The number four often signifies completeness. Four elements. Four cardinal directions. Four corners of the Earth. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, the latest album from Canadian post-rock experimentalists Godspeed You! Black Emperor, consists of four approximately 10-minute-long compositions, each expressing a different musical landscape. Together they form a fantastical world of epic sound.
This is not Godspeed’s first exploration of quadrants. In 2012, the punctuation-minded band came off its nearly 10-year hiatus with the surprise release of Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, a masterwork of four 20-minute tracks with a magnificently gloomy aesthetic. That album, like this one, feels like a single narrative. Only in the case of Asunder it’s a wordless narrative. The band takes you on a journey from who knows where to who knows where. It is very strange and very wonderful.
The album’s opener “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’” begins with a persistent triumphal drumbeat that is subverted by constant whining guitar feedback in the background. Heavily distorted metal-guitar screeches mingle with wavering reverberated slides accented by—what else?—flutes. The song almost literally detonates, beginning with basic rhythms being slowly ripped open by guitars and synths and finally exploding into a satisfying chaos of woodwinds and Pink Floyd–esque psychedelia.
A low, sinister crumbling buzz left over from the explosion of “Peasantry” leads into the daunting darkness of the album’s middle tracks. “Lambs’ Breath” sounds like the score from Alien overlaid with a relentlessly harsh, industrial drone and a sprinkling of Wookiee moans and robot-cricket chirps. The next track, “Asunder Sweet,” picks up the drone begun by “Lambs’ Breath,” but now the sound of echoing electronic raindrops cascades through it, eventually rebuilding the volume into a mess of guitar fuzz and dark forest flutes.
In “Piss Crowns Are Trebled,” those drums are back and the mood lifts from morose to triumphant. This is the longest, loudest track of the bunch, and you can imagine the band in an epic battle with their own music, which threatens to overwhelm them. Around the midpoint, melodic, sweeping violins and resonant guitar solos harmonize to create a sound that gets bigger and BIGGER AND BIGGER and then . . . silence. You take a breath. That’s over, you think. But no! The music is back, every instrument screeching and wailing and slamming and thumping into a climactic burst of sound that slams you in the face and then falls into shambles.
These days the single is all that matters. Create a song that millions of people will listen to while they drive to the drugstore and listen to again while they drive back and you’re golden. But Godspeed is creating albums that are meant to be listened to as albums. This is a band that demands you commit, damn you! Sit down and listen for 40 minutes straight to what is, in essence, a single undifferentiated work of art. Asunder may wear you out, but it will exhilarate and mesmerize you. And that’s really what an album should do.
Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress will be released by Constellation Records on Tuesday, March 31.