Godspeed You! Black Emperor Luciferian Towers

[Constellation; 2017]

Styles: post-rock
Others: protest signs, the New Left, “Waiting On the World to Change” by John Mayer

“When the businessman whom his acquaintance asks for a job refuses because conditions don’t permit it, he thinks he is referring to something purely objective and totally autonomous — reality itself. Since everyone else, including the petitioner, feels the same because the reality they themselves created through their social activity appears as something alien by which they must abide, it follows that there are many agents but no conscious and therefore free subjects of social conditions. Men must submit to conditions they themselves constantly create as to something alien and overwhelming powerful. Insight is not enough, of course, to change this state of affairs.”
– Max Horkheimer, “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom,” Dämmerung

The general thesis from which many of today’s artists proceed is “X is wrong with the world.” So they set off to write an album or make a film or create a painting about X. The product is released, and some people “get it” and some don’t. The ones who “get it” spend some time thinking and listening and looking. They digest some aspects of the work and then move on with their lives and generally keep doing the same shit that they were doing before this aesthetic experience. In some cases, a distorted fragment of the message gets through and the listener decides to implement a minor reform in their life, like riding their bike more, ceasing to use Amazon, or quitting eating meat. They become convinced that this action will make an impact on the world, but the fact is that it likely will not.

In a certain sense, the failure is on both sides: artists today are mostly incapable of making works that meaningfully critique the world we live in, and listeners are increasingly incapable of recognizing such works, if and when they exist at all. It’s a self-reproducing cycle, and one that can’t be broken until things actually change, i.e., until there’s a new system of production. Until then, capital persists, the culture industry continues to dominate all aesthetic experience, and the people in charge remain in charge. Whether you eat meat or use Amazon ultimately only affects you. 2017 has been a big year for music that says “X is bad” or “Don’t do or be X.” Ultimately, this kind of art just boils down to the sensual representation of the artist’s own moral platitudes and the expectation that people will extrapolate political directives from them. If your art isn’t critical at a fundamental formal level, which is to say that it works to develop, destroy, or transform existing aesthetic forms, then it’s just shaking a fist at the sky and waiting for someone else to come along to do the heavy lifting. That doesn’t mean that all “self-aware” “political” art is horrible today, but… well, most of it is.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Luciferian Towers is a decent album, but its music is often overshadowed by its imagery and the music’s own self-important, funereal vibe concerning the existence of some monolithic, destructive force. “look at that fucking skyline!,” the album’s press release says. “big lazy money writ in dull marble obelisks!” Hm, Luciferian Towers. Which world figure has been compared to Lucifer and has his name on many towers? Even if it’s not literally about “him,” it doesn’t matter — the band has already showed their hand. The press release concludes with:

the “luciferian towers” L.P. was informed by the following grand demands:

+ an end to foreign invasions
+ an end to borders
+ the total dismantling of the prison-industrial complex
+ healthcare, housing, food and water acknowledged as an inalienable human right
+ the expert fuckers who broke this world never get to speak again

Looking beyond basic philosophy that would contradict a claim that healthcare, housing, food and water are basic human rights (they aren’t1), and ignoring the list’s typically liberal hopscotching over any political or philosophical theory that could actually help obtain these demands, it’s still hard to take this seriously at all. It’s perhaps one step above Occupy Wall Street, but not by too much. If your argument as to why these demands should be met is to release a good post-rock album, that’s fine, but I fail to see a bridge between the music and any of these goals being met. The band writes of song triptych “Bosses Hang,” “labor, alienated from the wealth it creates, so that holy cow, most of us live precariously!” Congrats, you’ve (maybe) read Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844! That text deserves better than tongue-in-cheek allusions in a press release written by a real-life Wes Anderson character.

OK. Music. “Undoing A Luciferian Towers” is fine GY!BE post-rock, a dark, carnivalesque track whose pacing and harmonic shifts feel like Fuck Buttons-meets-Anton Bruckner. But overall, these tracks feel less direct than the prior GY!BE 2.0 releases, and they don’t have the depth of orchestration of the band’s greatest works, instead opting to focus on big sounds and tour de force tension. This is good in theory, and it sometimes works, but I nevertheless found myself yearning for the heaviness of doom metal-tinged Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress and the melodic intensity, deep layering, and sheer instrumental ingenuity of ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’.

One of GY!BE’s strengths is coming up with motifs that sound good and work for long periods of time, but that strength isn’t utilized here as much as it could be. “Bosses Hang” parts I-III are mostly entrancing (especially the second movement), but the third movement’s Steve Reich-esque ostinato becomes grating the longer it goes on. Working against the grand washes of guitar and bass, which are beautiful, it just feels a little uninspired, especially in the final movement’s bathetic second half. Similarly, the first two movements of “Anthem For No State” are shimmering and expansive, while the third movement contains excellent dramatic moments but ultimately comes across as a lengthy hard jam that, while good, somehow falls short of the dramatic grandeur we’ve come to expect from the band. A lot of this is squarely the music’s fault, but it’s also partially the “Koyaanisqatsi of 2017” experience promised by the album’s notes.

On the whole, these tracks feel partially-realized, like demos that didn’t get wholly fleshed out. All musicians know that magical, drunken fourth hour of band practice, the bracket of time when everyone enters into a shared trance, producing what the band collectively regards as “the best thing we’ve ever done.” It is only later, via the wonders of recording technology and critical distance, that the song is revealed not to be so. It would be uncharitable to apply this metaphor to the entirety of Luciferian Towers, but there are moments when it feels apt. As a result, the whole record feels halfway there. On the back of the CD slip case, there’s a photo of something indiscernible — possibly some trees and water — with a caption that says “BROWNSHIRTS DROWN IN GLACIERS’ RISE.” Well, I imagine if we keep pressing albums on plastic and packaging them in cardboard, it’ll happen eventually. We’re all part of the system.

1. Due to some feedback received after this review was published, I want to clarify my point here. In a sense, of course the band is right to want these things — healthcare, housing, food, and water ought to be basic human rights. My issue is with how they are voicing these demands as a moral issue rather than a political one. The radical position is not to simply oppose on moral grounds the “expert fuckers who broke this world” and the greed of the 1%, but to realize politically our own collective desire for a just and free society and to begin to conceptualize and create a world in which these rights can exist for all. This is to say that my point isn’t to ask the “expert fuckers” to make good on those rights, it’s to adopt the revolutionary politics necessary to create a system in which all people have equal access to heathcare, housing, food, and water. In short, these are things we all do desire, and they are ideals that continue to task us with their realization.

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