The new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, “G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END,” starts as might be expected for any longtime GY!BE fans: all droning, all space and a cavalcade of distorted vocals which straddle the line between spoken word and pure noise. At around three minutes in, after this quiet onslaught, the first guitars of the album enter, meditative and distorted and slobbering across the fretboards while a bow saws away at a stringed instrument. It is in this meditative drone that the first movement on the album both begins and ends, and for a band that built itself on massive, horizon sweeping crescendos, it is a fairly understated start to the new decade.
Thus, the album begins with a question: is this a new GY!BE, for a new decade?
The next movement, “Job’s Lament,” and the first “properly musical” moment of the album, answers the question pretty resoundingly: maybe. The sonics here are quite in line with early-career GY!BE format, as well as what listeners have come to expect from GY!BE: the military-march drums, the fuzzy gliding guitars, the steady bassline arpeggios — none of it goes forgotten.
In fact, the song is so in keeping with standard-issue GY!BE that one could be forgiven for thinking it was some early demo. It all feels like familiar territory, and it would be easy to criticize the band for sticking to what they know (especially considering their acclaim for breaking convention), but after a decade of lukewarm releases, a return to form is both understandable and maybe even a little welcome.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor first made a name for themselves with the 1997 apocalyptic release “F♯ A♯ ∞” (or “F Sharp, A Sharp, Infinity”). It was on this first album that GY!BE really established the formula which would eventually set them apart from so many other guitar bands of their time: End-Times preachers rambling incoherently and abysmally into a microphone, “cities on fire and babies in the rubble,” fog-soaked drones and the soaring crescendos which would go on to define post-rock as a genre.
These ingredients would only evolve as the band continued into the 2000s, reaching what many consider a peak with the 2000 album “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antenna To Heaven,” before the band began a decade-spanning hiatus in 2003.
In the GY!BE continuity, “G_d’s Pee” feels as firm a middle ground as you might find. There are moments of true sonic experimentation to be found: the haunting, dystopian cycling of military alphabet codes on “Military Alphabet (five eyes all blind)” recalls the cloudy, prophetically despondent tone of “F♯ A♯ ∞” with added paramilitary chic. Genuine experimentation, however, is scant, and many of the tried-and-true tropes of GY!BE records are in abundance here.
While this may not be a bad thing, it is something of a shame to see such a groundbreaking act rely so heavily on past material. With all this said, the track “Cliffs Gaze” contains some uncharacteristically resounding moments of triumph for a GY!BE record, and indicate that “G_d’s Pee” is not entirely retreaded ground. The latter half of the album, generally speaking, adopts a tone of triumph and euphoria which is almost nowhere to be found on a record such as “F♯ A♯ ∞.”
Another aspect crucial to the GY!BE formula, more so than any sonic passages or lyrical content (for indeed, almost every GY!BE album is entirely instrumental, unless one counts the characteristic field recordings), is the group’s thematic obsession with the collapse of society, the wounds of capitalism and the guilty conscience of Western civilization. These ideas have been one of the very few constants throughout the entirety of the band’s life cycle: one of the most well-known recordings from “Lift Your Skinny Fists“ is a man bemoaning the loss of Coney Island, losing “the playground of the world.”
Elsewhere, on “F♯ A♯ ∞,” amidst the sound of exhaust pipes and the solicitation of a homeless woman asking for change, an anonymous voice warns of the “preacher man and his end-times.” Their third studio album, “Yanqui U.X.O” (respectively, the Spanish word for Yankee, and an acronym for “unexploded ordnance”), came packaged with a semi-conspiratorial diagram linking record labels and arms manufacturers, and all of it accompanied by an album cover of falling bombs. The first track of the album, “09-15-00,” even kicks the whole album off with a reference to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, a violent uprising of Palestinian peoples against the Israeli government. One can see, then, the political ambitions which have always followed GY!BE.
In keeping with the newfound optimism of the album’s latter portion, these political themes may be found in “G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!” in updated ways. The track titles are perhaps the most obvious indications of socio political thought: names like “First of the Last Glaciers” (a track that breaks from frantic drones to frenetic, Floyd-like arpeggios), “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (For. D.H.)”, and “Job’s Lament” (Job is the central figure of a Biblical story in which a privileged man suddenly has all of his goods stolen by God) dominate the album, all with varying levels of political commentary. Yet just as with the sonics, it is not all doom and gloom. There is, perhaps, no greater statement of political optimism than an all-caps title like “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN,” and ending the album on such a hopeful note cannot be an accident.
All of this is only backed up by the statement the band made following release:
“the ham-radio dads talk to each other all night long. about their dying wives and what they ate for lunch and what they’ll do with their guns when antifa comes. This record is about all of us waiting for the end. All current forms of governance are failed. This record is about all of us waiting for the beginning, and is informed by the following demands=empty the prisons. Take power from the police and give it to the neighbourhoods that they terrorise. End the forever wars and all other forms of imperialism. Tax the rich until they’re impoverished.”
So then, even if some of the material comes across as same-y, that GY!BE have updated for a new decade is undeniable. Instead of referencing Israeli-Palestinian uprisings and Coney Island, they reference Antifa, climate change, and the fraught political landscape of America in 2020. Things have changed, both for America and for GY!BE, and although many of the changes on “G_d’s Pee” are disappointingly few and far between, they are undeniably present.
One can hope, should GY!BE choose to continue into the Roaring Twenties of this second millennium, that these changes will only continue.