[18 February 2010]
After 11 years of existence and six full-length studio albums, the Silver Mt. Zion collective from Montreal has now officially outlasted and outrecorded Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the group they were once presented as an “offshoot” of. With GY!BE still on indefinite hiatus while its members pursue multiple parallel projects, it would seem that Silver Mt. Zion, in its various permutations (Tra-la-la Band, Silver Mountain Reveries, and now Memorial Orchestra), is the artistic vehicle of choice for the large scale sonic imaginings of guitarist/pianist Efrim Menuck, violinists Sophie Trudeau and Jessica Moss, and bassist Thierry Amar. Drummer David Payant joins the group for these latest recordings, having already been part of the line-up that premiered some of the new music at recent concerts.
Like GY!BE, Silver Mt. Zion concerns itself with a particular mode of commitment, placing emphasis on the politics of authenticity. Theirs is a world of truth, attachment, and fidelity, where hearts are worn on sleeves, instruments are tuned to their sincerest settings, and a peculiarly intense gospel is sung. Slogans are chanted, traditions are kollapsed and skinny fists are lifted to Heaven. As the poster for the band’s 2010 tour puts it, “Fight the good fight and love something true.”
Silver Mt. Zion’s music has always been a music of place and space. It is not so much that particular places are hymned in lyrics, as they might be in country music or hip-hop. Rather, the band carry with them a sense of rootedness, both in their continued commitment to the Montreal art scene and local music making (this album, like its predecessors, hails from the “mighty” Hotel2Tango recording studio) and in their awareness of the precariousness of locality in the face of the homogenizing strategies of capitalism.
The music supports this geographical attachment through a ceaseless exploration of the spatial dynamics of blues, folk, rock, jazz, and orchestral music. The band takes its listeners on a series of journeys, the terrain and pace of travel mapped out by a shifting between generic registers and between simple and complex musical structures. While it may be a cliché to describe this kind of music using metaphors of scapes and journeys, what Silver Mt. Zion seems to insist on is a blasting-through of cliché itself. Armed with slogans, ideals, and a romantic attachment to reflection and sincerity, the group makes a wager that fidelity to a cause will trump cynicism in the final analysis. Messianic to the end, Silver Mt. Zion imagines a music that will have been true.
It is this Messianism as much as anything that gives the term “post rock” whatever aptness it still has for a group like this. Certainly, this is a music that could only have come after rock, but that is only to talk in terms of instrumentation and stylistic mannerisms. More important with a band like this (and with a label like Constellation) is the rest of the package: the commitment and consistency, the love and attention lavished on the extramusical object (record and CD liners, artwork, books, and so on), the promise of membership, and a healthy understanding of the poetics and production of space. It is post rock inasmuch as it recognizes fidelity to the event of rock ‘n’ roll, to its emancipatory promise. This is a music that not only comes after (rock, capitalism, isolation) but also, crucially, goes after. Above all, it goes after—that is, in search of—community.
Kollaps Tradixionales continues Silver Mt. Zion’s move away from mostly instrumental work to song-based pieces. These are still songs that give ample space to instrumentation, however, in the form of string-based orchestration and free-improv-styled inter-verse explorations, fumblings, and workings-out. The album is made up of four main songs, each occupying a side of the double vinyl record (the commitment to vinyl and, even on the CD liner, to labeling the tracks as if they were etched on vinyl, represents another statement of intent). Two of these songs have multiple parts, making for a total of seven tracks. They are probably best listened to as in the days of vinyl, giving each “side” the space it demands and deserves, following each with a pause, with some gesture that would equal the time-honored ritual of walking to the turntable and lining up the needle.
The first track (and side) is “There is a Light”, built around a theme that comes and goes over the course of 15 intense minutes. The opening notes—chiming guitar, soon followed by weary voice—inaugurate a yearning that never entirely fades throughout the album. Efrim Menuck’s vocals have often been declared an acquired taste and previous recordings have not always found successful ways of balancing voice and other instruments. Here, arguably, the balancing work is successful. Which is not to say that there is always a harmonious blending of voice and instruments (although sometimes there is), but rather that the agonism itself is deployed as an aesthetic strategy. It can be quite a surprise to read the printed lyrics (a welcome addition to this recording) while listening, because Menuck twists the phonemes to sometimes unrecognizable shapes. As with Bob Dylan, language gets reinvented in its articulation as sung lyric.
What is most effective, however, in the opening section of “There Is a Light” is the gorgeous interaction between electric guitar and violin. Following this the music wells up to a climax at the five-minute mark, where lyrics become slogans: “There ain’t no truth but the no truth / Ain’t no thing but the nothing.” From here, the group play with stop-start, high-low dynamics, one minute falling away to yearning, moaned vocals and drooped cadences, the next rallying for glorious upsurges borne on swooping violins and fuzzed guitar. The final third of the track also basks in the welcome warmth of four horns (tenor, baritone, and alto saxophones, trumpet). “Pride undoes what mercy repairs… toss a match to it and start again,” sings Menuck as he leads the band into one of its finest closing sections.
Side Two consists of a two-part song, “I Built Myself a Metal Bird” and “I Fed My Metal Bird the Wings of Other Metal Birds”. The first is a furious rocker which layers syllabic vocals over rock drums, driving bass, and distorted guitars; violins take command at strategic points to give a sense of uplift. “I Fed My Metal Bird…” is a mostly instrumental number, which begins with three minutes of group improvisation, presenting a murky soundworld not unlike that found on recent albums by Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista (a project which, over three albums released on Constellation, has featured the members of Silver Mt. Zion). The piece builds into a more obviously composed work before ending with a brief repeated slogan: “True! Love! Don’t! Speak! Its! Own! Name!”.
Side Three consists of three tracks, each a variant of the album’s title. “Kollapz Tradixional (Thee Olde Dirty Flag)” is another slice of yearning, the vocal and violin lines carrying echoes of the endless labyrinth of Anglo-American folk song, filtered through a narrative that mixes contemporary desperation with a timeless longing. “Collapse Traditional (For Darling)”, the shortest piece on the album, consists of just a handful of lyrics which aim, haiku-like for some distilled essence, a briefly moaned poetic fragment that would bind longing to nature, an ecology of aching perhaps. “Kollaps Tradicional (Bury 3 Dynamos)” builds gracefully on the dual violins, matched by the high register of Menuck’s guitar, before morphing into a skewed and scorched riff on “Scarborough Fair”. Whether deliberate or not, this musical mapping suggests a bringing into focus of something that all three “collapses” hint at, the outline of tradition lurking, ghostlike, just beyond clear vision. The glimpse disappears as quickly as it came, the song moving into a folk-free wasteland of distorted guitar riffs over which Menuck sing-screams “Gonna bury three dymanos where the trees don’t grow”.
Electrical interference hovers in the background of Side Four’s single track, “‘Piphany Rambler”. Far from signaling an imminent explosion of noise, it provides a backdrop for the album’s saddest, most elegantly wasted song. “Don’t take these blues away,” pleads Menuck as the song meanders through its opening minutes, waiting for the fractured beauty of the violins to take it away from its blue moment. They come and, sure enough, the song is elevated to those higher planes we expect from post rock epics. But the sadness never disappears, just as it has never disappeared from the album as a whole.
Silver Mt. Zion provides ample proof here that it has become the unit by which the work of those musicians who pass through its ranks should be judged. Perhaps Godspeed will return, perhaps not. But this music, along with the group’s splendid participation in the work of Carla Bozulich and the late Vic Chesnutt, is where the sound of Constellation is at now. Long may it prosper.