PopMatters offers a writer a generous amount of space in which to make a point—several actually—about a particular CD. That space would seem more than adequate for almost anything the music industry could throw our way, from multi-CD box sets to the most intricate jazz imaginable. But seeing a particular CD in my mailbox, I must admit, I panicked.
The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band with Choir‘s latest disc, “This is Our Punk Rock”: Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing. That’s a paragraph right there, let alone song titles like “Sow Some Lonesome Corner So Many Flowers Bloom” or “Babylon Was Built on Fire/Starsnostars”.
The group always has been wordy. Previous discs include He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms and Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward, while even its name has lengthened over time, adding the “Tra-la-la Band” part on Born Into and “with Choir” for the current disc.
The band is an offshoot of equally odd/wordy Canadians Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and like that band, the group has been adept at wrenching beauty from dissonance, creating multi-textured work from instrumental themes. “Hearts in need make symphonies,” it says inside this cardboard sleeve of this disc, and so it would seem the hearts of the folks in both bands (and various offspring, which number 15 at this writing) definitely are in need.
But the symphonies this time out have changed, and not for the better. The tip off is the new part of the band’s name on this outing: “with Choir”. The band’s name grows to accommodate new members. The core trio now numbers at least six, with 24 people credited as “Thee Rusted Satellite Choir”. Though vocals have popped up sparingly on past discs, the band was really an instrumental group. No more, and by adding vocals the mix here—unpleasant vocals, at that—Silver Mt. Zion offers an aural roadblock, taking the listener right out of the experience of the disc without re-engaging that listener by offering something compelling to make up for the interruption.
Now, this is all relative, of course. The songs can take a minute or two before they even register with your ears, the amount of time some bands take to play an entire song. Then again, when you’re stretching your songs out over the course of 15 minutes or more, it makes sense to take your time getting into things. And with that slow build come plenty of instrumental moments that equal if not surpass the best spots on the band’s previous releases.
But vocals are all over this. On the opener, “Sow Some Lonesome Corner”, they are used to good effect, as the choir chants “Fa So La” in a crescendo as the first half of the piece draws to a close. The song then begins again, building slowly toward an instrumental cacophony. It’s odd to stick the vocals at the front end of the piece, but few would accuse the band of predictability.
“Babylon Was Built on Fire/Starsnostars” uses vocals less successfully, the atonal yelp dropped into the song at various points. The song takes minutes to build to an audible level, but even then never really goes anywhere. The vocals reach a critical mass about 10 years in as they sing “citizens in their homes, and missiles in their homes” repeatedly. There is a point here, but I’ll be damned if I can suss out what it is.
The third track, “American Motor over Smoldered Field”, is the shortest, clocking in at just over 12 minutes. That’s a good thing, as it’s the least successful of the four. The vocals start early here before ceding the airwaves to the band’s most rock tempos on the disc. The fourth tune, “Goodbye Desolate Railyard”, suffers a similar fate, forced to accommodate singer and guitarist Efrim’s atonal (if a cracking voice can truly be considered atonal) vocals within an otherwise pretty, string-driven melody. That track has a minutes-long fade that evolves into the sound of—what else?—a railyard before the chorus breaks out again to close the disc.
The disc is variously dedicated to “All the four-legged ones and for bruised hearts worldwide and for anyone who ever had bad electricity in their head” and to “traintrack wanderers everywhere”. Yes, as with everything else, the band is even wordy when it comes to dedications.
One wishes, however, that the band would take some of the energy required by coming up with long band names, song titles and dedications, and apply it to making more compelling music. The one-sheet with the disc says this is the group’s most rehearsed and arranged disc to date. Maybe this is a case of over-preparation, or simply of musicians not recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses. Music this pastoral, this slowly evolving, should be soothing, and thought provoking. But with some odd choices and questionable changes of direction on “This is Our Punk Rock”, the band seems to strive for something more without ever getting there.