Review by Sergey Mesenov
Perhaps the finest band on a very, very fine Canadian label, Constellation Records, Silver Mount Zion returns with 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, their first record since the near-masterpiece Horses in the Sky. Released in 2005, that record established Silver Mount Zion as a musical force all its own, existing beyond any sort of stylistic boundaries. On their follow-up, the band luckily, remarkably, continue to grow, evolve, and get even better. Things start in a deceptively familiar fashion on "1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound" (which is billed as track 13, preceded by 70 seconds of random, high-pitched sounds divided into 12 short tracks) strings are plucked quietly, a choir is singing softly, and Efrim Menuck enters with his usual quivering vocals, until some three minutes in, when everything quietly fades away. And then it starts for real. After a brief pause, the whole band kicks in with an astounding, utterly unexpected fervor and volume, and the song is immediately transformed into a huge, soaring rock anthem reaching up to the skies. Frankly, it's quite a thrill to hear Silver Mount Zion kick up a maelstrom of sound like that; simply put, they have never rocked that hard, or that convincingly, in their entire career.
Even the noisiest, loudest moments of Godspeed You Black Emperor! never hinted at such fiery abandonment. Those sonic explosions were always incredibly tight and precisely controlled, whereas this new noise of Silver Mount Zion possesses an unpredictable, dangerous edge. It's their call to arms, if you will, and if the band were to truly go out on the streets with this music, it'd surely present a matter of worrying for whatever establishment they'd choose to rally against. It's only fitting that during the preceding tour, where Silver Mount Zion road-tested much of this material, the title track -- an ugly, raging beast of a song known as "We Just Want Some Action" -- could well stand as the title of this whole collection. Such a shift in sound can even be perceived as a political statement of sorts, embodying a collective voice of people who used to be quiet and keep to themselves but are now unable to remain silent and intend to inform the powers that be that they are not going to take it any longer. Whatever that "it" might be -- ongoing war, oil prices, poverty, hunger, social unrest, signs of Apocalypse -- it's really beside the point; what matters is a simple act of first raising your head and then your voice and your fist.
It's not all sound and fury, of course. There are enough quiet moments amidst all the chaos. "1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound" ends with a gracefully restrained coda, and 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons comes down from its truly aggressive start to a contemplative middle section only to build to another explosive climax, twice. Still, even as the band tries to play it quietly, the noise comes insistently bubbling to the surface, as in the more traditionally Silver Mount Zion-esque "Black Water Bowled/ Engine Broke Blues." The closing "blindblindblind," meanwhile, starts quietly and is almost lovely, and then builds to another raucous finale, only this time the band sound not angry or rioting, but uplifting and almost rapturous. And perhaps that's the most singular achievement of 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, how the band known for its relentlessly bleak and desperate outlook manage to maintain enough spirit to close its most righteous, furious record on a note that's full of grace, beauty, and hope. Silver Mount Zion were already way ahead of many of their contemporaries, but 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons sees them blazing past even further, up and away, to some unexplored, perhaps dangerous, but tremendously exciting new horizons of artistic expression. It might be not really safe to keep up, but it's impossible not to.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
13 Blues for Thirteen Moons
Godspeed You! Black Emperor spawned numerous post-rock imitators, most playing rock-infused chamber music and looking to bridge the gap between whispers and roars. This is old news, but the career of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band has been a crescendo itself. You can see it in the band's name, which began in 1999 as A Silver Mt. Zion, a trio comprised of Godspeed guitarist Efrim Menuck, violinist Sophie Trudeau, and bassist Thierry Amar (also of Godspeed). Over the course of several albums, "Memorial Orchestra," "Tra-La-La Band," "with Choir," and an extra "e" were introduced, as the trio swelled to a septet with various auxiliary players.
This increase in personnel was reflected in the band's music. Their debut, the serene He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corners of Our Rooms, was like Godspeed in miniature. Even on that album, vocals were featured prominently, which they rarely were in Godspeed. Their second album, Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward, was still dominated by blustery strings, but Menuck's tomcat yowl and the flashes of rock were more pronounced. By this point, the band's anarchist bent was made clear in their terrorist-letter liner notes and the theory they cited, although their music still sounded more like an uneasy slumber than a violent insurrection.
Then Silver Mt. Zion made a definitive break with their origins and transformed into a band almost completely distinct from the one that made Shafts of Light. "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing featured heavy rock drums and even more of Menuck's elongated, off-key moaning. The albums featuring the "choir" had a whole host of Menuck-alikes caterwauling away, and by 2005's Horses in the Sky, Silver Mt. Zion sounded more like an experimental rock band with strings than anything post-rock.
New album 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons is the weakest entry to date in Silver Mt. Zion's catalog. It gets off on the wrong foot with a conceit that seems pointless at best: Twelve tracks, each just a few seconds long, of high-pitched, modulating drones. Why? Maybe it was conceptually important to the band that the album begin on track 13, but there's nothing to suggest it should be important to anyone else. Of course, these drones would be inconsequential if they were a prelude to inspiring music, but their mysteriousness is the most interesting aspect of the record.
Here, strings have moved into the background and guitars into the foreground of Silver Mt. Zion's music, inverting their original template. They no longer erect shimmering palaces in the distance, preferring instead to drop the great marble slabs directly on our heads, over and over again. The song's artillery drums and napalm riffs sound exciting on paper, and there are indeed a few thrilling moments (swoony trumpets!), but the turgid arrangements, which lack enough content to justify their length (each is around a quarter-hour), reduce them to isolated moments that don't feel hard-earned when they arrive.
"1,000,000 Died to Make this Sound" begins and ends as a post-apocalyptic chorale, and while the moment when the bludgeoning riff that dominates its middle section roars to life is tingly, the feeling soon becomes a dull ache. The title track is more dynamically arranged, with swells of battery-acid guitar, but its rippling pattern makes it feel preordained, like Explosions in the Sky gone psych-rock. Nevertheless, the final movement, where Menuck's voice is chopped hard across stereo channels (lending it a rhythmic force it often lacks) is the album's most credible climax. The last two tracks are better: "Black Waters Blowed/Engine Broke Blues" makes room for gusty organ-and-string dirges amid the brambly rock, enhancing its contrast, and "Blindblindblind", with its gradual increase in wattage, exemplifies the kind of nuanced upsweep that most of the album unfortunately sacrifices.
Righteous anger is the emotion that dominates 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, leaving its listeners feeling rather scolded. When Menuck sings, "One million died to make this sound," you get the impression that the romance of disaffection might be dearer to him than the social reforms that would mitigate it. When he sings about "your band's bland ambition," you have to wonder if his self-regard has completed a crescendo of its own, one disproportionate to the actual political efficacy of his-- or anyone's-- music. Overall, it's this sense of forced importance that makes the album no fun: You feel like it's meant to do something to you, not for you. I don't know about you, but I've got more than enough tyrants and oligarchs talking down to me already, without getting browbeaten by anarchists, too.
-Brian Howe, March 26, 2008