Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band Horses in the Sky

[Constellation; 2005]

Styles:  post-emo-experimental-gloom-folk-rock
Others: A Silver Mt. Zion, Thee Silver Mt. Reveries, Raffi

Expectation is one of rock music's biggest pitfalls. The genre's accessibility lends itself to fanaticism, and when an established band's back catalog is heavily revered, an unreasonable level of brilliance is often expected on subsequent releases. For a popular independent act like Silver Mt. Zion, whose musical evolution has been documented through the careers of multiple bands, the contrast between past and present work will inevitably be considered when listening to any new material. A lot of us will find their latest, Horses in the Sky, easier to appreciate having gobbled up every Godspeed You! Black Emperor-related release, while stauncher critics will find heavy fault through comparison. Whatever camp you find yourself in, it's easy to recognize Horses in the Sky as a big step away from 2003's This is Our Punk Rock, one that may end up leaving broody post-rock fans scratching their heads.

From the outset, guitarist and songwriter Efrim establishes himself as a front-man of sorts, infusing the album with a healthy dose of lyrically grandiose themes. Only ten seconds into the opening's double bass figure, he laments "They put angels in the electric chair/ The electric chair/The electric chair!" A line that comes across heavily untreated, lending itself to the accompanying music's congruent rawness. Emphasis on such rootsy, almost folkish vocals ground the band's typically unarticulated message, while bringing a kind of twisted narrative to the fore. The same themes that appeared on past Silver Mt. Zion releases are still prevalent, of course: isolation, urban sprawl, addiction, etc etc. This time around though, a distinct plea for 'togetherness' is delivered beside the typical angst. In the hands of a lesser band, such lyrical and vocal histrionics might come off as tired or disingenuous, but Horses in the Sky contains so much inherent prettiness that, when coupled with earnest performances, erases most traces of pretension. Efrim's vocal approach also reveals a host of memorable verses that continually focus your attention on the albums thematic content. Such lyrical devices enable songs like "Mountains Made of Steam" and "Hang on to Each Other" to maintain interest even as a single melody repeats for over six minutes. In short, it's easy to buy into the group's message and delivery, if only for the albums hour long running length.

Musically, the opening and title track mark the clearest departure from Silver Mt. Zion's usual orchestral post-rock routine. Instead of relying on crescendo-ing theme and variations, "God Bless Our Dead Marines" is structured as a fairly concise three-song suite. The middle section flirts with vintage folk rock, sporting a double tracked, loose limbed beat that plods through several hectic verses. The movement's closing line, "Dead kids don't get photographed/ God bless this century!" is proceeded by a few seconds of silence before the final vocal refrain enters, unaccompanied. One by one, four voices overlap the original line, creating one of the most effective uses of stretto I've heard in a while. Conversely, "Horses in the Sky" is a simple acoustic waltz, furnished only with minimal vocal harmonies. The track has a desolate Roger Waters quality to it and provides a welcomed change of pace near the albums midway point. Similar breaths of fresh air are interspersed throughout the proceeding tracks, creating an sense of unexpectedness largely missing from the groups previous work.

Essentially, Horses in the Sky adopts a host of varying song mechanics and a wider array of lyrical themes, a broadened pallet that either suggest a band in transition, or a newfound confidence in songwriting. Whatever the nature of the change, it feels like the right one. In the very least, Thee Silver Mt. Zion has escaped the shadow of their sister band, crafting an album with the kind of underground appeal that outlives tags like 'post-rock.' Working with a steady supply of crude emotion, they seem unafraid to expand their sound for the sake of creative expression; a move that in the tired realm of indie rock is easy to recognize, and easier to applaud.

1. God Bless Our Dead Marines
2. Mountains Made of Steam
3. Horses in the Sky
4. Teddy Roosevelt's Guns
5. Hang on to Each Other
6. Ring Them Bells (Freedom has Come and Gone)

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