Although originally conceived as a musical tribute to a beloved pet, the Montreal band A Silver Mt. Zion has certainly evolved into something quite different and more encompassing.
Taking a break from his gig as a member of Godspeed You! Black Emperor in 1999, guitarist Efrim Menuck decided to pay his respects to his dog Wanda with an album. He formed A Silver Mt. Zion with fellow GY!BE members violinist Sophie Trudeau and bassist Thierry Amar, and the trio recorded the 2000 debut He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corners of Our Rooms.... The band has since snowballed into a seven-piece based on guitars and a string quartet, with Menuck and other members pitching in on vocals.
“Yeah, we do a lot of group singing,” Menuck says, reached after a sound check in Baltimore. “We decided at a certain point if we were going to be a touring band, we should turn ourselves into some sort of unit that can play any bar at any time, and that's what we've tried to do. And most nights we do pretty good.”
His previous group, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, was the biggest indie-rock sensation to emerge from Montreal in years, at least until Arcade Fire came along. But for Menuck, the instrumental act had outlived its usefulness.
“I don't know what's happening””I guess it's on hiatus,” he says. “The last tour we did in America was during the lead-up to the Iraq war, and it started while we were on tour. And the feeling of playing in a band that had no words, and where we just put our heads down and did the best we could, it felt like it wasn't enough. At some point, we enter a period where we need words, and that's where I'm at.”
A Silver Mt. Zion shares a few surface traits with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, including a disdain for such traditional pop and rock niceties such as brevity, simplicity, and accessibility. The six compositions on the band's fourth full-length, Horses in the Sky, demand full attention to its musical detours, careful buildups, and massed vocals. The disc opens with “God Bless Our Dead Marines” . The composition, which features urgent violin, thumping drums, and Menuck's keening vocals, leading to a surge of electric guitar, sets the tone for the sinking-ship vibe of the record. The title track, centred on Menuck's voice and acoustic guitar, is comparatively folky, and more direct than lengthy, multiple-part numbers like “Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone)” . Overall, the music doesn't fit neatly into any genre, though one day Menuck and Co. may be credited (or blamed) with helping invent electric chamber protest music. The musician suggests a simpler category: punk rock.
“I know for us, we feel unequivocally that we're absolutely punk rockers, no matter what anybody thinks,” he says. “That's what we grew up with, and that's what we're trying to continue. It's this loose category that's punk rock to us.”
To get that point across, A Silver Mt. Zion called its third record This is Our Punk-Rock.
“I think it [punk rock] is more than an attitude. You know it when you feel it. I know it when I feel it in other bands, in other people. Some people know it, some people don't. Age is a lot of it too, I guess. I'm 35. I find generally people in our age bracket understand what you're talking about when you use the term.”
Backing up Menuck's statement is the group's musical unruliness””its refusal to play by any standard rock, pop, or even punk tropes””and its political content. The latter can be found in the track titles (“God Bless Our Dead Marines” ), lyrics (“And these are violent times/And violence brings more violence” ), and in the reason Menuck felt he needed to pour his energy into A Silver Mt. Zion in the first place. And it's in his words when, during a discussion of the state of the world vis-íƒ -vis global warming, the Middle East conflict, and the U.S., we hit on the topic of the Canadian government.
“I find them [the Conservative party] so fuckin' weaselly, and they think they are so clever,” Menuck says. “And you know for sure as soon as they won this slim little minority government that, at their first meeting, they decided their number-one tactic was to govern as though they had a clear majority, and that's what they're doing. But Canadians aren't stupid. If you listen to local CBC phone-in shows, anytime the subject of any of the wars going on comes up, whether it's the war on terror or any of it””it even happens on As It Happens with goddamn motherfucking Rex Murphy too””the bulk of people who phone in are not Liberal, they're not Conservative; they're warm-hearted, good, intelligent people who abhor violence.
It's “grandmothers from Antigonish,” says Menuck, and not just left-leaning hippie types who are speaking out. “For real,” he says. “God bless the Canadian people. For the most part.”
A Silver Mt. Zion plays Richard's on Richards on Wednesday (August 16).