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

Godspeed You Black Emperor Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
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When Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their debut full-length, 1997’s F♯ A♯ ∞, they burned down the walls separating heaven, purgatory, and hell in the wake of apocalypse. It only took 38 minutes. The album’s championing moment, and maybe the band’s best opening sequence to date, comes in the form of “The Dead Flag Blues”, a deadpan soliloquy about a man’s skepticism of the government and the decline of modern civilization. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is Godspeed’s first single LP-length release since then, and as a nearly 20-year gap would suggest, the two records stand at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. F♯ A♯ ∞ weeps violently. Asunder smiles faintly.

For Godspeed diehards, Asunder is nothing new. The band used to play the whole thing live under the working title “Behemoth” and trimmed what little fat there was for the studio version. That means their eschatology has moved from field recordings to doom drone. There’s no war veteran babbling or ARCO AM/PM greeting here. Godspeed has gone the Hemingway route; there are fewer subsections, but the ones that made the cut are tougher. Asunder is polemical in its trudge, drawing out notes the way a politician pauses between words to emphasize their meaning. As with 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, Godspeed pulls it off.

On Asunder, we inch closer to the final renovation of the universe. In the past, Godspeed outlined the end of the world as if it were a fiery consumption engulfing all we knew, so vicious and hopeless that it was best imagined in black and white. Asunder sounds more akin to the Zoroastrian doctrine. Recorded during late 2013 and 2014, it’s a dramatic look at evil once again being destroyed — or perhaps as the one doing the destroying. Slowly, layers peel off and burn, but as they do, the distress of destruction becomes unrecognizable from the relief of peace. It’s there in the album art: The front cover shows sheep grazing in the shadows, unaware of anything more than that moment, and the back sees scratched vermilion American dawn dahlias, like a beloved photo drawn out of storage.

“Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’” is a bleak rumination on catharsis via the acceptance of devastation. This winter saw record-breaking snowfall. Even on the first day of spring, it snowed all along the East Coast. The world is caving in on itself slowly, gently, with irony and ambivalence. “Peasantry” mirrors that with its opening drums and microtonal divergences that slap back and forth with gutting, titanic force. It’s the sound of nature retaliating, burying us under its might while we sit at our bedroom windows, noses pressed against the glass. Once “Lambs’ Breath” follows, we’re flat in that field, letting tinny drone and tugged strings that recall Earth ease the buzzing in our heads. Godspeed has no antidotes for the modern day. This is the soundtrack of decline and the beauty of collapse.

The album title denotes “Asunder, Sweet” as the centerpiece of it all. The quietest of the four songs, it outlines Godspeed’s apocalypticism through quarantined sonics. Sonar beeps call out repeatedly until they’re slowly surrounded by dissonant violin, creating an uneasy drone of fear and instability that wobbles around like unformed thoughts bubbling up in your brain, but never popping. The longer it plays out, the more it feels like Mica Levi’s Under the Skin score. We’re brought to that same nightmarish, endless ocean of black goo to suffocate and die. Everything from political ignorance to animal cruelty has left humans divided, and the fracture creates a pool of unnerving anxiety, knee-deep in the shallow end and leagues deep at its worst. We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible distress and the suffering is leaning toward death.

Thundering guitar offers a ladder out of the sludge and into the epic finale of “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”. It’s a classic Godspeed piece, throwing descending guitar and violin melodies into the frenzy of 3/4 time for 14 minutes, a song length more in line with their usual releases. Contrebasse rattles throughout. The focus on tone and timbre is obvious. They raise a magnifying glass to their usual dialectics, pulling emotion from composition that bends backward from its own weight. Godspeed validate the lack of field recordings by thrashing in unison, closing the album with signposts of the savage band that has proven what depth post-rock can create.

In 1997, Godspeed You! Black Emperor warned us these were truly the last days. Two decades later, they’re biting their lips to keep from saying “I told you so.” We knew the world would end. Yet here we are, dumping kindling into its flames. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is that same skyline, beautiful on fire, closer to slipping out of sight than ever — and the distress over its disappearance is strong enough to keep you awake long after the last rays fade.

Essential Tracks: “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”, “Asunder, Sweet”

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