Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Luciferian Towers

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Luciferian Towers

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, like most post-rock bands, workshops their songs live before taking them to the studio. As a result, virtually every track they’ve ever recorded has extensive live recordings from before its release, and almost every track they’ve ever played live has eventually gotten a place on one of their records. For some, such as “Albanian” and “Gamelan” (later “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire”), the process can take over a decade. For others, it’s only a few years. Their 2015 album ‘Asunder, Sweet’ and Other Distress was an album-length studio version of their aptly titled, 40-50 minute live track “Behemoth”, which they’d been playing since 2012. As exciting as it was to hear “Behemoth” in a higher quality than a live bootleg, the album itself felt rushed, a feeling corroborated by the general lack of substance in its middle section. Godspeed aren’t known for dragging their feet, though—on the Asunder tour, they debuted two new songs, with a third appearing the following year. The cycle began anew.

Luciferian Towers is a better album than Asunder. I’d venture that it’s even better than 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend! by virtue of its interludes not being completely disposable. It’s less bold than their earliest and best work (I wish they’d make another double LP one of these days), but it bodes well for their future, and stands as one of the best albums of the year. It speaks volumes that my only major criticisms are with the presentation: mystifyingly, the two large pieces on this album are split into three parts each. This is a choice carried over from Asunder, but that album was a 45-minute song divided into four movements; here, “Bosses Hang” is a measly (by Godspeed’s standards) 15 minutes long. “Anthem for No State” is even shorter, but both receive the same treatment. It’s by no means a deal-breaker, and it makes zero difference if you’re listening to the album as a continuous work (as you should be), but it bugs me, and I hope the CD version has a more condensed track listing.

But these songs—oh, these songs! “Bosses Hang”, previously nicknamed “Buildings” or simply “New Song 1”, is the best thing Godspeed has written in years. For the first time since Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven faded out with a chorus of otherworldly shimmers, the band’s sonic apocalypticism has overtones of hope. Each riff positively blossoms into the next, never lingering for too long on any one musical idea (a common and mostly warranted criticism of post-rock in general). When the song’s most memorable beat does arrive—a joyous four-minute buildup in 12/8 time—it feels both earned and completely logical in the progression of the piece. The violins really shine on this one, often sounding more akin to lone voices in a choir than instruments in Godspeed’s makeshift orchestra. I’ve been eagerly anticipating the studio version of this track since the very first live recording surfaced, and while they haven’t made many changes to it since then, it turns out they never needed to. Every note of “Bosses Hang” speaks for itself, off-putting title aside.

“Anthem for No State”, by contrast, is more pleasingly named and more radically changed than its live version, “Railroads” (or “New Song 2”). The Luciferian Towers performance is much leaner, taking a song that can take up to 30 minutes to play live and cutting it down to under 15. Unlike with “Bosses Hang”, I find myself missing that extra time; the meandering sections were reminiscent of the wilderness that characterized Yanqui U.X.O., which I liked. On the album, the song feels abridged rather than tightened. That’s not to say that it’s bad, though—in fact, for die-hard fans of classic Godspeed, this’ll likely be the standout. “Anthem for No State” is much darker than “Bosses Hang”. Even in its shorter version, the Yanqui comparisons are apt, and if the melodies straight out of “Motherfucker=Redeemer” don’t convince you, the interplay of the drums and guitars in the first half will. It all leads up to a dense and chaotic climax, with one commanding guitar rising above the fray, before the whole thing abruptly resolves in its final ten seconds. I can’t help but imagine the tower on the album cover collapsing in on itself when the album ends.

There are two tracks I haven’t directly addressed yet: the opener “Undoing a Luciferian Towers” and the interlude “Fam / Famine”. The two are both snippets of a longer piece (“New Song 3”, although you might’ve already guessed that), and while they provide a nice sense of continuity to the release, I do wonder if they’d function better as an unbroken track between the two main ones. At least switching their order would help—“Undoing a Luciferian Towers” starts abruptly, while “Fam / Famine” has more of a gradual intro, which I’m sure works well on vinyl but breaks up the flow in any other format. These are all very, very small issues, though, artificially amplified by how compositionally solid these tracks are, recalling the best parts of ‘Asunder, Sweet’ and Other Distress with their slow-paced yet cathartic walls of sound. While they’re clearly and intentionally transitional, they stand better on their own than the portions of Allelujah and Asunder that serve similar purposes.

The music Godspeed You! Black Emperor makes is easy to politicize, and while those connections are sometimes unfounded, they’re outright encouraging it with this one. From the album’s official press release:

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

“Expert fuckers”—what a turn of phrase, eh? If they weren’t so damn good at this whole instrumental post-rock thing, I’d want to know what Godspeed’s lyrics would sound like. Then again, I suppose we have A Silver Mt. Zion for that. I digress. Luciferian Towers is excellent. A MINUS