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

It’s been a great couple weeks for the anticipated follow-up and the confounding album title. First, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city sequel To Pimp a Butterfly, Earl Sweatshirt’s grunge-rap nugget I Don’t Like S—, I Don’t Go Outside and now post-rock titans Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s second post-reformation outing Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress.

Due for release on March 31 through Constellation Records, Asunder is Godspeed’s first LP since 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! It’s for streaming at The Guardian, where they note that this is a single LP, making it the band’s shortest release since 1999’s Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. For a band long repudiated on the sprawling length of their multi-part compositions, an album consisting of four tracks of only nine-to-13 minutes apiece is noteworthy. To put this in context, Asunder is less than half the length of their 2000 opus Lift Your Skinny Fists like Antennas to Heaven with the same number of tracks.

And for the uninitiated: yes, all their album titles are pretty much like that.

But to assume that this portends the coming of a watered-down Godspeed is mistaken; each track flows directly into the other as four parts of a whole. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is a 40-minute piece with an impressively concise vision and unrelenting drive.

The album does break the Godspeed mold, though. The Montreal nine-piece’s most hallowed works, Skinny Fists and 1997’s F#A#∞, followed a strict, albeit groundbreaking and inimitable, formula: a somber, ominous field-recording sample, followed by a slow, unrelenting buildup of tension and volume beginning with something mysterious, quiet and measured, ending with a cathartic frenzy of blast-beaten noise, followed by a meticulously-sculpted ambient digestif. Then repeat.

Asunder, rather, works on a sort of dynamic palindrome, diving straight into a merciless procession of dense waves of sound that fans have grown accustomed to waiting around for about ten minutes or so to get.

The opening piece, “Peasantry or Light Inside of Light,” is the most succinct demonstration of Godspeed’s power as masters of creating texture and mood through space, whether that space is the breadth of a stereo mix or the longitude of a ten-minute span of time.

It begins with the band hammering away in unison, creating a colossal tone that calls to mind the savage treatment of American traditional music by drone-metal pioneers Earth, as applied to Middle-Eastern-inflected rock and sent on a warpath. Gradually—after the band’s first honest-to-god guitar solo—the band loosens up, the strings come to the forefront, the Middle-Eastern themes become more apparent and the mood lightens into something with rapturous, poetic vibes. By now the jazzy shuffle of the drums has given way to the militaristic snare-work that is a percussive signature for Godspeed.


In the final third, a loping slide-guitar motif dominates, with sawing strings and tremolo-picked guitars swarming around it. The track, much like the album as a whole, ends how it begins, with the band showcasing its uncanny ability to make something massively greater than the sum of its parts.

The 20 minutes that separate “Peasantry” from the Asunder‘s pulse-quickening finale “Piss Crowns are Trebled” — yes, these guys are untouchable in the art of naming things — the album descends into Godspeed’s longest sustained indulgence in purely ambient drone. “Lambs’ Breath” sees industrial sludge swallow up the previous movement’s beauty, only to be further deconstructed into a creeping, Om-like sub-bass pulse.

There’s a cyclical theme throughout Asunder: death and rebirth, annihilation and rebuilding. The title track’s  structure rises out of the still blackness that ended side A. Guitars made to sound like plinking raindrops and buzzing mosquitoes layer upon themselves to populate the full dynamic range with a furious, primordial scene; this is the intro to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Godspeed style.

This restructuring into something less “post” but more “rock” powers ahead in the 13-minute “Piss Crowns.”

Five minutes in, the drums are ready for battle, the guitars and strings are in cinematic histrionics. There’s a calm before the storm, then we’re treated to around seven straight minutes of heaven in the form of a triumphant, hard-driving, scorched-earth sludge-metal riff. Like any great Godspeed climax, the band keeps finding new ways to freshen up the same riff, and it never stops getting heavier.

This is about as cliche an ending as you can get in Godspeed-land, but it’s an excellent example of the band doing what it does best. While Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is Godspeed at their most audacious, it’s also their most accessible work.

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To contact Lifestyles editor John Connor Coulston, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com

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