recent releases are mostly devoid of these, and the messages tend to be less heavy-handed.
“[T]his, this long-playing record, a thing we made in the midst of communal mess, raising dogs and children. eyes up and filled with dreadful joy – we aimed for wrong notes that explode, a quiet muttering amplified heavenward. [W]e recorded it all in a burning motorboat,” reads the band’s description of “‘Luciferian Towers,’” available for reading on their label’s website upon announcement. It furthermore states:

“[T]he ‘luciferian towers’ L.P. was informed by the following grand demands:
+ an end to foreign invasions
+ an end to borders
+ the total dismantling of the prison-industrial complex
+ healthcare, housing, food and water acknowledged as an inalienable human right
+ the expert fuckers who broke this world never get to speak again[.]”

Again, the band’s message hasn’t changed, but their method of getting it across seems to have dampened.
The band also had things to say about each individual track, but they’re written in an odd prose, entertaining to read but no more enlightening and informative than the names of the tracks. All four of them, in order, are titled “Undoing a Luciferian Towers,” “Bosses Hang,” “Fam / Famine” and “Anthem for No State.” It’s not hard to figure out the context of the songs.
2002’s “Lift Yr. Skinny…” also had four songs, each of them 20-minutes long, but split them all up into much shorter movements. “‘Luciferian Towers’” does something similar with a few tracks. The physical release lists all of the songs as self-contained pieces of music, but the digital releases break “Bosses Hang” and “Anthem for No State” each into three separate parts, which can probably be construed as movements. It seems to be the first time they’ve done this since 2002’s aforementioned album.
Musically, the album is solid. It has what can be vaguely described as “moments,” where the drony soundtrack gives way to a lucid, rhythmically-paced and head-bob inducing sequence of composition, but most of the album can be described as a buildup. I see the album as being a diagonal line going to the upper-right, dipping a few times, but nonetheless always building. Something is always rising within the instruments, and this is a classic GY!BE technique.
The moments can’t be compared to the ones from “Lift Yr. Skinny…,” but all of their releases since then have fallen short of that album’s mastery, and this one is no different. It’s a solid entry into GY!BE’s discography, but it doesn’t break new ground. It’s more of a talented band doing what it does best, and it’s still damn good.
“Undoing a Luciferian Towers” is the slowest track of the bunch and could be considered by some as a weak start. I can understand that, given the importance of first tracks in albums, but it’s clear that “Undoing…” isn’t meant as a hook, but more as a backdrop. It sets the tone for the album, and it sets it well. It prepares us for the refrains, the “moments.”
It’s a deceptively simple song. All the listener can get from it is a wall of pure noise, with a slow cadence in the background in the form of a simple snare beat, but for the most part the listener only hears incessant resonance of a nervous string section. As the song cycles further into it’s near-eight minute length, brass instruments start to join the mess, present just under the wall of noise. They play at first disparate tunes, but nonetheless concrete and discernable. Wobbly guitar effects start to leak in, and as the song drags on for more minutes things begin to go haywire. The brass players start losing their minds, and flavors of free jazz start flying around in the listener’s ears, a pure audio representation of chaos unfurls within the music, and even the steady cadence is replaced by a mindless clattering of drums and cymbals.
Finally, at around the last minute-and-a-half, a guitar rises from under the noise. It plays an authoritative tune, going up and down on a simple scale, sounding almost like a state anthem of sorts, and one by one the other instruments fall in with it. The chaos disperses and recollects around the guitar.
“Bosses Hang” works off the tonal backdrop put in place by “Undoing…,” featuring in its first part a smaller group of strings and a guitar that build up in a similar way, albeit with far less chaos. They, too, take an authoritative form at the end, joined by the drums and focused around a formula of hard crashes every four beats, play a little, drop and crash, play a little, drop and crash.
Part two serves merely as a drum-driven cadence that builds up over a course of several minutes to the third part, which is the most purely positive tune I’ve ever heard from GY!BE. You’ll notice I’m using “build up” a lot, and that’s because that’s how their music always is. They take an idea, a mood, overwhelmingly negative ones, and ride them up to a cliffside and drop them off, jamming alongside it as it falls and shaking the listener. “Bosses Hang, Pt. III” for the first time seems not to drop what it brought up, but instead holds it high above its head, as if to catch the sunlight.
A simple but fast violin tune plays in a major keys, joined by the guitars and all on top of the two drumsets, one building the cadence with a snare roll and the other crashing its cymbals in ways that somehow come out sounding hopeful and energetic. The song gives way in its last minutes to great sweeps of guitar and even larger crashes of cymbals, similar to the first part, but in a way that sweeps up rather than down.
“Fam / Famine” is a track of mostly drone, mostly guitar noise with a discernible but mostly un-utilized rhythm. It brings us down from our high in “Bosses Hang,” and even reprises the tune heard at the end of “Undoing…”
“Anthem for No State” feels like what the album was building towards, and where the greatest climaxes and “moments” were certainly meant to come forth, but it doesn’t fit the bill as well as “Bosses Hang” did. Part one is dejected and quiet, reverb-heavy and mostly lacking percussion, a pure tonal track that leads into a part two with more stripped-down effects. The reverb is still there, but in less quantity. One of the guitars strums in such a way that makes the listener think of the Old West, twangy and singular, and in turn to think of GY!BE’s debut 1997 album, “F# A# ∞,” which was overwhelmingly full of this sound.
“Anthem for No State, Pt. III,” the big finale to the album, is certainly big, and certainly loud. The guitars resonate, the strings soar, the cymbals crash and it goes on for a long while, but I can’t help but feel it’s a step down from “Bosses Hang, Pt. III.” The latter had feeling, a tone, an emotion. It felt hopeful, and like there was something truly being worked to. The former feels more like a rock song, a jam sesh. A damn good one, but mostly lacking a theme, and maybe lacking meaning. An interwoven pattern of guitar and violin make an appearance at the end of part three in “Anthem…,” and it certainly brings a welcome flush of life to the song, certainly add its own hopeful sense, but it’s not as clearly stated as that in part three of “Bosses Hang,” and feels like it lasts a bit shorter. The final minute of the song features a high-pitched and tirelessly resonating guitar that sits atop the rest of the track, before slowly fading away as the album concludes.
“‘Luciferian Towers’” was a welcome release, and an undeniably good one. It’s classic GY!BE, and it could serve as a great starting point for those who want to work up to “Lift Yr. Skinny…,” which features tonal build ups and sections of drone in far greater quantity and density. “‘Luciferian Towers’” is solid, compositionally and performatively complex and makes for a record that one can listen to again and again. It has a tone at the very beginning, and it keeps it until the end. It’s consistent, and it’s what post-rock needs, and what it means. It’s no “Lift Yr. Skinny…,” but it’s damn good, and another welcome addition to GY!BE’s flourishing discography.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker