Last December a friend of mine lost a sister and spent the four or five days crying her eyes out instead of sleeping, gradually falling in on herself. Upon discovering that A Silver Mt Zion were playing that Thursday evening, I remembered listening to their debut, He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corners of Our Rooms, while lying on my bed with my eyes shut a few years ago. This being in university shared housing, I was jerked out of my glacial reverie by the words of a German exchange student wandering into my room: “How can you listen to that, it’s horrible… so unbelievably sad… I can’t stand it.” In truth, their (then purely instrumental) music, for all that it lacked the orchestral furore of father act Godspeed You! Black Emperor, was even then nigh unbearably poignant; slow and sumptuous sonic cradles for the shattered that offered no solace save beauty.
Despite not being particulary keen on their third and most recent album, which had fleshed out both the band’s sound and its name, appending the ‘...Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band’, I decided that their performing would probably rip every last shred of misery out of my friend in one shuddering rush; catharticism by combat, if you will. Having bought two tickets and eventually cajoled her into joining me at the gig, I was confident that the change of surroundings would help a little even if things turned out to be musically disagreeable and we had to get drunk in order to ignore the band. Initially the rawness of their playing and frontman Efrim’s singing—two songs in he would apologise for the disordered performance, claiming that they were learning the new songs by playing them on the tour, something reiterated by the booklet of the tour’s end product, this album—had me thinking I’d made a terrible mistake, especially as lyrics seemed to be more concerned with angry punk politicking than regret and remembrance.
However, after the scouring of our ears and attention things became softer, choral chants emerging over cello lines as a more reflective side to the music emerged, the intensity of the musicians’ emotional presence having a deeply hypnotic effect on the now rapt, motionless audience. And then, towards the end of what is now the title track of this new record, Efrim uttered the words “All that true love/is the light/in my sister’s darling eyes” into silence, only for it to be taken up and repeated with palpably increasing volume, tenderness and loss. Slowly turning to look at my friend confirmed that tears were streaming down her face, yet her eyes were bright and her lips captured a tiny smile. I hugged her; I felt like Judas, I felt like Jesus, I had betrayed and destroyed, I had saved and rescued. Later, the band would end their encore, “Hang On To Each Other (...and every fucking thing you love)”, to a veritable explosion of applause and foot stomping by an audience ripped apart and then reassembled with their hearts beating as one.
Silver Mt Zion make music of extremes; very simple, inordinately miserable, utterly emotionally invasive, performed with such total, galvanising conviction that it’s terrifying at times. Efrim’s singing is slightly less corrosive on record, but there are moments when his anguish rips through his voice as though it were a shank twisting violently in his chest; those to whom Connor Oberst sounds overwraught will not find safe harbour here. Nor is this music for those seeking the Linus’ pop comforter of a Snow Patrol or a Coldplay: here, freedom has come and gone, “our schools look like prisons/and our prisons look like malls/and downtown’s just a sick parade/where no-one cares/at all.” Here, armies play endless games of retribution with piles of corpses as counters, though nothing can make death pay back what we lose, and Efrim asks “Who among us will avenge Ms. Nina Simone?” Here, wonder is sunlight reflecting off a helicopter gunship as its chaingun “cuts a man in two”. Here, walls of static and distortion intermittently overwhelm tremulous vocals, piano and strings as humanity is revealed as horribly vulnerable, with only the distant loveliness of the stars to warm it against an infinity of silent, dying space. Here is the reality of mortality, somewhere between suicide and surrender, that Silver Mt Zion face with unwavering, courageous devotion. Here their purity has produced an album of tremendous power that only occasionally (as on the Kanada-denying “Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns”) loses its focus to pained posturing that the musical backing, stretched thin, cannot back up. Here, we hang on to each other for comfort before dying. It’s enough.