Better Living Through Rebellion

Thee Silver Mt. Zion excavate Punk Rock on its own terms

May 18, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Since entering pop culture over three decades ago, Punk has become a muddled word with a small army of variations and sub-categories following in its wake. While the notion’s nucleus still refers to Rock with blitzing guitars and incendiary leanings, it’s astounding to consider that the Misfits, Simple Plan, Blondie and The Casualties have all, at one point or another, been associated with Punk despite some dramatic differences.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (TSMZMO) now further complicates things.

The hallmarks of the outfit’s sound — slow-burn mini-orchestral epics, snatches of voice moving in unpredictable patterns, quirky poetic turns — conventionally hold little relation to Punk. Still, Efrim Menuck links his band to the genre by way of its DIY sensibility.

“You can be misfits or losers completely without family and completely without money and still make something out of nothing. That’s what we do,” he says. “On a deeper level, it’s about believing in love over money. The only sane reaction to this vulgar world is trying to live stubbornly, engaging as little as possible with the institutions that conspire to turn our lives into shit and our planet into a smoking wasteland. I would love for a new term to come up that we feel a kinship to, but for now it’s all Punk Rock to us.”

Post-Rock is a much more practical way to relate TSMZMO’s freewheeling sound without taking in romantic trappings, but Menuck calls the term “empty.” Also the frontman of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a currently dormant beacon of Post-Rock, Menuck has clashed with that title for years.

“Post-Rock was one critic trying to define a genre for a handful of bands who had aesthetic similarities. (It) has always been a term people from the outside lay on bands on the inside,” he says.

On the other hand, he finds that Punk “grew out of a tiny seed of an idea and took on its own regional shape.” It implies constructing impressive, resonant art that fiercely relies on vision and doesn’t explicitly shoot for social or financial reward.

“Striving to be some global superstar is a silly aim,” he adds. “There’s no shame in being happy speaking to a small handful of people in any city you roll into.”

Some of Menuck’s comments about aligning with Punk over Post-Rock are needlessly defensive — why eschew a conventionally digestible description just because it’s one person’s construct? — but he and TSMZMO have never been much for doing things the easy way. Confusingly, the Montreal collective has changed its name multiple times (“Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir” is the biggest mouthful), and its work is so rich with strange touches that each record leads toward a new and unfamiliar dream.

A trio of songs from Kollaps Tradixionales, TSMZMO’s sixth and latest album, show evidence of the group's defiantly off-the-wall style of songwriting. The first, “Kollapz Tradixional (Thee Olde Dirty Flag),” is a brooding six-minute-long threnody topped by Menuck's fragile near-whine and looming violins, whereas the chanting in “Collapse Traditional (For Darling)” makes it a lithe, sunnier composition before it wraps up in under a minute and a half.

The third and longest in the series is the most impressive: “Kollaps Tradicional (Bury 3 Dynamos)” emits waves of distortion until swelling into a roar of raw guitar and tangled voices. Functioning like a puzzle to which only its creator knows the answer, there's no clear relationship between the three songs, but if the tapestry is to be unpacked a listener’s commitment and concentration is wholly necessary.

Menuck is aware that his songs might be difficult listens. Still, he aims for lyrical simplicity, producing opulent lines like “We’ve seen those impossible mountains/We’ve seen that upward rain/Entire bibles full of broken things/Dark and wide as empty graves” (Kollaps' “Piphany Rambler,” when he’s at his strongest).

“I have no patience for hollow imagery. That shit drives me up the wall,” Menuck says. “I love me some Bob Dylan, but he has some lines that make you want to punch him in the face because they have no meaning or whatever meaning they have is so insular that any outsider won’t know who the boy in the Chinese suit is. Sentences should be simple and the meaning should be clear, even when using an allegory.”

Although complex — sometimes, frustratingly so — TSMZMO’s Web of idiosyncrasies makes them endearing and ultimately human. In that spirit, Menuck notes how his band preserves the little touches that would ordinarily hinder another recording, like a pedal clicking incorrectly or someone dropping something in the background.

“Have you ever seen a suit (before) you pick it up from a tailor and it has the chalk lines and stitches? It’s like that with our songs,” Menuck says. “We like all those dangling threads — those reminders that this was something made by people.”

THEE SILVER MT. ZION MEMORIAL ORCHESTRA plays the Southgate House on May 25. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.