Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
The concept of the post-modern is one that dominates certain philosophies surrounding the cultural discourse. It is a measure of the forward-thinking nature of disciplines that postmodernism exists; one of the few generalized statements about the concept that can be made is that it looks both behind and beyond what stands for the modern. The problem with examining the concept beyond this statement, of course, is that the modern is always shifting, and that the modern means different things from discipline to discipline. What is postmodern in literature is not the same postmodern in music, or sculpture, or political theory. Furthermore, what is postmodern today will become the modern of tomorrow; postmodernism exists in a constant cycle of renewal in terms of the concepts that it aims to challenge. This can become particularly problematic when an entire artistic subdiscipline claims the “post” designation for its very own. This review aims to examine what the “post” designation signifies, and then to examine whether the musical subgenre of “post-rock” uses the “post” signifier in an appropriate way. It is the position of this review that the recently released album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress by the Montreal “post-rock” collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a subjectively pleasing album, but one that stands in for the failure of the overall “post-rock” genre to appropriately use the “post-” signifier in a meaningful way.
In his 1991 paper Is The Post- In Post-Modernism The Post- In Post-Colonial?, Kwame Anthony Appiah examines the concept of being post-something, and whether it means the same thing across academic and artistic disciplines. The term “postmodern”, is, as Appiah points out, “shark-infested waters around a semantic island” and can be difficult to pin down as an exact, discipline-spanning concept. His general definition of the term requires there to be an antecedent tradition in the discipline that “laid claim to a certain exclusivity of insight.” Postmodernism, then, is a “name for the rejection of that claim to exclusivity, a rejection that is almost always more playful, though not necessarily less serious, than the practice it aims to replace.” There is no specific, one-size-fits-all definition because in each discipline this antecedent tradition is different, specific to the prevailing eccentricities of the individual discipline. Thus, for Appiah, the post- concept involves a “clearing of space” with which to separate oneself from the traditional ‘products’ of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that one finds oneself in. A place to stand, as it were, or, if we may retreat to the literary modernism of Virginia Woolf for a moment, ‘ a room of one’s own’.
Appiah develops this concept further by examining the work of Max Weber; Modernism, he declares, involves a certain triumph of instrument rationality and the accompanying consideration of the universal. Rationality can be seen as the central feature of modernist movements: “Modernism in literature, architecture, and philosophy – the account of modernity that, on my model, postmodernism in these domains seeks to subvert – may be for reason or against it, but in each domain rationalization, the pervasion of reason, is seen as the distinctive dynamic of contemporary history.” Appiah questions whether this is even the case; indeed, he states that “the beginning of postmodern wisdom is to ask whether Weberian rationalization is in fact what has occurred historically.” He uses the example of religion to note that, where Weberian rationalization would see a growth of secularization, what we have seen instead is a rise in commodified fundamentalism: television evangelists, megachurches, sweeping Islamic movements, and huckster religions built upon parting fools from their money. Modernism, then, has more to do with economization and compartmentalization of disciplines than it does with the ascendancy of instrumental measurement of disciplines in a scientific manner. Postmodernism, then, is necessarily a rejection of this economization and compartmentalization.
Having set upon a construction of the concept of post- that will work for this review, we’ll drill down further into the post-modern conceptualization of music in general. In The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism, American theorist and composer Jonathan Kramer sets out to find where the postmodern concept of music lies, and finds that it is less of a matter of pinpointing a historical moment or movement and more of a conceptualization of an attitude – “a current attitude that influences not only today’s compositional practices but also how we listen to and use music of other eras.” He points out that, when it comes to ‘art music’, many critics (and the press) seem to feel that postmodernism is a movement towards what The Audience – that vast, presumably unwashed mass of popular listeners – would want to hear: “diatonicism, singable melodies, metric regularity, foot-tapping rhythms, tonality, and/or constant harmonies.” This description would seem to fall more in line with what Appiah fingered as a much more modernist – that is, commercialized, compartmentalized – view of music. Kramer, by contrast, enumerates several composers (one, tellingly, being Henryk Gorecki) who “do not so much conserve as radically transform the past, as – each in their own way – they simultaneously embrace and repudiate history.” Postmodern music, for Kramer, accepts what has come before but transforms it into something radically different than the accepted practices of modernism. Importantly (for the purposes of this review) he quotes Jean-Francois Lyotard in saying “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”
The concepts of post-modernism thus introduced here are important when we turn our consideration to the musical subdiscipline that has been termed ‘post-rock’. To begin, we should first unpack the baggage that comes along with naming a genre as such. Rock, as it is commonly understood, is a style of popular music stemming from the immediate post-war American cultural era. It was a hybridization of several regional styles, most notably jump blues and country-and-western. Considered from a strictly disciplinary light, the modern form of “rock music” bears little resemblance to its origins (said origins now being relegated to the subgenre ghetto of “rockabilly”). From a broader angle, we can make some general definitions of “rock music”: it is generally a style characterized by the use of electric guitars, bass guitars, a drum kit with a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hats, and cymbals, and a vocalist. The songs generally follow one of a few forms of songwriting formula, most popularly the “verse-chorus-verse” format, and do not typically extend beyond the five minute mark, with some exceptions. Regardless of the subgenre that is popular at the time – punk rock, pop-metal, college rock, grunge, emo, indie, and on into singularity – these are characteristics that cross over and define the overarching discipline as a whole. They are the factors in the ‘modernism’ that can be defined for rock – the factors of economization and commodification that define its ‘modernity’ in Weberian terms. It allows the discipline to be easily consumed.
