Remember when this Godspeed You Black Emperor offshoot was content to call itself A Silver Mt. Zion? Since their first album, they've demonstrated a manic fondness for excess -- longer songs, longer song titles, longer album titles and a series of increasingly complex band-name permutations that border on self-parody. Perhaps they truly believe that their musical ideas are too expansive to be explained by anything less than a disjointed sentence...or maybe they're just a bunch of contrarian bastards. The latter option is certainly the more "punk rock" of the two, which makes sense, as "This is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing,
(I'm only going to type the whole thing once, so enjoy it) is riddled with unconventional rebellion. That dangling comma at the end of the album title is an emphatic middle finger to the forces of order and predictability, and the group's increasing reliance upon strings, piano and "classsical" sounds turns '77 punk's aging paradigm upside-down.
That said, if you've read about Mt. Zion but never actually heard them before, This is Our Punk-Rock... won't confound your expectations. There are four longish pieces here, all with lengthy titles, and some of them offer precisely the sort of sustained crescendos for which all things GY!BE-related are well-known. But where the "main" group remains anchored firmly in rock territory (and, in fact, has all but exhausted its ideas there), Mt. Zion continues its migration toward the (neo)classical end of the musical spectrum. This time around, only "American Motor Over Smoldered Field" offers a truly rock-centric climax -- and it's actually the string section, bowing like banshees, that unleashes the howling wind of sonic catharsis. (And don't forget, GYBE and their peers are part of the reason that this sort of violin- and cello-fueled madness became part of the modern rock idiom in the first place.) The song's last few minutes, underpinned by a heartbeat-throb of bowed bass, pack as much quiet, earnest power as any instrumental cyclone.
"Sow Some Lonesome Corner So Many Flowers Bloom" makes almost Reich-ian use of Mt. Zion's newly-acquired Chorus, segueing from their rough-yet-harmonic vocal interplay to a repeated rhythmic figure, its orchestral interplay backed by restrained rock drumming. It never quite turns into one of those big orchestral blowouts, though -- the promised peak plateaus abruptly, pinning the emotional needles just below the redline. "Babylon Was Built on Fire/Starsnostars", as its segmented title suggests, is really two songs -- one a slow, torturous vocal exercise (more on those vocals in a moment), the other a sophisticated piece of chamber-angst, all plucked strings and exquisite minor-chord interplay, that holds its emotional impact at a sort of rolling boil. It'll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up -- but in a good way, because you're hearing a band push beyond its initial limitations (in the early days, only half of the band could actually read music) to create something transcendently fascinating. Closer "Goodbye Desolate Railyard", after evolving from a jaunty spring-and-piano figure to an increasingly dissonant smear of striated strings, musters a four-minute coda, again featuring that Chorus, that's as earnest and unaffected as a church group sing-along. It may well be the album's prettiest moment.
Mt. Zion experimented with vocals on 2001's Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward. On This is Our Punk-Rock..., they sing in earnest. It's both a blessing and a curse. When the 22-member Rusted Satellite Choir is involved, as in "Sow Some Lonesome Corner"'s round-like verse and shifting tonalities, or "Goodbye Desolate Railyard"'s rough-hewn reprise, we're treated to an ear-pleasing vocal collaboration that rivals the group's instrumental arrangements for sheer interest. When Efrim Menuck, or whoever it is that functions as Mt. Zion's default vocalist, gets behind the mic, as heard on the other two tracks, the ensuing strangulated falsetto lands somewhere between bargain-basement emo and a worst-case scenario Songs: Ohia. It's a testament to the quality of the music that these harrowing performances never stop the album dead.
Ultimately, the Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band With Choir (pause for breath) succeeds where Godspeed You! Black Emperor is beginning to falter; they've charted a more open-ended direction for their sound, and there's a lot of road ahead of them. Whereas Yanqui U.X.O. seemed like a refinement of established ideas, This is Our Punk-Rock is still rife with the sparks of newness. Perhaps Mt. Zion's vast and shifting membership needs GYBE, the better to define their stylistic departures, but regardless, the roles are beginning to shift. It may well be Mt. Zion, and not GYBE, who continue to produce artistically viable fruit three years down the road -- assuming, of course, that their name hasn't grown too long to fit on a CD spine.