‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, the new album by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, manifested as a spontaneous gift, quietly appearing at concert merch tables in early October and was soon heralded by a rising chorus of anticipation. The staunchly reticent band even consented to an interview with The Guardian, celebrated by Michael Azzerad as “one of the most amazing rock musician interviews I have ever read.”1 Compared to the discourse and debate surrounding the new album, the music itself is somewhat of a non-event: two epic 20-minute-long LP sides, and a 7-inch of drone tracks. Both of the non-“drone” tracks have been in GY!BE’s live set since before they broke up in 2003, when the songs were titled “Albanian” and “Gamelan.” The new recordings are thrilling and arguably more direct than on GY!BE’s classic albums, but I suspect it’s not the new music on the album that makes this album an event; it’s the band’s re-emergence as a cultural text at this moment.
It’s been a decade since GY!BE’s last album, and any fan of post-rock (and I count myself as one) has to acknowledge that it is no longer a genre in which interesting experiments are happening. Largely due to GY!BE’s influence, a version of GY!BE’s sound has become the template for what is now called post-rock, with the more adventurous rock modernists having moved on. Take a look around the genre-defining Wearepostrock.com. If we take the editors of the website at their word, post-rock is not about stretching the possibilities of the live rock band, but about delivering the emotional peaks and crescendos of the classical orchestra circa high-romanticism, with the economy of a touring punk band. Although GY!BE have been pretty reluctant to license their music for use in soundtracks, GY!BE acknowledge that post-rock is “just pretty noise saddled to whatever horse comes along.” See the phenomenon laid bare in Glenn Speed You Beck Emperor, which lends a tragic grandeur to Glenn Beck’s paranoid ramblings, demonstrating why post-rock is such a popular soundtrack for dramatic climaxes, on- and off-screen.
As GY!BE “thrum [their] joyous tension,” as Efrim Menuck puts it in an interview with The Wire, wordless, made speechless before atrocities of war and profit, their music implies that instrumental (read: absolute) music says much more than one can with words. In interviews, live performance, and in the imagery of their albums, GY!BE invoke a Burkeian view of the sublime. At the dawn of romanticism, Edmund Burke described the sublime on a physiological level in terms of blockage and release, “an unnatural tension and certain violent emotions of the nerves,” a stunned sensation that arises as the viewer or hearer attempts to take in, as Jean-François Lyotard bluntly puts it, “a very big, very powerful object,” something too huge or too incomprehensible to be encompassed all at once.
Efrim gets closest to describing GY!BE’s sound when he is speaking about the sublime omnipresence of the media: “It’s like throwing yourself up against a big fucking wall and the wall is just getting bigger and bigger” (from an interview with The Wire). Getting over or getting around might be the idea, but all you are ever going to do is slam into the wall. The thing about the sublime is that it’s totally obliterating, but slamming into walls is exactly not the kind of experience GY!BE offer their listeners. You can crash into the wall only so many times before you find the words for the experience. It’s a wall. Where’s the goddamn door? Who put a wall here anyway? Burke characterized this experience as a matter of “intensification,” or pleasure as a “negative pain,” producing a series of crescendos not unlike those of a GY!BE song. The tension in a GY!BE song always builds predictably to that crescendo, and just when you most want to go over the wall, it magically disappears. The sublime becomes the achingly beautiful. We are so relieved, and we don’t care how or why it happened, or if we’re watching a live show, funeral scene, or car commercial.
In their Guardian interview, GY!BE denounce any music that doesn’t overtly take on the injustices of its day: “Music should be about things are not OK, or else shouldn’t exist at all.” On this album, “Mladic” ends with a recording of drumming in an Occupy Montreal protest; the liner notes call out specific bills in the Canadian parliament; and the LP is inscribed on Side A with, “TWO THOUSAND STONED KIDS WILL BE STOKED,” and on Side B, “TOO BAD THEY DON’T VOTE.”
For GY!BE, the facts of human suffering and the responsible parties are in plain sight, but the representation of suffering only encourages the passive role of the viewer. The back cover of Allelujah reads, “our cities’ grace and pain/ a stinking wind — a plague of policemen/ and/ our dreams, alit, stinking in the harbor/ the onlookers stare.” GY!BE are at their best and their sound most challenging when one listens to it as a sublime challenge to representation itself. Their most sophisticated experiments in the sublime come during their live shows in their use of film loops. Experimental filmmaker and GY!BE member Karl Lemieux performs the auto-destructive maneuver of running two, sometimes three 16 mm projectors simultaneously, assembling loops of film on the fly, manually threading loops that are splattered with bleach, scored, distended, and layered with text and images literally ripped from the headlines using adhesive tape.
The most transcendent element of this labor is Lemieux’s practice of burning through individual frames of film by holding them still over the projector light for too long. In these moments, a legible image melts off, giving way to a searing light, its edges bubbling and burning under the same light that allows the image to be projected onto the screen. As the Situationists argued, the real sublime object is the spectacle itself. In the face of enormous human suffering and injustice, GY!BE’s instrumental symphonies implied the band could do nothing but raise an inarticulate cry of pain, mingled with the pleasure of making noise collectively. (“Which is good,” they insist in The Wire interview, “it’s all good, it’s good to make feeble attempts, right? I think that’s what they are.”)
The sublime is a paradox, a negative presentation of an experience or truth that exists beyond the reach of representation. Slavoj Žižek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, describes the sublime as “pure negativity” and writes that the only qualities that are “strictly immanent” to the experience of the sublime are “the negative self-relationship of the representation.” For GY!BE, in the face of human suffering, the only representation to be made is the presentation of the failure of representation. In the burned frame of film, there is no frame around the horror, no postmodern moves, no mediation but of the failure of mediation. The success of GY!BE’s music comes not from how much it goes past the line of representation, but how successfully it presents unrepresentability itself.
GY!BE’s press release states that they “want people to experience the thrill of anonymous and uncalculated transmission, knowing full well that these days, anti-strategy risks being tagged as strategy, non-marketing framed as its opposite,” but their very art calls into question the notion of uncalculated transmission, at least of emotions and experiences so radical. None of this is to say that anyone expects GY!BE to lead a revolution or that they hold any of their listenership more responsible for the state of the world than they hold themselves. But we know that when feeble attempts are called satisfactory in the face of a wall that grows ever bigger, that crescendo just starts to build up again. Should we hit the wall again? Should we see how other people are confronting the wall? No, let’s just pretend we got through it again. Let’s do what we did 10 years ago. We can’t pretend the past 10 years haven’t happened, can’t pine for mom and pop record stores and that perfect moment of communion when everyone in your squat reached consensus on what typeface should be used for that zine. We can’t undo the internet, can’t opt out of the media completely, and can’t ignore the developments of the past 10 years. We can’t rewind the film loop, but we can burn it.
1. The “full transcript” of the interview — basically an emailed missive from Efrim— was also released alongside the article, investigative-journalism style, in order to forestall any accusations of nefarious rock critic fabulism.