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Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band - Horses in the Sky

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

Album: Horses in the Sky

Label: Constellation

Review date: Mar. 31, 2005

I was beginning to wonder whether a fourth Silver Mount Zion full-length was necessary; It seemed that maybe this Godspeed You! Black Emperor offshoot and it’s droned-out symphonic utterances had outlived their relevance. I was wrong.

Horses… is Silver Mount Zion’s most musically satisfying disc to date because, while the well-worn formulae are present, sonic variance and compositional modification has brought a welcome diversity to an increasingly wearisome aesthetic.

On the surface, the group’s sound hasn’t changed too much; lyrics about sickness, pain, greed, sociopolitical rancor and loss, delivered in Efrim Menuck’s weepy falsetto with cracked choral accompaniment, vie for prominence amidst the slow builds, three-chord vamps, obstinate and expansive drones that have been SMZ’s trademarks from the start. The difference is that on Horses, a wider range of emotions grace the poetry as new sounds and textures enliven the music. From the opening pizzicato of “God Bless our Dead Marines,” there is a rustic resolve to the playing, the swooped and pleasantly out of tune fiddles punctuating the newly subtle vindication in Efrim’s voice as he declaims, “They put angels in the electric chair.” Similarly, the beautifully loping title track, mainly backed by simple guitar chords, turns the blackest social commentary into a lullaby.

Even the typical SMZ climaxes are revitalized. On “Mountains Made of Steam,” the word “mother” is repeated as the music rises with new-found restraint. The choral execution is more convincing throughout, and a certain “everyman” vibe is heightened by the source material’s rustic locale. “Hang on to Each Other,” another gloomy pronouncement, is chanted to the strains of a dying campfire, and meaty hollow handclaps at pivotal moments throughout the album bespeak the uninhibited response to environments outside the studio. Only “Ring Them Bells” is a direct throw-back to previous efforts and, consequently, less successful.

Better compositions and a new sonic arsenal don’t necessarily signal relevance. In some quarters, they might even be taken for artifice. But when Efrim begins to lilt on “Marines,” with only a piano for support, “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well, but I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.”, it’s a sentiment that many still feel and others need to remember. In combination with more convincing musical delivery and a broadened sonic pallet, moments like this make Horses well worth repeated listening.

By Marc Medwin

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