The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band – Horses in the Sky

Constellation is a hot commodity in indie-music circles. I imagine the Montreal label’s owners and artists may feign disgust in public at such a description – “commodity, how capitalist of this corporately indoctrinated writer.” Figuratively and literally, I haven’t bought Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s whines against free enterprise and democracies. GY!BE’s founding guitarist, Efrim Menuck, formed A Silver Mt. Zion with two GY!BE band mates several years ago, and for its third album, Horses in the Sky, the group added some more Constellation musicians and renamed itself The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band (note: name length and pretentiousness amount usually have a direct relationship).

To the credit of this Constellation “supergroup,” it’s possible to listen to parts of Horses in the Sky without wanting to slit one’s veins or, less bloodily, unplug the stereo. Yes, there are the usual moans and groans found on so many of the label’s recordings, but when Menuck keeps quiet and lets the instruments pour as the only sounds, there are solemn, beautiful, contemplative moments. Some of the other band members can actually carry a tune when they combine singing efforts, but Menuck’s vocals sound tortured and often irritate as few singers can.

On a six-track album just under an hour in length, the combination of string quartet, electric guitars, and drums works best on the opener and closer, “God Bless Our Dead Marines” and “Ring Them Bells (Freedom has Come and Gone).” Menuck protests war in the former, as the band takes a progressively faster stringed approach in its instrumental rallying cry against the status quo. Pounding drums, a high pitched mandolin, and simultaneous handclaps create an intense atmosphere with uncertainty as to whether the musical mob mentality indicates the protest or the massive disaster. The second half of the almost 12-minute long “God Bless Our Dead Marines” features Menuck narrating a story about dead soldiers.

“Ring Them Bells (Freedom has Come and Gone)” starts off with understated strings, and then Menuck drools his verbal frustration. The electric guitars that kick in about two minutes into this epic track are slow and effectively enliven the dead strings. Without deafening listeners, the guitars represent the screams and horror of the masses. Drums and cymbals support this tragic soundtrack, and echo effects give the music greater emotional depth. The guitars recall the quieter moments by Explosions in the Sky on The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place.

Between the first and last tracks on Horses in the Sky, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band offers occasionally affecting instrumental milieus with repellent singing and even some weaker tracks. “Mountains Made of Steam” suffers because of its discordant choir, but the album’s title track is a direct, harmonic folk song based around gentle acoustic guitars. “Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns” finds the band in explosive rant form, with Teddy Roosevelt the focus of Menuck’s disgust. The repeated wail of “Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns” demonstrates as much musical skill as evident by opening and closing a wooden drawer over and over.

For those who don’t know why the band is so angry at Roosevelt, there are some employment history notes about the man in the CD booklet. Beyond the loud cacophony of some of these musicians’ recordings with GY!BE and The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band, it’s their hypocritical disdain for economic and political systems that benefit them and their perpetual indictments and offers of therapy that I find ludicrous. Constellation describes Horses in the Sky as “A brutal, distraught, outraged testament to the intractable cruelty of our reigning social order, an indictment of the corrupt, a lament for the murdered, a hand held out to the lost and afraid.”

Enough with this pseudo-philosophical nonsense. Menuck’s consistent need to explain his music with such jargon says a lot about him. The best art often requires additional explanation from the creator for full appreciation, but not this much. If Menuck and his partners were so concerned about the screwing of the ignorant masses and wanted to restructure the socio-economic order, they would start by giving their recordings to people for free, without charging a single loony or even one twony (see “Corrupt Canadian Fiscal Policies”).

Horses in the Sky has some melodic, attractive moments, though these are drowned by yelps and off-key vocals that grate and stain the whole work. Menuck and his mates should consider changing the mixture of vocals and instruments to make their albums more enjoyable and thought-provoking.