Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band: Horses in the Sky

When Silver Mt. Zion first emerged as a chamber-sized offshoot of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, fans of the latter had ample cause to rejoice. Not only would they continue to enjoy the larger group's apocalyptic epics—prog-like in length and ambition yet minus the genre's oft-suffocating pomp—, they would also be blessed with the smaller ensemble's equally promising musical products—a classic case of twin peaks. And, as it transpired, the release of its debut He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corner Of Our Rooms... offered nothing to prove that hope misguided. In itself, it shouldn't surprise, given the presence of Godspeed's guitarist Efrim Menuck, violinist Sophie Trudeau, and bassist Thierry Amar within both collectives. The additions of cellist Beckie, guitarist Ian, and violinist Jessica brought the band number to six for its second and third albums, the name also updated to Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band. With its fourth release, Horses In The Sky, new member Scott makes the group a septet.

Yet, for this listener at least, while every Godspeed album has proven as satisfying as its predecessor, each Silver Mt. Zion has been progressively more middling. The reason is simple: with each release, the band's vocal dimension has increased with the latest, a 58-minute collection of six 'busted' waltzes, signifying its fullest flowering as a vocal-driven group. Whereas the debut featured a modicum of singing, the new album puts it front and center, even if, by its own admission, the group's singing is sometimes out of tune. And though vocals are now shared amongst group members, the focal point remains Efrim who assumes the lead repeatedly. Like Tom Waits, his singing is, put generously, an acquired taste and, I suspect, a divisive factor: to some, it's crude and tuneless (literally resembling a dog howl at the end of the title track), a hurdle that must be bypassed if one wishes to hear the group's affecting performances and compositions; to others, it's full of personality, a signature component of the group's sound, and crudity part of its charm. A softer vocal delivery (“the angels in your palm sing gentle, worried songs”) in the sombre and lovely waltz “Mountains Made of Steam” offers a more palatable alternative.

The album is rendered less interesting by its lyrics too. Godspeed deftly communicates themes of rebellion and protest using primarily instrumental means, while Silver Mt. Zion does so more literally and less interestingly. Certainly its protest music (the band titled its third album This Is Our Punk Rock, Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, after all) is delivered sincerely and is not—nor should it ever be—out of fashion, but chanting “Hang on to each other” by a flickering campfire too greatly evokes an image of ‘60s peace rallies. Elsewhere, the group denounces the US government's arrogance, laments corruption and despair (“the world's a mess, and so are we”), the lunacy of war and the pointless death that comes from it, while encouraging effort, no matter how small, towards change.

The vocal dominance also displaces attention from the distinctive instrumental dimension. All six compositions are rooted in the waltz form, with “Teddy Roosevelt's Guns” a powerful dirge that builds to a pounding conclusion, the group shouting the title over and over. In the folk-waltz title song, the prayerful utterance “Please be well” is joined by ghostly shadings that resemble a glass orchestra. The album is book-ended by two long and episodic pieces, “Dead Marines” and “Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone).” The former begins with Efrim's pained voice set against sour violin scrapings before escalating into a klezmer-flavoured folk romp, and eventually settles into dirge-like music hall with vocal sneers recounting tales of war casualties, drug problems, and suicide. The closing piece is in two parts, the first moving through aggressive crescendos and quieter vocal moments, while the second begins delicately with a weary vocal backed by guitar and bass, its faint atonal guitars eventually supplanting the vocal at its close.

In its own words, the group describes the album's politics as “just love thy neighbour mostly, or heartbroken temper tantrums for grumpy refusers, or saucy anthems for all the stubborn dumbass resistance cadres maybe.” And like before, the group offers more questions than answers and more complaints than solutions, though there's nothing wrong with that. Put most simply, fans of the group's last release will find this one as appealing; those less enamoured with the previous album likely will respond similarly to the new one.

April 2005