No More Mr. Nice Critic; or, How to De-Rail "The Montreal Sound"
I am a fairly generous music writer, I think; I’m open to a lot of different music, and I try to accept each record on its own terms without grafting a lot of extraneous bullshit on top of it. I say that so I can say this:
Shalabi Effect’s album The Trial of St-Orange really pisses me off. I don’t really have anything against instrumental “post-rock” music the way some other critics do-has anyone else noticed how cool it is to hate Sigur Ros these days?—and I have been really intrigued with how big Montreal’s Godspeed You Black Emperor! and its many offshoots and sidebands like A Silver Mt. Zion are getting, all without even hardly making a vocal peep. So I was psyched to hear the new one from Shalabi Effect, another Montreal-based non-singing group. Maybe, I thought, we are in the middle of some big Quebecois movement . . . and it’ll be like I’m covering it as it’s happening!
Which was ridiculous on two levels. One: Godspeed You Black Emperor! and A Silver Mt. Zion are orchestral ensembles, whereas Sam Shalabi leads a four-piece band. (Other members: Anthony Seck, Will Eitzani, and Alexandre St. Onge, from whose surname the album must be named. And isn’t that cute.) Secondly, GYBE! and ASMZ develop their beautifully sad melodies and their epic themes through shifting dynamics and an unfailing sense of drama, whereas Shalabi Effect . . . well, they just don’t.
This record is 50 minutes of nothing. Of the seven tracks, five of them are the kind of tuneless rhythmless slogs that give tuneless rhythmless slogs a bad name, and the other three are almost worse, because they show how good these guys could be if they really tried. Let’s be positive first: “Mr. Titz (The Revelator)” is, despite its immature title (because of its awesome title?), a great electro-acoustic jam with some real substance. And the next piece, “Our Last Glare”, continues things with some tabla-ish percussion and some trancey guitar lines. I like these two pieces, especially right next to each other; they feel related, organic, real. (Oh yeah, the “hidden track”/coda thing at the end is cute, in a I’m-tuning-my-guitar sort of way.)
But the rest of the damned thing is just no good for me. I don’t mind if songs don’t follow “traditional” outlines; I don’t mind if songs take a while to reveal themselves; I don’t even mind songs that mess with the listener. What I do mind are songs like “Sundog Ash” and “Saint Orange” and “Uma” that throw their lack of direction right in the listener’s face. When the only point is that there is no point, things better be pretty damned compelling for me to make that leap, and these tracks don’t share a single reference point with me. Hey, I listen to Acid Mothers Temple and Miles Davis’ Get Up With It on a regular basis, but I hear something there that I don’t hear in Shalabi Effect. These songs are only about their utter pointlessness: they are constructed randomly, meta-randomly, selfreflexively-randomly—and there is no emotion here and no concept I can tell and no pretty sounds for me to care much about.
I also have a hard time getting behind the 17-minute closer “A Glow in the Dark”, which fails to show any signs of life AT ALL—just industrial noises, a minor pulse, and some creepy (and massively condescending) human and pig noises—I couldn’t make this stuff up, people. I had a couple of flashes of hope here, especially around the 13-minute mark when the guitar riff seemed to want to come in and we hear a repeat of those tables . . . but ‘twas all in vain, as that section is done three minutes later. It’s arch, it’s “clever”, it’s boring as all hell, and I’m not listening to it again.
Worst moment: “Sister Sleep”. The lead instrument on this track is—okay, I don’t know what it is, but it sounds like a manatee dying slowly. No: it sounds like a circular saw. No, I’ve figured it out: it’s the noise you make in a fast-food restaurant by moving your straw up and down to rub it against the plastic lid. You know that noise, I know that noise, we all do—and it’s unpleasant at any speed. My dad did that noise to embarrass us in Burgerville USA when I was a kid, and now I have to listen to this shit? Forget about it.
I really am a nice and even-handed critic, but there are some things that just don’t wash with me. One of those things, apparently, is when obviously talented musicians have this much contempt for their listeners. Yeah, I’m probably uncool for expecting my experimental music to have a thesis to prove or disprove. I’ll have to live with that. But there’s no reason you have to live with this record.