In 2012, post-rock was a joke.
As defined by British rock critic Simon Reynolds in a 1994 review of the debut record by genre pioneers Bark Psychosis, post-rock was music that used "rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords."
Post-rock bands such as Bark Psychosis, Mogwai, Slint, Tortoise and Trans Am played against just about every cliché of rock music in the nineties: from the scowling arena-rock groups with their misted hair, microphone stands strangled by many-hued scarves and flawlessly executed "look at me play guitar!" solos, to the pouty grunge bands with their scuffed Chucks, mops of poorly bleached hair, croaky vocals and perfectly sloppy "look at me play guitar … I guess" solos. Post-rock was rock turned against itself – a revolutionizing sonic force.
No post-rock band seized this spirit quite like Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Formed in 1994, the year post-rock broke, the instrumental sorta-collective released three full-length records before quietly disbanding following 2002's Yanqui U.X.O. Godspeed traded in a deeply felt political temper: whether in their almost embarrassingly affecting instrumentals, sampled field recordings ("I don't like the way the country's ran, dontcha know?" a man gripes on the song BBF3, in what essentially functions as a thesis statement for the band) or album art. The back cover of 1999's Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP came emblazoned with instructions on how to mix a Molotov cocktail. Yanqui U.X.O. was packaged with a chart connecting major record labels to big-name munitions manufacturers.
In their absence, post-rock got soft. Iceland's Sigur Ros swapped gloomy experimentation for blissful crescendos and canned feel-goodery. Texas quartet Explosions in the Sky cranked out instrumental-pop soundtracks, their repetitively simple harmonies laid under the swelling sentimentalism of movies such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and soapy TV such as Friday Night Lights and One Tree Hill.
As post-rock surrendered to its own boring clichés, its rebellious spirit mellowed – like the kid who edited the radical newspaper in university who ends up working in corporate law. Then, in October, 2012, Godspeed You! Black Emperor returned, as if to save post-rock from itself.
The group's fourth record, 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, was trumpeted as a vital comeback – as good, or better, than anything Godspeed had released. The critical hosannas culminated with a 2013 Polaris Music Prize, an award the group hesitantly accepted. Sort of.
Godspeed decried the la-di-da Polaris gala as nothing more than "lazy money patting itself on the back." The band vowed to use the $30,000 prize to develop music programs in Canadian prisons.
The conversation quickly turned. Instead of talking about the music – complex, melancholic, beautiful, pretty much incomparable – people began talking about the band, questioning their motivations. The Globe and Mail described the band as "Montreal miserablists," their stance "self-righteous and overreaching," and suggested that the Polaris jury bestowed the award out of something like puzzled compliance: dopily beguiled by Godspeed You! Black Emperor's new clothes, basically.
So when the band announced a new record – 'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress' – their label was hesitant to even provide this newspaper with a copy. "We've decided we're not going to service The Globe and Mail with this one," a Constellation rep wrote in an e-mail. "Over the years we've found The Globe's music coverage of our artists to be patronizing and often deeply disrespectful, both to the work and to the artists as individuals, and sometimes even just straight-up offensive to our own politics as individuals."
While the label was careful to clarify that they weren't speaking on behalf of the band themselves – who remain pleasantly enigmatic and off-the-radar – this sort of ambivalence (if not straight-up contempt) toward established media institutions is precisely what makes Godspeed You! Black Emperor so singular.
They don't need press. They don't need prizes. They don't need, or even want, $30,000 for making a terrific record. They seem desirous of nothing other than preserving the integrity of their music and their loosely anarcho spirit of earnest rejectionism. As journalist Jessica Hopper put it while accepting the 2013 Polaris in the group's absence, Godspeed "shows you the kind of career you have just by saying no."
Luckily, Constellation relented and provided The Globe with an advance copy of 'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress' (on vinyl, naturally). Given the complexity and layered grandeur of the band's music, perhaps it's little surprise that the post-Polaris music press latched onto Godspeed's politics. What's great about Asunder (if consistent with much of the group's output) is how these political sentiments unfold instrumentally, without the handholding of lyrics or vocal samples.
Post-rock has long thrived on its "dynamics": that interplay between intensity and harmony, loudness and quietude, on those vacillations in timbre and texture. What elevates Godspeed above bland post-rock sonic platitudes is the way they manage to make these dynamics so, well, dynamic. Instead of inevitably cresting from raucous despair to melodic rejoicing, surfing on those easy eddies of crescendo, Asunder strikes at an uneasier strain of melancholy. It's empowering and depressing, dispiriting and buoying. It elevates and dampens all at once. It's a record of resistance: bucking both optimism and its opposite, reinvigorating the bromidic post-rock blahs.
And resistance, even wordless resistance, is its own kind of strength. The kind of noble force marshalled when a group has the toughness and courage to say "no." Even when they're not saying anything at all.