Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band - "I Built Myself A Metal Bird" (Kollaps Tradixionales)
The Montreal-based collective known, over the past decade, by assorted phrases incorporating the phrase “Silver Mt. Zion” has made some of the most majestic music of that period. They’ve also made some of the most frustrating: the permutations of the group’s name seems designed to frustrate record-shelf obsessives and the iTunes filing system alike. Their albums veer from expansive, emotionally wrought compositions to stretches in which nothing much happens: 2008’s 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons begins with a dozen droning tracks encompassing just over a minute in length. Kollaps Tradixionales, bookended by two pieces in excess of 14 minutes, is the group’s most song-oriented work to date — an approach that has both rewards and drawbacks.
This transition isn’t exactly unexpected: vocals have played a progressively larger role in the group’s music over the years, and singer/guitarist Efrim Menuck has an unexpectedly wry presence when introducing songs in a live setting. And the group’s work with the late Vic Chesnutt certainly bears mentioning — the sweep and range of Kollaps Tradixionales resembles Chesnutt’s 2009 At the Cut (on which the group played) far more than, say, 2000’s He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms.
Calling this Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra’s most accessible album should not be taken as an indication that we’re in pop-song territory, or even that most of these songs have a verse/chorus/verse structure. The group’s discography (and, for some of its members, their time spent in Godspeed You! Black Emperor) suggests a fondness for slow builds leading to fissures of noise, strings swirling and whorls of feedback from guitars. “There Is a Light” is a 15-minute encapsulation of why that approach retains its effectiveness; the addition of a subdued middle section in which call-and-response vocals play a part establishes even more of a contrast.
The emphasis on songcraft here puts Menuck’s vocal range in the spotlight. While he has some standout moments, notably a casual lamentation within “Kollapz Tradixional (Thee Olde Dirty Flag)” and a jagged shout on “Kollaps Tradicional (Bury 3 Dynamos),” his range isn’t always up to the demands of the music. The liner notes do state that “everybody sang,” but the group has yet to utilize its members’ voices to the same extent that it makes use of their instruments. And given the harmonies that do pop up here and there on Kollaps Tradixionales (to say nothing of violinist Sophie Trudeau’s contributions to Pink Mountaintops’ 2009 Outside Love), it’s arguable that this group could push the boundaries of their sound even further: could Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Chorale be far off?