For the entirety of its existence, the Canadian post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor has eschewed interviews, choosing instead to communicate collectively through terse, unsigned (and uncapitalized) statements.
“this record,” reads the one accompanying the band’s new album G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END, “is about all of us waiting for the end.”
The truth is, Godspeed’s entire body of work over the past three decades has felt like a prelude to an end—an end that feels closer than ever before. It is surely no coincidence, then, that G_d’s Pee arrives now, its 52 minutes stuffed with forbidding drones, symphonic despair, eerie found sounds and vast swaths of epic, instrumental rock befitting the apocalypse and whatever comes after.
It’s good to have this side of Godspeed back. Since returning from a seven-year hiatus in 2010, the enigmatic ensemble has been creeping ever-so-slowly toward more conventional presentations of its hulking music. For 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, the band ditched the complex, multi-movement suites of its most revered work in favor of standalone compositions (that still sometimes stretched beyond 20 minutes). On 2015’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, they reined in their songs and released their shortest album, clocking in at just over 40 minutes long. Then, when 2017’s Luciferian Towers came along, longtime fans were greeted with eight tracks averaging under six minutes each, plus a generous helping of memorable melodies. For this particular band, these were pop songs, relatively speaking—if a pop song can be titled “Bosses Hang,” at least.
Having zigged for a while, Godspeed zags (of course) on G_d’s Pee, bringing back some of the inscrutable elements that made the band so interesting in the first place. The 20-minute opening track—let’s call it “A Military Alphabet” because the full name is so long—surrounds a pair of heavy, anxious passages (“Job’s Lament” and “First of the Last Glaciers”) with cryptic spoken words from murky shortwave radio recordings, groaning stringed instruments and the unnerving pop of explosives. Together, these touches add a haunting quality that was in short supply on recent Godspeed releases.
The album’s other long track—“‘GOVERNMENT CAME’” for short—follows a similar formula, except this time, the mood is less aggressive, the strings are prettier and the crescendo collapses into static. Out of that static, then, comes “Cliffs Gaze / cliffs’ gaze at empty waters’ rise / ASHES TO SEA or NEARER TO THEE,” which spends the first half its eight-minute running time waking up, and the second half ascending into a triumphant lope that might just be the most hopeful-sounding four minutes in Godspeed’s catalog. Here, for a first-pumping moment, the band seems to outrun its feelings of anger, fear, disgust and disillusionment, and give in to the promise of a brighter future, no matter how distant that future may seem.
For those deeply steeped in Godspeed’s usual vibe, the sound and sentiment of “Cliffs Gaze” may feel like a hallucination, especially once it’s over. As if to reinforce the message of hope, the band follows it with a final, six-and-a-half-minute drone that sounds like the sun fighting to rise and shine over a callous and crumbling world. It’s called “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (for D.H.),” and it’s glitchy and mournful and beautiful. But most of all, it’s heartening, because it feels like reassurance that Godspeed You! Black Emperor isn’t just here to soundtrack the end, but the new beginning, too.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.