Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
By Christopher Alexander | 27 January 2010
Efrim Manuck, the mercurial lead member of A Silver Mt. Zion, took pains to clarify to Express Night Out that no one in the band was an anarchist. “That’s just lazy journalism,” he said: “We’re like most other people in this world: There is no ideology that seems to make any true and clear sense, so we’re just trying to hack our own way through this jungle of collapsing geopolitics and find our own way.” (Really, the article’s worthwhile. They pose for pictures! They smile! They look normal! Relatively!) I first read this statement and thought it self-serving. All their black-bloc imagery, paeans to open spaces, and allusions to squatting communes leads one to what, I think, would be a rational conclusion. Then again, I’m reminded of a maxim I read in my own radical days: “the only -ist I am is a cellist.” So, fair enough: ASMZ are explicitly critical of hyper-capitalism, the encroachment on our public spaces, declining cities, and war. That puts them in line with 90% of the suburban people I know across the political spectrum. They do, however, have a cellist.
I mention this because that seems to be the second thing most people know about them—and it’s wrong. The first is that the band is an offshoot, if not continuation, of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Over seven years after Yanqui UXO (2002), ASMZ are now the longer-running concern. They’ve made more albums, toured more, established more presence. But the perception remains that they’ve yet to come into their own, for no other reason than they’ve yet to match any of Godspeed’s LPs. They came close on their last shot, 2008’s galvanic, thunderous 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons (doubtlessly due to the set’s being recorded after a year’s worth of touring), But, though Manuck’s words are often stirring, haunting, and beautiful, his voice remains deeply unpleasant. Straining for notes far out of his range, it’s as nasal and reedy as the recent batch of Jay Leno impersonations. It’s an acquired taste, and many balk at it.
This is the stated modus operandi of A Silver Mt. Zion, both a focus on lyrical content and “a group of musicians always trying to play things that are just a bit too hard for us to play.” Odd, then, that his voice seems more backgrounded on Kollaps Tradixionales than on prior efforts. The essay on the band’s website is merely a retelling of an odd dream involving Motley Crue’s Mick Mars. Manuck’s voice floats just out of perception, itself dream-like and intangible. The entire album is more subdued than 13 Blues, no doubt suffering from drummer Eric Craven’s departure from the band. Gone, too, are the precise arrangements: stretches of “I Fed my Metal Bird the Wings of Other Metal Birds” and “‘Piphany Rambler” are given to long, meandering, tense ambient passages. Opener “There is a Light” is the kind of hymnal, spacious song that the band kills, expanding and their pallet here to include horns. It’s one of their prettiest melodies, but the song comes off five minutes too long. Evolving into a stunning, beautiful crescendo at the 9:35 mark, the band then pads the track with an extended reprise of the opening theme. It doesn’t derail the piece, but it still feels tacked on.
The album does get loud, though. The “Metal Bird” dyad is the band’s most blatant stab at punk rock, with echoes of the unreleased Godspeed track “Albanian” in the violins’ slashing eighth-notes. Craven’s presence is missed (surely it was developed with him in mind, if not with his contribution—it was played on the band’s tour in support of 13 Blues, but new hire David Payant acquits himself well. The song’s throb is certainly a highlight of the album: the band shouting against the odd metric beat as Manuck instructs the bird to “Dance, motherfucker” evokes a sense of mania absent on thier other releases. (At least, I think that’s what he’s saying; much of this album’s frustration stems from an inability to easily discern the lyrics.) “Kollaps Tradicional (Bury 3 Dynamos),” the third installment in a somewhat titular arc, would make any stoner proud. Scuzz guitars circumnavigate their way around the song’s vertiginous 9/4 beat, lending it a free feeling, especially when Manuck and company play loose with the meter. It doesn’t recall a demented sea shanty round chorale as much as a school nursery riffing on latter day Tom Waits, though it does capture a form in disintegration, as its title suggests.
Overall Kollaps Tradixionales is a retreat from the blustery dynamism of the last album. It functions as a catch-all in ASMZ’s arc to this point, touching on their major thematic gestures of elegy (“There is a Light”), tension (“Metal Bird”), social entropy (the title tracks) and more elegy (”‘Piphany Rambler”) without truly developing them. The band knows its strengths, hews close to them, and at their best (the first 2/3s of “There is a Light,” “Bury 3 Dynamos,” “I Built Myself a Metal Bird”) deliver the sort of music that only they can. Though the album is an hour long, there are at least thirty minutes of excellent music here. Those who were excited by the direction implied by 13 Moons, however, can’t help but feel disappointed.