Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra

Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything

(Constellation; 2014)

By Robin Smith | 15 January 2014

This is my post-rock forgiveness story. It was 2012, and there were two drones, one sample, and a moment I told myself I had to set aside. My room was more dust than air and my window was too small and grimy to let in the afternoon light. No one I lived with cared about anything beyond pop music—I put off buying the new Amon Tobin LP for six months because I was scared of what they would say. I would later say fuck it, and fuck them, and blast that twenty minute drone by the Knife, even though I didn’t like it that much. But for that moment, the Godspeed moment no one knew was coming unless they’d been at a show and followed them through their undead touring cycle, I waited until I had the house to myself. I sat in the dark with my best music-listening company—the dust and all the other shit I probably should have hoovered out of my life—and pressed click on the first new Godspeed music in ten years. I was living out the ultimate internet music fantasy: imagine if you had the chance to listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as a working band, for the first time.

It was kind of a letdown. Or maybe it was epic, but the situation really wasn’t. In the two or so hours that passed between knowing there was this thing out there called Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! and me actually listening to it, I had given my experience of it structure. The sort-of-maybe-political sample rolled in like I knew it would; the drones interpolated the holy-shit songs I was expecting and neither felt right. It was the record I wanted—the one I couldn’t believe I was hearing—but I shelved it like it actually had misgivings. I let myself imagine 2012’s biggest story before it got to move me.

Godspeed are alive and well now, playing shows with the best avant-garde music that’s existed since them—I applaud Pharmakon for most likely scaring the living daylights out of London’s eager post-rock crowds—but Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra might actually be better. Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything, as obnoxiously and giddily titled as my opinions on it, doesn’t give you the breathing space you need to structure it, or build it up, or imagine things for it. It comes into the world jubilantly, then spends the next forty minutes kicking and screaming against your ideas of what you can landscape it against. It dies with a characteristically quick whimper. No cheap shots against Explosions in the Sky, I promise, but that’s not pretty. It is beautiful.

The tricks are there, but they’re surprising. The violin is good for your spine; the rhythm section hits just when it should, at moments that could be considered sweet spots if half the record wasn’t about theoretical apocalypses and collapsing infrastructures. And of course, ye shall know it is a gut-wrenching record featuring Efrim Menuck by the bagpipes waiting for you at the climax. But Fuck Off gets its staying power from a handful of masterful aphorisms, scattered across the record to break silence on variable forms of blight, religious or anti-religious: prayers weave in and out, as do rallying calls for deaf ears. They’re just words; nothing really happens. Menuck calls up the lord to see shit fall to the ground, and it doesn’t. Beyond that first “fuck off”—the record’s warmest, most inviting gesture, the kind of fuck off that’s thrown at you when you say something needlessly bleak—his aphorisms are predictions and inevitabilities: mountains falling down, children dying, “the days when we no longer feel,” and, most messed up, the fact we’re all just going to hold on. It sounds like an all or nothing record, a post-rock battle for the world’s soul, but it soundtracks the dormant seconds before the uncertain future. Do you really want to know why there’s a lullaby halfway through it? Just because sleep is the answer when you don’t have an answer.

Or maybe it’s because this is all nonsense. Fuck Off is wonderfully confused and indicates it gorgeously. Three of its songs chew on the band’s lyrical post-rock standard, one of them attempts to see that same band do hardcore, and another is a ballad and ode to late rapper Capital Steez. It feels directionless and fun and—can you say this anymore—emotive, swept away in a moment that no Silver Mt. Zion record has ever come close to living in. Hence these samples, as irrelevant as Montreal makes them, so sloppily attached to their songs they might as well belong to a day-drunk powerviolence act. “We live on the island called Montreal… and we make a lot of noise… because we love each other,” chirps a young, optimistic voice, segueing into a wailing, distorted guitar jam and a swampy chorus of vocals led by the vowel-snarling Menuck. Then there’s the righteous rock ‘n’ roll girl refuting sexism at the start of “Take Away These Early Grave Blues”: the band try to replicate her stubborn Dickensian accent as a joke (as close as they can get to it) on their ascent to punk rock. It sounds ridiculous. Best, though, is the tender interview that introduces the swan song Capital Steez and the band share: it flits between English and an overdubbed French translation, suddenly dropping out as the song launches into an interchange of ghostly ambience, out-of-tune piano chords and acoustic percussion.

It makes sense, all this messy scene-change, because Fuck Off has spent the last forty minutes dancing from one emotion to another in a split second. That’s something I’m surprised to be saying about this band—they’re being impulsive, would you believe—but they thrive on handovers. Godspeed have their own special presence, but Silver Mt. Zion have that thing called rock action, the opportunity to make snap decisions where something thrilling and coincidental happens. The tone burst “Fuck Off Get Free” makes to mark its transition is its best moment, ditto the sudden crash of guitars on “Early Grave Blues” and that gang vocal that springs up with the only lyric that’ll fit: “Love! Each other!” The endless remorseful chant of “the days come when we no longer feel” drags me into “What We Loved Was Not Enough,” but it’s the erratically placed violin swells and the crackle in Menuck’s voice that drives the aphorism home. Praise the conviction, not the content. Have fun with it; arrange the lyrics “lord let my son live long enough to see that mountain torn down” so that they look like a mountain.

The politics and the strife are there, of course, and like every release split between Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion, they’re admirably sincere. This isn’t Reflektor, a record that sees its vague ideological stance on paper and decides it’s better to go out and dance; it’s bizarre and scattershot, but it bridges the gaps and lets its word spill over. Still, it’s the impulses I find myself drawn to, the “fuck off” rather than the ambiguous “what we’re owed!” protest. Menuck is less interested in talking ideology than he is in compositional hypnosis, drilling his aphorisms into our brain until we zone out everything else. “Austerity Blues” ends with the collective Silver Mt. Zion players droning his words behind him until they obtain the configured beauty once shot for with instrumentals like “13 Angels Standing Guard Round Your Door.” Guitar abstractions swerve around them like they can just dust that particular violence off their shoulders—Fuck Off lives in the moment or gets consumed by it.

I didn’t know Fuck Off was coming, but just as it was when Godspeed called me after ten years, I was on standby to predict what Silver Mt. Zion would do. This is a project Menuck started as an opportunity to break free of the conventions Godspeed had taken on, and while he never made true on his intentions—he started hoping he’d learn to read music, but fell in love with punk rock instead—his band took the chance to free-roam in a genre that rarely gets free-roamers. With nothing else to prove, Fuck Off is actually cussing in the face of inhibition, removing the stoical from the equation and conjuring up its own imaginative spirit. I struggled to project on it. I couldn’t give it a theme beyond all-or-nothing tomfoolery. But maybe it’s better that way. Like that time Robert Christgau called Kid A (2000) “dinner music,” Fuck Off is the avant-garde album I want for everyone. I want to play it next on the EDM playlist blaring from my living room. Because fuck you, let’s do this.