Thee Silver Mt. Zion – Horses in the sky

August '10

Whether or not a side project ever really leaves the shadow of its progenitor is something that has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, but at this point it’s pretty safe to say the occasionally amorphous group formerly known as A Silver Mount Zion has accomplished it. Part of this is mere chronology; Thee Silver Mount Zion etc etc produced two albums since Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s last, the vaguely disappointing Yanqui U.X.O.. And although this later work is closer to Godspeed’s sound than their pristine first few albums, it’s still got a distinct quality and feel that sets it apart as more than just a separate name.

Efrim and much of the rest of the Silver Mount Zion corps may originally spring from GY!BE, but from the very beginning they’ve been oriented in a more traditional direction than Godspeed. While the latter’s long, swelling movements demand either a certain conciseness or utter indulgence for maximum effect (it’s no surprise that the band’s two best releases are an EP and a double album), the former tried out sung vocals and semi-conventional song structures from the very beginning. 2001’s Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upwards is arguably the most effective marriage of the two approaches, welding the chaotic almost-rock charge of “Take These Hands And Throw Them In The River” with the almost unbearably pretty string lament of “Could’ve Moved Mountains.” Even there, though, you could feel Efrim’s vocals veering closer to complete didacticism.

Here, unfortunately, it feels like they’ve arrived. If this is your first experience of the band, you might still find it fresh, but personally I’m beginning to feel radicalism fatigue. Maybe someday the left will be able to express anger effectively, use it to accomplish and convince rather than falling into the twin traps of rancid bitterness and (seemingly) baseless rage. Or maybe not; maybe the philosophers were right when they told us that anger harnessed, understood and justified and used productively, is no longer anger. This certainly hasn’t managed any such trick; it instead occasionally carries a whiff of siege songs for fanatics, bunker music for when the authorities are closing in and the kool-aid is being passed around.

Of course, taking issues with a band’s politics or lack thereof is both even more highly subjective than most criteria and also not terribly relevant in most cases; but Thee Silver Mount Zion force the issue by constantly emitting waves of dread and hate towards those on the other side. I imagine they’d throw in the old “the personal is political” chestnut in here, but even if I didn’t think that was bunk, plenty of us have our own examples of bands that can do it better. Paranoia and a sickened guilt hang heavy over Horses In The Sky even as the lyrics range from the vaguely puzzling (“Who among us will avenge Ms. Nina Simone?”) to the “controversial” (“Canada, O Canada, I have never been your son”). Every climax seems undercut by what comes next, by the dull awareness of, to quote Efrim from Godspeed’s first record, the world as a “horrible machine / And the machine is bleeding to death.”

If it seems like I’m avoiding talking about the music, I’m not trying to; it’s just that if you’re familiar with Thee Silver Mount Zion’s last two albums, there’s not much to discuss. The most interesting development is the move towards even more use of the massed human voice (as on the nearly a cappella “Hang On To Each Other” and sections of “Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns”), which renders even the simplest slogans stirring and forceful. It’s a good sound for the band, especially when marred to their stormy music, which seems to add more guitars and subtract more strings with every record. It’d be easy to regret the loss of the lovely subdued beauty of older songs like “Could’ve Moved Mountains” and the debut’s “13 Angels Standing Guard ‘Round The Side Of Your Bed,” but there are a few moments (the quiet refrain of “please be well” at the end of the title track especially) that show it’s not all sturm und drang around the mighty Hotel2Tango these days.

Although most of these tracks are solid but not exceptional refinements of the drift in Thee Silver Mount Zion’s sound, opener “God Bless Our Dead Marines” is a serious misstep; the ending is rousing (again, massed almost unaccompanied voices) but it’s attached to the other two parts of the song too disjointedly. The closing two-part “Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come And Gone)” would succumb to a similar sense of arbitrary non-division if both parts weren’t strong enough to stand on their own (the track even helpfully gives you a few second of silence in between them). The more focused material in the middle of the album shows that Thee Silver Mount Zion don’t need to mess around with multi-part suites if they can’t get the parts to fit; one “Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns” is worth a dozen confusing messes.

It may just be that as Thee Silver Mount Zion’s music moves closer in some ways to Godspeed’s there are inevitable diminishing returns as one crashing crescendo begins to feel very much like another, but if Horses In The Sky shows the problem worsening, it also points the way forward. The “Memorial Orchestra” part of their name recedes further into irrelevance as they seemingly try harder and harder to make politically charged art-rock, but if they can keep pushing the boundaries of “Tra-La-La Band” there may be life in the old mountain yet. ✪