Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
Horses in the Sky
I am not, as a rule, a "politics" person, not because of personal apathy toward the plights of others (my apathy is better spent elsewhere, thanks) but because I think politics is the crass cousin of philosophy, who both suffer from the same family trait - its not what you say but how you say it that gives it a film of "truth." Its unfortunate that this relatively empty natural tendency toward cliche and hyperbole has to cause real damage when it gets manifested, and applying the old War Games homily "The only way to win is not to play" to stay out of it is not going to get anyone anywhere. And I'm not going to go into my own political beliefs here, since I'm assuming you are generally as uninterested in them as I am in those of most everyone else on the planet. But, since the less sexy side of the political fence, the one with saggy old jowly hawks wanting to squash the poor at all costs its seems, is doling out the majority of the rhetoric these days, it jolts my heart awake to hear intelligent impassioned rage coming from the other side.
There exists a splinter cell in Montreal, headquartered in the mysterious Hotel2Tango operating under the innocuous banner of Constellation records and equally quizzical factional fronts named things like Do Say Make Think and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (one of my favorite bands ever, and my all-time favorite band name to make fun of) fighting the good fight for the People with some of the finest, most intircate music to emerge on the last ten years. One branch of this is the ever involving folk rebel insurgency is Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band teamed by Godspeed guitarist-turned-minstrel Efrim (real revolutionaries, they only go by single names) and a septet which has supplanted itself with a choir over the 5 years of their existence to give the Constellation (largely instrumental throughout its catalog) a voice.
In style, they are similar to recent indie-novelty faves The Polyphonic Spree, centered around a singer who seems to use the mass around him as a greater mind. Efrim's voice is even similar the Spree's Tim DeLaughter in its cracking, strained earnestness, and the building dynamic of the songs bears some resemblance, but it ends there. In the place of the Sprees infectious Pollyanna-isms, the Zion collective focuses its eye on the smoky hills of war, and the sad old world being decimated by avarice and disdain. The first of six multi segmented tracks (a trademark of Constellation artists, it seems) "God Bless Our Dead Marines" opens with a field working chant of "They put angels in the electric chair"
and wailing violins that evolve into a Balkan folk battalion of tambourines, woodwinds, strings, piano, handclaps and guitar. This goes through a number of scene changes until it winds up as a plaintive piano lament asking "When the world is sick, can no one be well?" Breathtaking? Absolutely. Subtle? Clearly not, but it is down the road of excess where lies the Zion's ashram of Wisdom.
The despair and desperation takes hold with a tighter grip on "Mountain Made of Steam" which effectively captures the anxiety one gets when one realizes "they" (whoever your particular "they" may be) might just succeed in destroying everything you hold dear. The title track, enters as a sweet folk ballad about people leaving into a thicket of violence and lies, laying out in plainest terms in the album the reasons for their protest. The thing about the Zion projects that even when they are at their most maudlin, you can't help being sucked in with them, their sadness, their rage. Its an infectious spirit we need more of in music, something that inspires us to do more than maintain a cooler wardrobe.
"Teddy Roosevelt's Guns," listed in the elaborate packaging as a song about "Kanada," demonstrates that they are not simply anti-US in sentiment, but their disdain extends to the artificial border in which their feet trod and their ghostly wrath emerges, and indeed into the world at large. The music here, like on rest of the album rises and crashes like a series of tsunami waves each more slowly and ominously forming than the last. Efrim's voice wavers and quakes like John Lydon's in the infinite chant of the song's title at the end, which underscores what is brilliant about their arrangements: they take simple things and inject it with gravitas and passion and repeat it until it batters down your door. Its exquisite stuff, and almost singular in its level and style of impact in the realm of non-classical music.
On "Hang Onto Each Other," optimism lightens the mood of this heavy record, with the sound of the campfire around which it was recorded crackling throughout its length, and a building drone of accordion bolstering the pulsations of the choir. That temporary ray of sunshine is cut by dark clouds by the final track "Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone)" which offers a delicious slow orchestral melody for Efrim to intone the end of the world over. In the latter section, he chants these words
Imagine the view
From a helicopter gunship
When a man comes into view
When you hit that switch and you cut that man in two
Imagine the view
When they bounce that shit off satelittes
When they hit switch
All the heavens shit on you.
Which I think serves up the underlying theme of the Zion group the best: a single act is just as big and widespread in its impact as a national act, or a cosmic act. The butterfly effect is clearly in effect here, and that if we don't clean up our act, we know what's coming. Unabashedly preachy and resolute in its stance, this orchestra is unlikely to change your mind if you have a strong feeling on either side fence, but I think it would be impossible to not be motivated by this music, and that motivation is the keystone to the avalanche of progress, wherever your rock slide should hit.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com