Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band

13 Blues for 13 Moons

(Constellation; 2008)

By Christopher Alexander | 24 July 2008

Efrim Menuck’s spiritual adviser has always been the street crazy. Their sandwich boards have appeared on his bands’ albums covers, their 3 a.m. sermons have wound their way through his music, their cat scratch vocal timbre is his own. Both Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion thrived on millennial angst, and every headline, empty train, and parking ticket was proof of the machine’s insatiable maw, and harbingers of greater ill to come. This isn’t to belittle his politics; the bands he formed turned that non-linear paranoia into a starling cultural barometer. It was folk music as Blade Runner. There weren’t any angels in the electric chair, and no amount of money from that Led Zeppelin boxset was going to build Raytheon cluster bombs. As lyrics and agitprop, though, they formed images of a world so violent and corporatist that they were undeniable. And it must be said that the notes they sustained carry much more verisimilitude now, in an age where one out of every 100 US residents is in prison, and billions of dollars have literally gone missing to Iraq reconstruction.

Still, the poster that appears in Godspeed’s Yanqui U.X.O. (2003) is a jolt because it plays against their strengths: it names names (the album would go further, turning an elegy for the guitarist’s dog into the date where “Ariel Sharon visited temple mount and provoked intifada”). Names appear on the first proper song of 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, too, and Manuck shrieks them. But in doing so, he’s back to what he does best. With a retinue of acronyms and abbreviations that would bewilder the best of us, Manuck as street corner prophet makes them his sermon: “I. S. P. / N. S. A. / C. C. T. V. […] I. E. D. / S. U. V. / M. P. 3.” Now, many have made connections between the West’s wasteful consumption of oil and its effects on U.S. policy, resulting in US casualties by way of the improvised explosive device. No one, as near as I know, has yet sought to implicate the iPod, a hand-held device which allows us to consume literally incomprehensible volumes of music. It’s nonsense to suggest that the two are equally decadent, either symbolically or literally, but the juxtaposition asks a good question: forget why anyone needs a 120gig iPod or a vehicle that only achieves twelve miles per gallon; what does this insatiable consumption say about us? Where the hell is this highway going?

(If nothing else, at least this rant returns a pulse of fear to the military’s bloodless “improvised explosive devices,” which in earlier generations would be excoriated for the euphemism it is if the entire Iraq war weren’t such a high performance of double-speak and argot. One is reminded of George Carlin’s great routine about the linguistic crime that is “post-traumatic stress syndrome,” and one misses him in moments like this.)

The destination is certain in the screamer’s mind: he asks his band to draw up the new maps, and they do. On this level, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons may be the most satisfying record the Silver Mt. Zion project has yet done—and the band’s new drummer, Hanged-Up alum Eric Craven, deserves all the credit. Actually, some should go to the vastly improved recording environs of Montreal’s Hotel 2 Tango (guess those Funeral [2004] residuals finally kicked in), as the instruments sound much more expansive, and far more potent in the mix, than anything ever recorded in the studio. But it’s Craven’s show: “BlindBlindBlind” is the kind of song the band could write in their sleep, no matter how understated or pretty it may be. He makes the song a highlight, no small feat given that the good stuff—snare rolls and crash cymbals, perfectly timed—lasts barely a minute in the song’s thirteen. More than that, it gives the band the excuse to try it’s Zeppelin riffs on, an element always there in the band’s make-up, but never foregrounded like this. The song’s title track starts off with the kind of monolithic doom chords Boris used to peddle, and catchphrases that would be taken up by 7 Eleven parking lots everywhere were it not for the singer’s unfortunate range. The rest of the song is based on a 10/4 riff unnerving in its tension, the kind of thing that on previous records would give way to dissonance. Here, it only leads to violence, and once again Craven is the anchor. Likewise the aforementioned “1,000,000 Died to Make this Sound,” where in spite of the alphabet nightmare Menuck actually seems to be having something approaching fun: “Your band / you’re bland / your band is bland / your band is bland ambition…silkscreen that, ye twits, across thy internet.”

Efrim Menuck’s voice is the deal breaker for many, and it remains so here. Still, that voice is what animates A Silver Mt. Zion—a voice unwilling to capitulate to the inevitable, in fact using the inevitable as a shield against it. It’s as if the more notes he mangles, the louder he sings; likewise the bleaker the song, one senses strong elements of hope and communion (“our home made choirs … slip the leash and the chain / because some hearts are true”). The band is ultimately more convincing for it—but in the end, even the street preacher runs away when the comets break the earth’s atmosphere.

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