Post-rock, then, would necessarily reject those factors. One would imagine that post-rock would encompass a rejection of traditional songcraft, go beyond the traditional array of instrumentation, and create pieces that are not beholden to the traditional commodification effects of radio play, ie track length. As Kramer pointed out, this is more of an attitude than a strict historically-based checklist; many less commercially popular artists have transcended one or more of those boundaries, such as The United States of America, Throbbing Gristle, and The Residents. Indeed, the entirety of progressive rock could be seen as a postmodern movement beyond rock music in the 1970s (although I might argue that Kramer would classify it under an anti-modern movement of classical music than as a post-modern movement of rock music). Post-rock as a feature of the discourse surrounding rock, however, did not come into being until the 1980s, although the work of the Velvet Underground could – and has – be considered as the first activity in the post-rock movement. The term itself was first written down in a review by Simon Reynolds, in his review of Bark Psychosis’ Hex. Much like the term post-modernism itself, post-rock came to encompass a number of disparate styles: the dub and krautrock sounds of John Lydon’s PiL project, the sprawling expanses of Talk Talk, the churning math of Slint’s Spiderland, the jazz-exploration of Tortoise, the stark minimalism of Stars Of The Lid. Despite this confusion of styles under the banner of ‘post-rock’, the term has come to be most strongly associated with the work of Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor is the most post- of the acts typically associated with post-rock. Given the criteria I outlined above, they: eschew traditional songcraft, replacing verses and choruses with much longer, more classical-oriented movements; go outside the traditional array of rock instrumentation to include stringed instruments, waves of noise, and “found sound” type field recordings; and craft pieces that typically run over fifteen minutes. Their earlier work – F#A#oo, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, and the “single” Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada – fit into a number of aspects that Kramer uses to define postmodern music. Their work was “not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both a break and an extension.” This is true especially of F#A#oo, which featured both cinematic catharsis and, on “East Hastings”, a culmination of the headbanging rock aesthetic. They “challenged the barriers of ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles”, given the blend they presented between the high-art, postmodern classical stylings of composers (especially Gorecki) and the ‘low-brow’ world of popular culture inherent in rock music. They showed “disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity” – preferring to break apart songwriting forms and expand them into movements – and “avoided totalizing forms”, spending their early recordings forging a style that was, between 1998 and 2001, the antithesis of having a style; they especially “considered music not as autonomous but as relevant to cultural, social, and political contexts”, given their propensity for anarchic politics, including the anti-corporate stance that, in the liner notes to Yanqui U.X.O., connected major record labels to major weapons manufacturers. They embraced contradiction, distrusted binary oppositions, and were inclusive of fragmentation and discontinuity. As Kramer points out, it is nearly impossible to cover all of the aspects that he considers for post-modern music, but Godspeed You! Black Emperor tends to touch on nearly all of them. They represented a break with the discipline of rock and a deconstruction of its traditional forms into something that represented a challenge to the established aesthetic.
Their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O. was produced by a more traditionalist rock guru, noise-nik Steve Albini, and was considered a stumbling point for the group. Where their previous albums were considered triumphs of form and sound, Yanqui U.X.O. was much less diverse in terms of dynamics; where their previous albums were studded with field recordings that added a diversity of forms into their postmodern aesthetic, Yanqui U.X.O. featured only the sort of crescendo-and-release dynamics that ended up producing a much blander effect than had been previously heard from them. The band went on hiatus following it, a hiatus that would continue for ten years. During this time, the group’s de facto leader Efrim Menuck developed his compositions further with his Thee Silver Mt Zion And Memorial Orchestra project. When Godspeed You! Black Emperor returned to making albums in 2012, it was ostensibly to make recordings of songs they had been playing live since their return to playing live in 2010. Allejujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend! was a return to type, featuring the kind of sound that they had originally perfected on Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. 2015 brings Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, which fits into the same mould as Allejujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend! in that it follows the same path – crescendos of noise that build and release, buoyed by strings, guitar noise, drums, and pure volume. It is also the same formula that the acts that came up after the 2002 hiatus pioneered – acts like Explosions In The Sky, Russian Circles, *shels, and God Is An Astronaut – have made their careers on. It is this particular style of sound – “crescendo-core”, as some have alternatively labelled it – that bears the modern label of post-rock. There is nothing post- about it.
Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is a perfect microcosm for why Godspeed You! Black Emperor – and a great deal of the “post-rock” canon – no longer qualify for the title of post-anything. Harkening back to our criteria for what would logically constitute post-rock, there were three factors: non-linear songwriting, non-traditional instrumentation, and non-standard track lengths. With regards to songwriting, the tracks are still not in the traditional “verse-chorus-verse” style that marks the modern conception of the overarching rock discipline, but neither are they a break with the modern. The first track, “Peasantry, or ‘Light! Inside of Light!'”, is structurally a dead ringer for the first movement on Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas Like Heaven, “Storm”, and for the “standard” song form of the ‘crescendo-core’ bands: a build-up into a repeating motif, a peak, and then a denouement that is drawn out over the rest of the piece. The entire movement can be likened to the tide going in and then drawing out. The motif present on the track seems to be a retreat into conservatism as well; the riff on display hearkens more to a more rock traditionalist style like doom or stoner metal (the difference between the two, admittedly, is splitting hairs). In addition to being a rework of past Godspeed You! Black Emperor movements, it strongly resembles the songcraft present on other ‘crescendo-core’ pillars, most notably Explosions In The Sky’s The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. The final piece, “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”, is fashioned in a similar way; sandwiched between the two movements are drone pieces that strongly resemble (and are more aesthetically pleasing versions of) the drone tracks that formed the middle of Allejujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! The format present here is, after a fashion, formalized: it’s a commodified presence, built to be instantly recognizable in its niche as “Godspeed You! Black Emperor”. In the Weberian sense, it is decidedly modern.
The instrumentation follows a similar path. When F#A#oo was initially released in 1998, very few traditional rock bands were using violins and volume-boosted noise as main instrumentation. By 2015, every ‘crescendo-core’ band is playing music like early Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and they are all using the same sort of instrumentation. As noted above, the main motif of “Peasantry”, much like the main motif of 2012’s “Mladic”, is built around gain-fueled violin and guitar, underwritten by strongly traditional drumming. Bands like Russian Circles have taken this sort of neo-traditionalism even further, using the traditional guitar-bass-drum setup to create pieces that are, in effect, longer versions of traditional heavy rock songs. The motifs of “Peasantry” and “Piss Crowns Are Trebled” could comfortably fit into the work of an artist who modeled themselves after Black Sabbath (a core artist in the subgenre of ‘heavy’ rock music) with very little truncation and nothing in the way of instrumentation change.
Song length – commodification to fit onto radio playlists between blocks of commercials – remains, at first glance, still unchanged. This is, after all, an album of four tracks, where two of them exceed ten minutes in length. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, however, is, when taken as a whole, a very conventional forty minutes in length. When taken in consideration with previous efforts, where the group often put out albums of well over an hour and even the “single”, Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada, was nearly thirty minutes in length, this is a much more commodifiable length for an album. While there is little chance of any of these pieces ending up on traditional rock radio, a forty-minute album is much easier to commodify as a ‘post-rock’ genre album alongside similarly-timed albums by other artists existing within the genre. The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, for example, runs 45 minutes in length; Russian Circle’s Station is 43 minutes; This Will Destroy You’s Another Language runs to 47 minutes. These are constructed as easily-digestible slices of instrumental music sold as ‘post-rock’.
Even in terms of ‘attitude’, which Kramer identified as a, if not the key factor in determining postmodernism in music, this album fails to pass as a post- work. This is the second album in three years constructed as a studio recording of pieces that have been played live for half a decade; the intent here is that they can be recorded, packaged, and sold to the consumer who is looking for further releases under the label and aesthetic construction of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” in specific and “post-rock” in general. The space, as it were, has been cleared, and the market is in motion. Coming back around to Lyotard’s quote on the cycle of the postmodern and the modern, we can see that a truly post-modern act – Godspeed You! Black Emperor circa 1998 – has shed its nascent postmodernism and has become part of the modern – “post-rock” circa 2015.
When taken in the consideration of being a neatly labeled, tightly compartmentalized release of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” music, Asuder, Sweet and Other Distress is, from my subjective standpoint, aesthetically pleasing. It hits all of the right notes that a fan of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” expects from a release by the group – the build-up, the release, the drifting denouement – and hits them with the precision and grace that one would expect from such a long-running outfit. To consider the album – and any so-called ‘crescendo-core’ release – to be “post-rock”, however, is to miss the target so badly that one’s shot lands the next town over. There is nothing ‘post-‘ about Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress; it is a quantifiable and measurable unit of a very modern subdiscipline, one that bears a strong misnomer for a name. The cycle noted by Lyotard has brought the group into its period of modernism, it’s moment of compartmentalized Weberian rationality. Appiah’s space-clearing gesture of the post- has long since been cleared, and the time has perhaps come to clear a new space once again.
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