Music Reviews
Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress

Godspeed You! Black Emperor Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress

(Constellation) Rating - 8/10

For a band not known for their words, Godspeed You! Black Emperor really do seem to do a lot with their choice of them; from their rare, carefully considered interviews, to their sloganeering statements and the samples of monologues and street recordings that frequently pepper their recorded output.

So after four albums (that the group have unleashed on the public at least), one EP, plentiful side projects and two decades, just how does one approach their first record to eschew all of that? The seemingly random, semi-profound and poetic song titles might be all present and correct (the likes of Piss Crowns are Trebled make no more sense the longer, or shorter, that you look at them, but they always feel like theres some sort of meaning there somewhere), but the rest of the language has all been stripped away for the first time. Perhaps its no coincidence that this slight withdrawal follows in the wake of their much-criticised criticism of the Polaris Music Prize and its corporate sponsorship?

At first, the effect is somewhat disorienting. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress may be in theory familiar perhaps overly so, having been performed frequently live in its entirety since before the release of 2012s Allejuah! Dont Bend! Ascend!, commonly referred to among the band's fans and bootleggers as "Behemoth" - however, there is still a sense of listening in a vacuum; that navigating the monumental sweeps and swoops of Godspeed's semi-orchestral sound can be a daunting prospect when not given the helpful shorthand as to what you're meant to be feeling at any point. And maybe that's because this is because this is meant to be an entirely vague work; where before the band were obliquely railing against specific problems and events, now they're just concerned with capturing the (beautiful) melancholy of resistance, as the almost giddily breathless run-on sentence emblazoned inside the record's packaging, "We love you so much our country is fucked", would suggest.

What is immediately apparent, however, is how much the work borrows and develops from the bands back catalogue. It might owe most at first to Allejuah!... drawing on that records structure (two longer movements separated by two drone pieces), and, in first track, Peasantry or Light! Inside of Light!”'s similarly explicitly nods to Eastern European folk music in its string filigrees. But it reduces the ingredients of that record right down - if you thought that the record's title offered something of a clue as to how best approach it, then you'd be left none the wiser on hearing Asunder, Sweet itself - a drone so minimal, even by the usual standards of drone-based composition - that its effectively a violin mid-tuning.

The fact that the record is their shortest since their earliest releases also seems like a key point to consider. That the band have, over the course of the years, and the departure and return of members come to the point that they feel so comfortable and confident in their sound that they don't need any of the extra maximalist touches they'd become known for over the years (although the return of certain tricks - such as the locked groove on the vinyl edition, recalling debut F#A# infinity, are welcome nods to their early days). Where it does differ from the patchwork-like nature of their early work is in the sense of how considered it is. Despite always being presented as a complete single work, the album has been painstakingly recorded and refined (not for nothing do the liner notes describe the album as being writ, wrung and ruinedduring all four seasons of 2013 & 2014). Even the albums release seems to be something thats been much thought about, given the time that its taken between recording and release, and its all the better for it.

In a live setting, Behemoth could be a bit of a drag, not because of unfamiliarity Godspeed fans are well acquainted with large chunks of an evenings set-list being taken up with unknown tracks, its what theyve always done (and indeed are still doing on their current tour) - but the 40+ minutes of the track could be a bit much to get ones teeth into. As Asunder Sweet and Other Distress however, the work hasnt seemingly been cut, but it has been tightened up in places, coming in about five minutes shorter.  On the surface the record is rock ‘nroll, all volume and aggression, but the sense of painstaking refinement and being allowed to mature seems very much against the spontaneity that defines the form. The album frequently descends into seemingly chaotic feedback and amp fuzz but the dirt is very much artfully, deliberately applied.

Not that restraintis really the word that springs instantly to mind when discussing the work of the nine-piece band. But they've never sounded quite so in control of their sound as they do at points here. During Piss Crowns... the band expand and contract their sound, moving in and out of sync (always intentionally). Post-rock may have been somewhat mocked as being all about the crescendo and quiet-loud-quiet-LOUD structures, but it's never been quite so effectively deployed in the controlled chaotic rush of the track's five minute mark  And then a few minutes later the band outdo even that, capturing a spiraling loop of pretty ferocity, where each member is pulling together, but remaining equal and distinct in their own right (something that the guitar-focused sound of their previous works never quite managed), before pulling apart and gradually winding down.

How long itll take before the band to feel suitably prepared for their next public communication remains to be seen. It might be the case that, given the time it takes for the band to come together and slowly chip away at their work to hone it into the correct shape, that we might not even get to hear it in an officially sanctioned studio created manner (they might already be performing new material in their current live sets, but then much of Allejuah! was being performed live a decade before it was finally recorded and released). But ultimately, that doesnt matter – the band might well still be fluctuating and developing, but, at least in parts on Asunderthey've truly perfected their sound, and theres not many bands that that can be said about.