Throughout a productive 14-year career, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra has tested patience and parochial taste. It has pandered to no expectations – least of all, one suspects, its own, rendering it a vehicle for musical exploration that has produced six LPs and two EPs not so much bound by a common style as by a common ethos – that of ‘protest music’. And so we welcome its seventh full-length: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything, the unapologetic title suggesting something of the unapologetically brash – and illuminating – contents.
Those contents represent a SMZ that has never appeared so focused and energised – doubtless helped by its new-found stability. Its membership, constantly in flux, was pared down to five for 2010’s Kollaps Tradixionales, with Efrim Menuck solely taking on guitar duties, David Payant mounting the drum throne, and cellist Rebecca Foon withdrawing to leave the dual violins as the only vestige of the group’s chamber origins. Unusually, this line-up has survived for another record, and now displays a singular bombast and confidence unheard to such a degree in prior releases.
‘We live on an island called Montreal and we make a lot of noise because we love each other.’
So aptly commences “Fuck Off Get Free (For the Island of Montreal)”, lumbering straight into fuzzy guitar and shrill violin shredding driven by a sedate but persistent rhythm section. The band’s deviation from the contentious ‘post-rock’ label that tenaciously clung to its earlier work is as complete here and in the following two tracks as ever before. Gentle build-ups and evocative violin melodies are gone from sight, while wily rhythms and caterwauling strings loom so close as to require an adjustment of focus. (Unfortunately, clarity in one sense eludes throughout owing to the record’s incredibly lo-fi and washy production, which to these ears detracts from the energy of the material. Punk in spirit, recording and delivery.) The bluesy levity of the opening sections is cleaved almost seven minutes in by a doom-laden guitar that may have called to mind the spirit of a certain Constellation sibling, were it not for the harmonising female vocals. Throughout the ensuing two tracks an upward ratchet of this opening intensity persists, pausing only for a lulling coda to “Austerity Blues”. The LP’s second track is a 14-minute leviathan of emotion, mountainous dynamics and crafty rhythm that climaxes at 5:57 in a splendidly math-rock 8-8-6-7 beat sequence, before a rushing crescendo sees all members join in the refrain ‘Lord let my son live long enough to see that mountain torn down’. This is just one of several references of Menuck’s hinting at a re-assessment of priorities in fatherhood.
Finally the musicians relent. The precipitous descent into the album’s languid and reflective closing half is jarring, but a comforting familiarity soon envelops. “What We Loved Was Not Enough” is surrounded by pleasant yet more forgettable short pieces, whose impotence in fact serves to enhance its warming radiance. With this majestic piece does SMZ finally open arms to the listener, inviting us within to sing and lament as one – harking back to the sing-a-long folk of 2005’s Horses in the Sky. ‘And the day’s come when we no longer feel’ may be a line of ostensible coldness, yet it ironically augments the most moving section of this entire release, sung as a harmonised refrain beneath a lead verse describing a society’s course towards calamity.
The band’s inimitable vocal delivery remains broadly unchanged, having plotted a linear course of progression over 10 years to become an anchoring feature of SMZ throughout its musical meandering. Menuck’s proclivity to blunt sloganeering over refined lyricism persists, again resulting in lines memorable as much by virtue of their repetitiousness as their starkness (‘All our cities gonna burn, all our bridges gonna snap… all our children gonna die…”). Disappointingly, there are fewer of the all-involving choral sections that so successfully mask individual voice frailties behind rousing, impassioned delivery, and the female contingent’s fragile harmonies are much better protected by the tinkling piano of “Little Ones Run” then the raw aggression of the first three tracks.
The sound clips that commence half the pieces also present a sub-plot between the main socio-political diatribes. While less reticent than many of its Constellation peers, SMZ remains an enigma happier to eulogise influences or lampoon wrongdoers through its artwork and lyrics than through its collective mouth (the album’s promotional video features lengthy shots of the members, each utterly silent). A recently launched docu-film, Come Worry With Us!, looks from its trailer to enlighten on some of these issues but, for now, Fuck Off Get Free… at least offers clues. A motley three-piece cast including the son of Menuck and Moss act as a mouthpiece for the band, decrying the labels people attach to things they don’t understand and explaining how music defines a musician’s life rather than merely supplements it. These quasi-autobiographical snippets provide unexpected sustenance; further light is poured on the listener by their inclusion.
SMZ is less a band than an organism, in constant evolution yet retaining the DNA that defines it. Despite the constant member changes, years of writing and touring, having entered parenthood and being witness to a world that still seems to learn no lesson, it has returned with renewed vitality. Its message is one of defiance not despair, of illumination not obfuscation, of light not dark. Its zeal is almost evangelical, but it does not offer religious fervour; it offers the fervour of a spirit unbroken, a spirit to pass on to our children.
The final track tells us, of music, that, ‘it’s what you are, it’s how you live, it’s the things that you do… and we’ll continue doing it.’ This listener remains fascinated by what happens next. (Chris Redfearn)