The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band
"This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing
stern woman’s voice is the first thing that you hear on The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band’s third full-length album. She is counting angrily out to, presumably, her students- telling them over and over again to do it one more time. If you listen closely, you realize that it is a loop of her voice, but the message is clear: repetition can be a banal and tedious activity, especially if the end result is nowhere closer to where you’d like to be.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, on their third album proved this point to many music fans. The gradual crescendos of the group’s lengthy compositions began to take on the nature of rote, by-the-numbers tiredness. Once able to excite listeners into an exhilarating sort of exultation at the peak of their fury, the group even seemed cognizant of the fact that this sort of template is proving less tenable. The crescendo’s reached less far on both sides of the equation occupying a banal middle ground. It was the sound of a band almost unsure of itself and where it needed to go. It was, quite simply, a disappointment.
Efrim, the founding member of Godspeed, leads this group which was formed for the express purpose of exploring musical avenues that wouldn’t work well within the context of the larger collective. And while, with each successive release, the group has gotten larger (3 to 6 to 6 plus numerous guests), it has retained its initial purpose beautifully: outlining the places that Godspeed has not tread extensively. On "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, the group adopts a Godspeed-esque tracklisting, restricting the proceedings to four songs which average fourteen minutes each.
But, from the beginning, it’s easy to understand that while we may be mining the same thematic territory- it’s certainly not the same musical landscape. After the initial track’s introduction, we are soon greeted by an intense choir singing “fasola,” a lone guitar and a variety of plucked instruments intertwining with one another. It exhibits the sort of repetition the stern woman initiated moments earlier, but inside this repetition is an anticipation of something greater. It is understood that the groundwork being laid here will lead to some sort of release- in this case, it’s the devolving of the choir into moaning and crying while the stringed instruments run out of steam. The vocals are then merged effortlessly into a drone that moves the listener into the second movement. Here, the guitar is resurrected and playing the same motif, but this time the choir is silent and mournful strings play long sustained notes moving in time to plodding, yet forceful drums. It is the aural equivalent of what every Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion song attempts to be: the sound of a broken, empty and desolate city- the sound of walking through ruins. And, yet, the sound of possibility.
Because this is where "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing breaks away from the tired sounds of Yanqui UXO. If the latter record raged against the dying of the light, this one takes hold of the dying light and amplifies it in four extended vignettes- embracing it with the knowledge that it will indeed fade, but enjoying it while it still lives- and silently imploring others to do the same.
The second track resembles a Polaroid picture slowly coming into focus: small bits and pieces are readily apparent immediately, snatches of violin and guitar melodies are hinted at until a bass forces the entire picture into focus in the span of a few seconds. Efrim begins to sing in his trademark drunken Conor Oberst voice:
Babylon was built on fire
And the bones of useless machines
It hurts to breathe
You fell away from me
It is here that we first encounter the underlying political underpinning of the album. The group has chosen to take the destruction of communities as their muse- both local and universal (exhibited by the way that Efrim throws the first couplet out towards an all-encompassing any city approach and then tightly reins it in as a personal issue). Because, as Efrim implies, the political is personal, the things that we believe we cannot change will, by virtue of this belief, remain unchanged. And, as Efrim goes on to point out late in the third track of the album:
This fence around your garden
Won’t keep the ice from falling
But it is in the ecstatic and mournful closer that the group makes its most personal and universal statement. Constructed as a lullaby for the “unzoned terrain surrounding the railyards adjacent to the neighbourhood where the band, along with many other Montreal musicians & artists, have lived since the early 1990s,” the song is a disjointed and broken-down communal affair. Piano, violin, vocals and guitar jar against one another jostling for space struggling to be heard against the encroaching drone that overtakes the entire track eventually. It’s a simple metaphor for the folk music and community that is being painted over by the developers that are attempting to clean up the area and move these artists and musicians away. Discordance and static reigns for a long while until nothing is heard, but a guitar and Efrim singing a lonesome refrain:
Everybody gets a little lost sometimes
It seems like we can only, then, pick up and move on. And rage against the dying of light elsewhere. But remember: we need to cherish it. Just like The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band have done here. This is our imperative. This is our punk rock.