Looks like it’s time for a review. Well, not really, but here’s one anyway.
New on Constellation Records in early March (although the awesome folks at Constellation sent my copy several weeks early) is the new album by the band that formed as A Silver Mt. Zion in 1999, but have since morphed into The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, then into The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band + Choir, and then performed in several other configurations as Thee Silver Mountain Reveries and Thee Silver Mountain Elegies Play War Radio, but now at last they seem to have settled on Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, and for the first time in the history have kept the same name through two successive records.
The main arc of the band’s development is pretty obvious if you start from the beginning. On 2000’s “He Has Left Us Alone But Sometimes Shafts of Light Grace the Corners of Our Rooms…” Efrim sang on one track and sort of mumbled on another. Then his vocal contributions slowly increased. On 2003’s “”This Is Our Punk-Rock,” Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing,” the band expanded to include an amateur choir. By 2005 and “Horses in the Sky”, every track bore the band’s unique vocals. By unique I mean that they can’t sing. Usually singers who can’t sing kind of suck, but Efrim Menuck’s hoarse whiny nasal Canadian yelping happens to be one of the most awesome sounds I have ever heard. It is certainly an acquired taste.
So that was the history portion of the review, now for the new album, which is of course 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons.
The sleeve for this album lists four tracks, from 13-16, each over 13 minutes in length. The first 12 tracks are seconds-long pieces segments of quiet feedback. “1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound” arrives quietly with a choir of soft whispering, but quickly turns dirty and angry. Efrim spits his vocals out with anger and rage in a way he’s never done before, while the band play with a violent and noisy sense of purpose. This is a far cry from the meandering nervous gorgeous strings of old, but it proves to be a worthwhile departure.
The title track takes this new style, paints it bright colours, ties balloons to it, and throws it off a cliff. And then on the way down, a heroic blues riff somehow manages to take control of the tumbling contraption and the song sours off into realms unknown. For such a simple riff, there is a lot of mileage here. Efrim sings not of gentle futile hope as in the past, but of violent revolution.
“Black Waters Blowed” and “Engine Broke Blues” together make up track 15, which is where the album starts to veer away from the angriness of the preceding two, but retains a few barbs of its own. “Black Waters…“ has a hopeful twang to it, but “Engine Broke Blues” is just absolute utter despair. Stunningly evocative lines from Efrim here, in his unique poetic style of bad grammar and truth “God damn these tired eyes, I’m so in love, with all our stillborn labours.” The strings come back in full force here, carrying the melodic weight of the track towards a short choral climax of “Building train wreaks in the setting sun.”
If that was all too much vitriol and negativity for you, the band come good with a promise of hope and retribution in the finale “BlindBlindBlind”. It joins in the long tradition of the band saving its most beautiful and hopeful material to the last track so you don’t go out and slit your wrists. Starting off in a quiet bed of simple guitar, Efrim shows the more melodic side of his voice here, and though he’s not the most proficient singer in the world, the result is more stunning than all the professionals in the world. There are slow strings that recall earlier work, and just when you thought it couldn’t get more beautiful, the mood shifts somewhat into positivity, and the choir kicks in.
An interlude with pizzicato violins and bass and Efrim “May the light of our striving still shine…” and then we’re off into the album’s undisputed highlight, indeed one of the best climaxes this band has ever pulled off (and considering most of their songs are structured in this way, that is saying something). For the last four minutes, the repeating chorus of “Some hearts are true” somehow manages to make all other music you have ever heard in your whole life sound academic and boring and utterly pointless, despite the fact it’s a bunch of people who can’t really sing, you know, singing the same line over and over and over. And when Efrim inserts the line “But some hearts aren’t hardly true, but some hearts are true,” I am ill-equipped to describe the elation and sheer joy that strikes me in the chest. I’m not one to be overtly emotional, but some music does this to me, and much of it is Silver Mt. Zion.
This is a great album, although it does rather hinge on whether or not you enjoy the vocals. For even some Silver Mt. Zion fans, that can be a hard pill to swallow, particularly here, where the first two tracks featuring Efrim’s rawest recorded performances yet. It also lacks much of the simple melodic themes for strings that characterised much of the band’s earlier work (with “BlindBlindBlind” as a noteworthy exception). However, despite these caveats, this is another fine instalment in the ongoing Silver Mt. Zion saga.
Note: I made it the whole way through without mentioning that band. ASMZ deserve better than lazy comparison.