From a distance, Godspeed You! Black Emperor's new album Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! seems daunting and difficult, and that's before you take into account the band's strange name and peculiar approach to punctuation. The record is comprised of four instrumental compositions – two of them are 20 minute cinematic epics, the shorter pieces are essentially meditative drones. It's unapologetically arty stuff, but despite its roots in classical composition and avant grade aesthetics, Allelujah! is actually one of the year's best and most engaging rock records.
Allelujah! is the Canadian ensemble's first new release in a decade. In that time, the sort of sprawling, crescendo-heavy instrumental music they pioneered in the late Nineties has become a fixture of major rock festivals, thanks in large part to the success of Explosions in the Sky. The band's new music – or newish, given that much of the album was composed before they went on hiatus in 2003 – sidesteps the more romantic qualities of their earlier records. The two epics, "Mladic" and "We Drift Like Worried Fire," build from hushed, delicate lulls to extremely loud and rhythmically violent metal sections. It's the most abrasive and aggressive music they've ever made, but it's also the most accessible. You have to wait for the cathartic and heavy rock moments, but it's no chore. It's amazing how quickly these 20 minute songs go by, they're like the musical equivalent of a page-turner.
The most remarkable thing about "Mladic" and "Worried Fire" is that though they are made up of movements like a classical composition, this isn't obvious as a listener. At this point, Godspeed have so fully internalized this sort of structure that it all just flows together naturally. They aren't compromising their classical side to rock, or vice versa. This is a powerful synthesis, and something a lot of prog and metal bands have been trying to do gracefully for decades.
Godspeed used to rely a lot on vocal samples and cues from album artwork to give their music a context, but they've almost entirely abandoned that on Allelujah. This is a very good thing. You don’t need any sort of nudging to get sucked into the world of this music, and it’s obvious from the start that they’re evoking a desolate landscape. From there, it’s up to interpretation. It makes sense to hear this as a representation of a world after every system fails us, or perhaps as an escape from a spoiled, crumbling society. I'm inclined to hear it as an expression of terrifying isolation, or the feeling of humility that goes along with being in a space on a scale that reminds you how small you truly are. There are moments, particularly in "Mladic," where it's hard to tell whether the sound represents a feeling of rising hope or a plunge into despair. This is when the record really gets to you, because you have to ask yourself if it's both at the same time. And if it is, why is that so cathartic?