“Mladic,” the opening track on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s new album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, is exactly 20 minutes long. Since it came out in mid-October, I have listened to it 51 times. That’s 17 hours spent listening to a long, angry, enormously heavy and aggressive prog/metal/post-rock instrumental named after a Bosnian Serb war criminal. It’s not some big mystery why: When you’re depressed, this is what life sounds like to you.
There are only four songs on this album, and a good chunk of those four songs are devoted to the sonic equivalent of depression’s impenetrable, isolating emotional haze. The two shorter tracks — “Their Helicopters Sing,” a cacophony of high-pitched strings, and “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable,” an electrical-wire hum that quietly crescendoes before cutting out — are both nothing more or less than six and a half minutes each of ominous droning. They sound like fog rolling in to stay. They sound gray.
And they set the scene for two 20-minute mini-symphonies, “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire.” Blending the patience and virtuosity of the most far-out prog, the savagery and sludge of the heaviest metal, and the beauty of any big anthemic guitar song that’s ever ripped you to emotional shreds, they both alternate long passages of buzz and build with sudden, furious bursts of intensity and activity. In the case of “Worried Fire,” there’s a bittersweet lilt to the main guitar parts. They sound like they’re singing about something beautiful that’s now gone — the classic symptom of no longer being able to enjoy the things that once meant something to you.
In the case of my obsession, “Mladic,” it’s a daisy chain of hammer-of-the-gods riffs. From the first sustained buzz of distortion and bird-of-prey chimes, each new guitar hook builds on the last, with no emotional let-up. By the end of the song, the band takes its apocalyptic final riff and just pounds it out again and again and again and again, with no reprieve, like the only way they can be sure to get this feeling out is to blot out the world until it’s over. The sense of huge, life-altering emotional stakes is unmistakable, and familiar to anyone who can spend a workaday afternoon staring without seeing, quietly struggling with the sensation that their world is falling apart.
Both these songs remind me so much of how my emotional exhaustion can unexpectedly focus and sharpen into brief, intense, overwhelming bursts of negative activity – a fight with a loved one, severe as a summer squall; a fit of self-hatred and misanthropy and hopelessness that can literally make me scream out loud; a compulsion to pour it all into writing something brutal enough to feel real, to feel like a true message from where I am. Then it subsides, and the fog rolls back in.
If I’m in such a bad way, why listen to something that sounds like I feel? After all, this isn’t pick-me-up music, like listening to some joyous EDM track or ego-boosting rap vocal. It’s not even catharsis, like throwing on a short and super-heavy song by Black Sabbath or The Stooges or Nine Inch Nails and blasting your misery away for four minutes at a time.
The answer: I listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor because this album makes all the other music feel like bullshit.
My toddler’s health problems, the layoffs that uprooted the lives of my friends, the disconnect I feel from things I’ve enjoyed for years, the lack of hope I feel about the future, the violent deaths of children that have haunted me in the news — and, in a staggeringly horrible case that set off my downward spiral this fall, one which came at the hands of a mentally ill friend of mine — can’t be pep-squadded away by happy songs or exorcized by angry ones. They’ll be there after the song is over, and the next song, and the next song. Better to own up to that hopelessness. Better to listen to music that alternates between disquiet and devastation, over and over, with no respite. Anything else feels like a lie.
When you’re in that dark a place, a band willing and able to make music just as dark has given you a tremendous gift: a map of your own pain. You are here. Maybe one day it will show you a way home.
Sean T. Collins writes about TV, comics, music, and other things for Rolling Stone, The Comics Journal, BuzzFeed, and other places. He writes comics too.