Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra plays Cat’s Cradle Thursday, May 20, at 9 p.m. Free Electric State opens. Tickets are $13-$15.
“Musicians are cowards.” That harsh sentiment comes from Efrim Menuck, frontman of Montreal’s Thee Silver Mt. Zion, stringently singing on the group’s second album, 2001’s Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward.
Menuck and the band intone the sentence over and over again in unison on the album’s final track, “The Triumph of Our Tired Eyes.” It’s as much a playground taunt as it is a defiant statement of purpose, an ideal stated in reverse that Menuck has tried to embody throughout his career: to step up to the microphone and communicate something worthwhile.
Multiple members of Mt. Zion played with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the recently reunited group that once offered a chart insinuating connections between the music industry and the paramilitary industrial complex as liner notes. Mt. Zion, too, is a longtime associate of Constellation Records, a label whose statement of purpose has long been to “enact a mode of cultural production that critiques the worst tendencies of the music industry, artistic commodification, and … the world at large.” It’s easy to assume, then, that Mt. Zion’s message is equally political.
But Mt. Zion’s purpose, at least ideally, has never been one of rote proselytizing or stump speeches. Instead, Menuck’s music is one of the personal politic, entreating listeners to engage with the world around them differently, to think about their place in a larger systemand out of it. In an interview with thefourohfive.com, Menuck recently fended off an interviewer’s repeated attempts to paint Mt. Zion as explicitly political. “I guess the difference is that I feel that if you believe in something, you should act on that belief, and I don’t necessarily expect that you’ll share my belief,” Menuck eventually offered. “So that’s where the difference lies.”
But Thee Silver Mt. Zion hasn’t always aced that aim. The ensemble started with the modest intentions of serving as an outlet for Menuck’s ideas that weren’t Godspeed-friendly and supporting his new interest in learning music theory. The group quickly expanded into something outrageously grandiose. At one point, for instance, they called themselves Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir. More often than not, Mt. Zion would simply offer a predictable take on Godspeed’s Sturm und Drang, with Menuck’s acquired-taste vocals being the only distinguishing element. Whether they did it quietly (as on the surprisingly twee Born into Trouble) or with deafening sheets of feedback (on 2008’s cacophonous 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons), those personal sentiments Mt. Zion hoped to communicate were often lost in the muddle and swirl. The point was overstated to the point of obscurity.
So while in that same interview, Menuck, said that Mt. Zion’s latest album, Kollaps Tradixionales, was inspired in part by recent global economic troubles (pardon the euphemism), it’s not about that. Rather, it’s about emotions left in the wake of such turmoil. On “I Built Myself a Metal Bird,” there’s despair as the music takes a sinister, slithering turn with shades of Fugazi and The Ex. He frolics through the wreckage, crying “Dance, you motherfuckers.” On “There is a Light,” there’s hope, an uplifting boozy rallying cry that masks desperation in swelling strings and Menuck’s cracked but steadfast voice. And On “Kollaps Tradicional (Bury 3 Dynamos),” one leads into the other, a gentle revelry giving way to cathartic feedback.
While Kollaps covers ground that Mt. Zion has visited before, there’s a clarity and conviction here that keeps well-worn poses from growing stale. It’s an exhilarating synthesis of this group’s many guises. And, above all, it shows that Menuck’s learned a courageous bit of wisdom since calling out his cowardly peers nearly 10 years ago: While it’s important to have something to say, it’s equally important to say it well.