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Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band - "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing,

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Artist: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band

Album: "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing,

Label: Constellation

Review date: Sep. 22, 2003

Post-rock is not a concise thing. In keeping with the long-form instrumental nature of the music, bands identified with the genre will freely override the stage between thought and speech, putting out albums and songs with names made up of long streams of words in no apparent order or, heaven forfend, in verse. [This review, which once gave examples of such albums, used to be several hundred words longer.]

Still, the habit can please so long as these bands understand their limits. A Silver Mt. Zion, the softer-spoken sister of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and key player in the intriguingly incestuous Montreal experimental music scene, have always been relatively conscientious about staying on the right side of the line. Despite a debut called He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms and cryptic liner notes about dogs and burning flowers and Ariel Sharon, they manage to win me over each time — in part because of the somber grace of their music, but also because they know to leave their nonsense on the page. Indeed, their beauty of their mini-symphonies is sufficient that it obscures their relatively self-indulgent ramblings.

Sadly, this obscurity is lessening. Slowly but deliberately, their verbosity is beginning to seep into their music, and the effect is predictably tiresome. Not only is "A Silver Mt. Zion" now "The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir," and not only is their new album called "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, (that comma was theirs; the following is mine), but a primary element of each song is vocals and, in most, lyrics made up of the sort of trite imagery and freeform nonsense that, time was, had the gallancy to stay off the record.

To be fair, this is not an entirely surprising development. There was a faint choral (and fainter lyrical) presence on the first two albums, although it was seamlessly integrated into their formula of hypnotically anxious instrumentals (something like Godspeed with more piano and less percussion). Then there's the tendency of GY!BE, at least until recently, to include extensive field recordings of addled dissidents bemoaning the American judicial system or the breakdown of beach attendance. But while these things may seem telling in retrospect, neither serve as adequate preparation for the disruption that is Punk-Rock's vocals, which are at once the only thing really new about the album and the only thing really wrong with it.

The album even begins vocally, with a ragtag choir intoning notes of the fa-so-la scale atop a backdrop of shimmering strings. Here there is something charming about their collective anonymity, the majestically flawed sound of voices without words. The rest of the track ("Sow Some Lonesome Corner So Many Flowers Bloom"), an ominous braid of violins and drums, returns the ensemble to an earlier sound, resembling some of the more nervous moments of He Has Left Us Alone. Somehow you can tell it's not Godspeed, despite the presence of percussion; it seems to have less of an axe to grind, a sweeter disposition, a calmer temperament.

But it doesn't last. The next piece, "Babylon Was Built On Fire," caves under Efrim's (GY!BE guitarist) singularly insufferable wail, repeating a bland verse agonizingly slowly for several minutes. Once disembodied guitar plucks and plaintive violin lines swirl into the track's second movement, "Stars No Stars," his voice splits to two intersecting vocal tracks, each moaning about bright nights and empty parking lots. Somehow, the duplication of his voice makes it slightly more palatable here; the backing instrumentation adopts a certain urgency out of its previous languor, rising in a slow crescendo before falling back into eerie quiet, all whisper and pizzicato. But even if the suite redeems itself somewhat by the end, it still suggests a foreign awkwardness, as though the voice (and Efrim's gratingly fragile one at that) is a new and unwieldy instrument whose method has yet to be learned.

"American Motor Over Smoldered Field" begins in much the same fashion, the icy sprawl of violins and guitar underlying Efrim murmuring about train tracks and trees and traintracktrees, but suddenly gives way to Punk-Rock's apex, another claustrophobic frenzy with a spot-on contribution from Godspeed/1-Speed Bike drummer Aidan. After more choral bleating and a moment of lively and sinister instrumental (which nods distinctly to the modern-classical direction taken by last year's exhaustive GY!BE album Yanqui U.X.O.), Efrim returns, insisting that "this fence around your garden / won't keep the ice from falling." The insistent march of the strings finally demands a Godspeed comparison — albeit Godspeed fronted by a very nasal singer — in turn demonstrating just how effective it all might have been.

By the last movement, "Goodbye Desolate Railyard," Efrim has either decided to embrace subtlety or better acclimated his voice to the music. Meanwhile, in characteristically unsettling fashion, a light, pastoral waltz turns, extremely gradually, into a nearly unlistenable high-toned screech. Fade out to subdued freight train sounds, and then a moment of touching sensitivity: Efrim and guitar, slowly, quietly, even pleasantly, soon joined by the choir for a heartrendingly solemn and barren chorus of "everybody gets a little lost sometimes." And somehow, the conclusion of Punk-Rock — four beautiful minutes out of fifty-eight — almost makes up the entire album's vocal transgressions.

If this is indeed the punk rock of the Canadian post-rock collective, it lives up to the ethos in a few ways: firstly, it carries on the tradition of political instigation that once gave the genre meaning; secondly, it shows no reluctance to alienate the listener every now and then; thirdly, though it's not a universal criterion, it has a singer who can't sing. Useful though its motif of/obsession with trains (and the images of waywardness they're meant to conjure) might be in an abstract way, ASMZ's Punk-Rock still pales in comparison to the other output from them and their alphabet soup brethren: it's telling that the two best moments on it, the middles of songs one and three, are the ones that sound the most like standard Godspeed fare. And while this album does advance something new, that novelty is by no means a winner. No matter whether the vocals are intentionally disconcerting or just a sign that the band have used one too many field recording of weirdos singing folk songs, Punk-Rock is empirical proof that vocals have no place in this music.

None of this, mind you, is grounds for disqualification, immediate or eventual. The failures of Punk-Rock are not damning so much as disappointing, heralding the abandonment of the restraint and silence which once made this brand of music so powerful. But perhaps the worst part is that they expose something we've never really seen before from the Constellation collective: the limits of their potential.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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