REVIEW: Silver Mt. Zion: ''This Is Our Punk-Rock,'' Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing
The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir: "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing [Constellation, 2003]
Three words? a high horse
I like that A Silver Mt. Zion is now known as The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir. The extension of the band-name gives it added dignity, an epic consistency, and indeed even a dash of whimsy. As a band that orbits Godspeed You! Black Emperor (both in terms of its musical aesthetic and the players that make it up), the playfulness of the group's monniker is a welcome change from GY!BE's constant high-falutin' pretention. I wish I could say the same for the title of this, ASMZ's third full-length. I'd be inclined to enjoy the name of "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, if only it made a little more syntactical sense. Is it a request that the rusted satellites sing the aforementioned phrase? Is the second clause a non sequitur? Should the comma be a colon? Sadly, we seem to be back inside the realm of intentionally-opaque artfulness. The tragedy of A Silver Mt. Zion is the way a band so vocally advocating social justice, citizens' rights, and basic humanity, can so willfully distance its music from the public it addresses. Not only do I feel I need a university education to fully appreciate the music, text and liner-notes of "This Is Our Punk-Rock," I feel like I need to be a beret-wearing, absinthe-sipping, Go-playing smart-ass. What most differentiates "This Is Our Punk Rock," from 2002's excellent Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward is the increased prominence of vocals into these atmospheric, string-laden compositions. With these vocals comes a distancing; I can no longer bask in the melodic ebb-and-flow, I must also negotiate the grating, melodramatic and whined poetry of "Babylon Was Built On Fire."
Vocals need not sink post-rock. Witness Mogwai, witness The Books, witness a multitude of acts that blend epic, classically-derived form with vocally-inked images, cries, allusions. Where "This Is Our Punk-Rock" fails is again the willful artfulness of the delivery. Efrim does not simply sing, he wails like chained Prometheus, like the words are wrenched from his liver. No trace of irony, no trace of musicality - simply agony. This isn't the voice of Tom Waits, it's the voice of Conor Oberst, and no poetry floats from his lips, just the repetition of vapid, over-earnest tag-lines: "The brightest night I ever saw / the crass and empty parking-lot / no stars." Amid the lush pluck and stroke of strings, there is no sonic desolation to match the whingeing of the vox.
The band has only four tracks with which to get it right, and they fail on all but one. The album's opening cut, "Sow Some Lonesome Corner So Many Flowers Bloom," is a masterpiece of composition, music and movement. Here, at last, the band's new name is fully earned. The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir slowly ekes out a cathedral of sound: staccato violins merge with electric guitar and form an undergrowth for the choir's long vocal lines and sad-joyous "sofalalaso" medley, later swept away by a rising-and-swooping string section and the emergence of crushing percussion, tsunami-tall barriers of noise. Here, the album's themes of popular uprising are writ large in majestic sound, not traced out in sickly and explicit lyrics.
When called to define punk-rock, it's easy to fall back on formal identifiers like chugging guitar-chords and sloppy performance. What "This Is Our Punk-Rock" demonstrates is that "punk" music relies not on yelling and kicking, but on the physical impact of the music: what's punk is a wrecking-ball to the chest, thrown by a roaring, angry crowd. In places, this record accomplished that, albeit with strings, piano and sweeping crescendos; what The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir sometimes forgets is that lecturing those roaring crowds is a weak way to rally them, particularly when you're trying hard to make sure they do not understand. Better to sing the power of one's vision in a plain-and-universal language, to let the people feel it themselves and understand it with their own words.