Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band: 13 Blues for 13 moons (Album Review)
13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, the fifth full length release from Canada’s favorite post rockers, has “pretentious” written all over it. First of all, the post-Godspeed You! Black Emperor collective have elected to call themselves “Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band” this time round, instead of just sticking to “A Silver Mount Zion”, for the sole purpose of pissing the media off. Secondly, the band clutters the start of their album with twelve 5-second tracks of stray noise and sounds that grate the ear rather than welcome. In addition to that, lead singer Efrim Menuck’s increasingly bombastic lyrics lead him into arrogant one-liners such as “YOUR BAND IS BLAND!” and “THE HANGMAN’S GOT A HARD ON!” Every real song stretches to around fifteen minutes, with in your face vocals, repetitive arrangements, and strings that at times sound like they’re included just to boast how “deep” A Silver Mount Zion is.
But 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons makes one thing certain: A Silver Mount Zion can make some pretty kickin’ tunes.
The beginning of 13 Blues suggests a brand new sound for A Silver Mount Zion, one that eschews the vast soundscapes created on their previous records in favor of structure and grit, thus forming a sound light on effect-heavy wanking and strong on actual rock. At the starting gun, A Silver Mount Zion attack with explosive riffs and intricate vocal arrangements. “1,000,000 Died To Make This Sound” kicks off the album with tension filled string plucking and the eerily robotic chanting of the song’s title by the group’s choir before letting all hell break loose with a dynamic cello phrase that, when accompanied with sneering guitar and crash-heavy beats courtesy of new drummer Eric Craven, gives the band some legitimate swagger. The track rages on without stopping, providing fifteen minutes of an unabashed strut. “1,000,000 Died To Make This Sound” hints that 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons won’t be a typical post rock record- that finally, a band with that unfortunate label will make an album with some ***ing attitude. And A Silver Mount Zion delivers. Kinda.
After the consistently climactic- yet never boring- “1,000,000 Died To Make This Sound”, the group, like a man and his comfort lover, starts flirting with their standard noodly, “arty” music. And like that ill-fated relationship, the results are clumsy and awkward at best. This falls largely on the shoulders of leader Efrim Menuck’s increasing confidence (cockiness?) in his vocal talents, which have begun to fall on the irritating side of the unprofessional fence. Both “13 Blues for Thirteen Moons” and “Black Waters Blown/Engine Broke Blues” have Menuck shouting almost tunelessly, the first half of the former containing repeated chants of senseless lyrics like “There’s ravens in the gun trees!” and “I just want some action!” Menuck’s never been shy about his anarchistic political beliefs, weaving his ideals into Silver Mount Zion lyrics since he began writing them, but on “13 Blues For Thirteen Moons”, his attempts at emotion come off sounding contrived and predictable. It’s the right attitude- just the incorrect execution. Menuck rants are impassioned enough, but the bare bones instrumentation leaves him sounding completely alone, leaving one of the few weaknesses of A Silver Mount Zion completely naked, and it’s an ugly sight.
Menuck’s voice, for whatever reason inheriting a more and more Scottish inflection with time, isn’t nearly strong enough to carry a track by itself, a fact made clear when Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band utilize the reasons for the ridiculous addendums to their name. The group oozes talent, and tracks that take advantage of each of the member’s assets rather than let Menuck bark away prove the best tracks on the album. Moments such as the chaotic, avant garde opening to “Black Waters Blown” or the gorgeous strings/choral apex of “Blindblindblind” highlight the group’s choral and orchestral talents, so obvious on previous albums like This Is Our Punk Rock and He Has Left Us Alone (respectively). When “Black Water Blown” picks up after its flailing introduction minus a Jonny Rotten-esque Menuck, the band lets loose with an anguished, almost bluesy kind of feel before transitioning into the refreshingly pretty “Engine Broke Blues”. Menuck misses the mark again lyrically (”Feathers In your spokes/ Mother*** these weathered yokes”), but the unreserved, genuine passion of his tone makes his stream-of-consciousness writings immaterial. Menuck’s voice is uncomfortably hit or miss on 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, but when he hits, he can directly cause the most powerful moments on the album.
Before the album’s final piece, 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons comes off angry, bleak, and tense. “Blindblindblind” closes the record with completely different adjectives, however, starting with a sweet delayed guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Gregor Samsa record and Menuck coming as close to a croon as he can, saving his voice for the lung stretching climax to come later. The phrase repeats steadily as the orchestration slowly swells, the violins swooning and sighing to match the dejectedness of the lyrics (”Entire fleets of staggering ships/ Now our ships lie in the floors of the ocean And the oceans bleach on the rich”). The song’s key vocal theme begins to enter, the chorus singing “Some hearts are true…” before dropping out completely for a strictly plucked reprise of the chords. Menuck is left alone and delivers this time round, singing, “Sometimes there’s an abandoned baby who claims to help. Powers the province of impotent pricks. There ain’t no arguing. But sometimes there are policemen in parallel lines.” Slowly, the track begins to grow, the crash cymbals coming, the strings hitting their loudest, and the chorus repeating “Some Hearts Are True!” so beautifully, it’s heart-wrenching. It leaves 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons on an optimistic, powerful note, completely contrasting the tension of the album’s prior material. Overall, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons shows A Silver Mount Zion at their hardest rocking, their most powerful, and their most irritating. Inconsistent? Yeah, a little bit. Yet as the instruments die out, leaving Menuck and the Silver Mount Zion chorus alone to sing the refrain with an ethereal reverence, it’s not implausible to look back on 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons and see it as Silver Mount Zion at their most enjoyable.