Album Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers

The Canadian outfit's latest is ugly yet inspiring, a collision of opposing forces

Godspeed You! Black Emperor are primarily concerned with two things: destruction and reconstruction, with an emphasis on destruction.

Apocalypse found its soundtrack in their five studio albums, but never without the dimmest light piercing its smoky shroud. And once the band reunited after an indefinite hiatus in 2010, older and wearier but still pissed the hell off, their  music retained its innate doom while also ushering in the sun that much more. 2015’s wonderful and cathartic Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, for all its eerie portent, still left us reeling in warmth rather than despair.

Still, anyone familiar with Godspeed no doubt expected Luciferian Towers to be an ugly record. Hell, just look at the name, which summons stark, hellish metropolis. The band’s music tends to respond directly to governmental power dynamics, and with the recent influx of jokers into the world’s political realm and an ever-present threat of nuclear and chemical warfare looming overhead it’s easy to imagine we’d get a boiling pot of rage put to tape.

And, to some degree, that’s true. In the album’s liner notes, Godspeed describes Luciferian Towers as a “thing we made in the communal mess,” stating that “we aimed for wrong notes that explode” and “recorded it all in a burning motorboat.” And “Undoing a Luciferian Towers”, the album’s first song, is one of the ugliest, most jaw-dropping tracks Godspeed’s ever recorded. It begins prettily enough, with weighty ambient notes and distant violin strains. Soon, however, droning, deeply menacing swells begin warping the song’s fabric. Militaristic thuds on a bass drum conjure the image of a marching horde while a squealing saxophone evokes evil laughter before warping into something resembling screams. For a few minutes there, you’d think you were listening to the birth of some ancient evil.

Relief comes, however, in the final minute, when a soaring guitar line breaks through the morass, its melody drowning out the chaos. That collision of precision and chaos becomes a theme throughout the record, with currents of the rumbling darkness punctured by the beauty of a single melody that, throughout its course, tends to increase in speed, volume, and octave. They begin to feel like revolutions, these moments, a single voice giving way to a multitude. A similar, yet contrasting, theme emerges on “Bosses Hang”, a song that weaves together a number of simple, beautiful refrains that evoke voices in a crowd and roiling chants before allowing each to find a purchase of their own; for everyone, it says, there is a time to follow and a time to lead. When those melodies again coalesce, they do so with more confidence, more volume, and more passion. “More of us than them,” reads the song’s accompanying liner notes.

There’s a general sense of mobilization on the record, as evidenced by its lack of ambient interludes. While Luciferian Towers isn’t the shortest Godspeed album at 44 minutes — it runs four minutes longer than Asunder — it may be its most consistently emphatic. And perhaps because of that, the album never quite propels itself to the peaks of its predecessors; there are climaxes, but nothing touching the oppressive, cathartic explosions that cap off “Rockets Fall Over Rocket Falls” or “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”.

Instead, the album’s final act resonates more as a climactic battle, a push and pull between opposing forces. An electric guitar twangs like something out of an old western, repeating and layering as the enemy forces continue to mount. And as the battle rages on in a whirling, windy maelstrom, threatening to spin itself into oblivion, Sophie Trudeau’s violin surges from the background, that single instrument sounding like some kind of celestial army emerging from the dirt. And the album ends there, in the sky, bringing to mind the visions of ascension dreamt of in so many of their titles.

It’s the most beautiful moment in an album full of ugly ones. Ugly isn’t bad on a Godspeed record — the “wrong notes” that permeate “Fam/Famine” resonate as our inability to articulate rage — but it does result in an album that’s more bombast than beauty, which, despite the album’s themes of revolution, can make for an especially dissonant listen.

But Godspeed’s albums are a direct reflection of their worldview, and the sense of distrust and discontent littering the world is particularly potent in this day and age. But there’s something biblical about that: Hell precedes heaven; suffering gives way to deliverance. And, as the final minutes of Luciferian Towers make clear, Godspeed believes in deliverance.

Let the reconstruction begin.

Essential Tracks: “Undoing a Luciferian Towers”, “Anthem for No State”

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