Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band -- which you may or may not know by now as the thing that some Godspeed You! Black Emperor key players do when they aren't trying desperately to wring a little more life out of the "here is my crescendo, motherfucker" compositional model -- play protest music. So let's talk about that.
The most effective protest music of the past isn't going to rally any of today's kids. I can't tell you why that is, because I wasn't around for the seventies, and I don't know why the music worked in the first place. The most important difference seems to be the shift in musical language for catharsis from then to now. It used to be that if you wanted to comfort somebody -- which you should always do, when you're dealing with protesters and their frazzled nerves -- there was a clear and direct route: play music with a pleasing, comforting sound. That doesn't work anymore. We Gen-Y kids and millennials and what-have-you have been engaged so viscerally by our sexdrugsviolence culture that we expect nothing less than the full-on confrontation of our vices and demons, our anxieties and secret lusts. The popular success of emo -- a genre that is, in theory, about letting it all hang out -- changes everything. Or rather, it can be seen as a symptom for the underlying cultural shift. Ever since Mr. Rogers went on the air and started talking about feelings, we have increasingly demanded constant validation. In other words, it simply doesn't work any more to calmly chant about how we don't want to go to war, because we don't feel calm about it.
Thus, in their shift toward vocally driven music, Thee Silver Mt. Zion (etc.) have become at once more effective protesters and less digestible musicians. Anything this bunch puts out requires a certain amount of patience, but Efrim Menuck's increasingly prominent vocal contributions call on an entirely different connotation of the word. Some people, a lot of people, simply won't be able to stand his voice. It's... well, impossible to describe, but suffice it to say that it's almost as aesthetically unpleasant as its style is eccentric. This frantic, unsteady falsetto curls in an odd way at the end of long notes. It is, from a technical perspective, ghastly. And this is important, because if you take the plunge and grab a copy of Horses in the Sky, you will be hearing a lot of it. Menuck refuses to shut up.
But for some of us, probably not the majority, this is a good thing. If you want emotion, Efrim Menuck has it. Though he sometimes seems slightly inauthentic, the bombast for which his group is known requires a little theatricality. The point is that whether you particularly love his method or not, the singer relentlessly engages you. For my generation, and maybe for yours, that makes it ideal protest music. If you can't get enough Xiu Xiu, this album is definitely for you.
If nothing else, the shift has been an energizing element for Silver Mt. Zion's music. The intriguing mix of neo-classical and rock elements that characterized Silver vs. GY!BE has been further transformed by a folkish factor. Vocals like Menuck's require negative space. Opener "God Bless Our Dead Marines" begins with playful low-end strings, smatterings of fiddle (not violin, definitely fiddle) and Menuck's ragged croon. A little guitar sneaks in. The fiddles grow a little more rambunctious. Bouncing drums jump into the fray, bridging the gap between the group's neoclassical and punk rock leanings, and then there's another drum focusing on the punk rock side. And then, what's that? It's... tap dancing? You'd have to laugh if it didn't sound so fucking cool, so energetic, so alive. The guitar gets louder and, well, frankly, this is just another crescendo, but the elements are at least interesting and fresh. It breaks down quickly into more theatrical, negative space-riddled strings. Then we're back where we started. This time it remains quiet for a while. Menuck can be a little difficult to decipher, but a few lyrical gems stand out. "The hungry and the hanged / The damaged and the done / Struggling on this spinning rock / Tumbling past the sun / Get through this life without killing anyone / And consider yourself golden." His voice drips with bitterness as he sings this. Soon the percussion picks back up; now we're hearing violin. It isn't building -- just twisting, letting him get on with his business. Rather than building to a true crescendo, the group goes silent.
Menuck comes back in with only spare piano accompaniment and surprises us all with just how stark he's willing to go these days: "When the world is sick / Can't no one be well / But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong." The Chorus (who found their way into the band name a couple of records ago, then snuck back out) joins him. They repeat the same words as a round, dividing and re-dividing the chorus into increasingly smaller groups with each new iteration. The sound expands and lets a little more silence in each time. Drums that recall The Microphones circa The Glow, Pt. 2 are here, and this is where the transformation becomes clear. The intense spirituality that was always implicit in the group has become directly explicit. At some point -- it's hard to tell where -- the song became a hymn, a song of praise for human decency. After all, the most effective protest would be to simply model good behavior ourselves.
Horses in the Sky never quite recaptures the success of this brilliant song. "Mountains Made of Steam" has a choral crescendo that leads directly to a roaring, majestic guitar solo, backed by orchestral drones of the sort we expect from these folks. However, like the previous song, it gracefully works its way back down to quiet before cutting out. Two almost entirely choral songs -- the titular "Horses in the Sky" and "Hang On to Each Other" -- drag a bit. While there's certainly an understated majesty in the singing itself, and an electric tension in the sparse instrumentation, it's extremely difficult to place these in contrast to the overblown fare we're used to from these musicians. They're almost like campfire songs.
"Teddy Roosevelt's Guns" is a fairly standard GY!BE-style composition with a bit more of a tendency toward drone than we're used to from them, and of course the vocals. Menuck is at his most obnoxiously screechy here. Even those who appreciate his manic style will probably find him a bit much.
"Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come)" is similar to the opening track in terms of structure -- which is to say that it has very little, with multiple mini-crescendos and breakdowns that never really seem to alter the general thrust of the piece. That's how it goes until the end, when a single piano key is struck, again and again and again, as ambient noise fills out the background and Menuck sings very sadly about something you'll be hard pressed to decipher. This is more of that messy catharsis.
The traditional final paragraph for any review of a Godspeed-related work is to express concern over the creative path they've charted for themselves. The reviewer always says something about how they might have finally exhausted the possibilities of their idiom of choice. Well, if it hasn't happened by now, maybe it just isn't going to. Godspeed You! Black Emperor opted for an extended hiatus rather than become a caricature of their established form. In the guise of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, these fearless musicians continue to push themselves. They are making powerful, beautiful, cathartic protest music. Horses in the Sky is not for everyone by any means, but the cult following it is bound to attract will be understandably rabid in its defense of this record.