When post-rock icons Godspeed You! Black Emperor went on hiatus in 2003, their career had reached a plateau. Their last album, Yanqui U.X.O., had received mixed reviews, failing to surpass the epic Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, though in fairness, not much could. Nine years and a slew of side projects later, Godspeed is back with an album of material written before they went their separate ways. Anyone accusing the anti-capitalists of cashing in should first listen to ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, which translates decade-old live material into a sprawling, four-movement storm that had the potential to be their greatest work yet, a middling comeback, or a rehash of talked-up concert appearances. Frustratingly, it’s all three.
Triggering YouTube arguments seconds after it leaked, ‘Allelujah! is everything you could have hoped for from Godspeed—at least superficially. Borrowing the four-track format from Lift Your Skinny Fists and the tightened running time from the band’s Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP, this is Godspeed’s most well-rounded collection to date. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is unnerving, beginning with groaning, didgeridoo-like feedback that opens into strings and rumbling bass, but it plants the seeds of a three-note riff, a springboard for that trademark post-rock tension. Six minutes in, guitars are howling and a hurricane of euphoria is erupting from the band’s nine members. It matches the intensification of “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven” before shrinking into a dirge inspired by spaghetti western scores. “Mladic” is even louder, their most frantic track to date, and uses police interceptor voices reminiscent of “Welcome to Arco AM/PM,” from You’re Your Tiny Fists, before building to a mighty crescendo, drums pounding like rotor blades, distorted guitars sliding up and down in varying scales.
Both songs are examples of incendiary post-rock—dynamic and captivating enough to hold your attention for 20 minutes. And both are divided by two “drone” interludes that feel like unnecessary breakwaters. Possibly an attempt to recreate the apocalyptic static of 1997’s F#A#?, “Their Helicopters’ Sing” feels like an inevitable comedown that starts with hissing gas and then mutates into the Scottish national anthem. Efrim Menuck saws drearily at his guitar while backed by a featureless wall of sound. It’s atmospheric enough, but in the context established by the last song, it can only be seen as a prolonged tune-up. The second drone piece, “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable,” is more successful, counteracting the fury of “We Drift Like Worried Fire” with guttural, chanting noises. Either way, both interludes focus attention on Godspeed’s power to escalate, which remains unchanged despite the nine-year break.
The band’s songwriting strengths haven’t dipped either. They can still create movements that trample your heart and then gather up the pieces and hand them back to you healed. ‘Allelujah! is Godspeed’s most evenhanded, accessible release to date, balancing the two styles they’re famed for: the kind of emotional gallops found on Lift Your Skinny Fists and the sheer oblivion of their early material. After 18 years, the revered nonconformists have compiled an album that feels like a career-spanning retrospective.