There's a point in "The Triumph of Our Tired Eyes" where instruments fade away and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band (as they're now called) lapse into a damning invocation, repeated choir-style: "Musicians are cowards, musicians are cowards."
Efrim Menuck stresses that he's not excluding himself. He has problems with careerist bands, the oxymoronically lucrative "indie-rock" business, and artistry in the age of the publicist. This particular commentary, though, is more general.
"Every musician I know is insecure, deeply flawed, deeply immature," he muses from a hotel phone on a Winnipeg tour stop. "I love musicians to death, and it's said out of love. But to me, it's just how it is."
While that might be true, A Silver Mt. Zion (the common truncation of the band's name) consist of musicians boldly stepping out of their comfort zone, outdoing their previous work in the process.
Menuck, along with violinist Sophie Trudeau and bassist Thierry Amar, played in Montreal's instrumental-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, now three years inactive. There they built barriers—walls of enigmatic sound, abstruse artwork, and guarded, media-shy personas. They performed seated, heads down and amps up, translating hard-held sociopolitical beliefs into fervent epics with minimal commentary.
"It was difficult with that band to figure out a way to communicate with people using words," Menuck admits, relating an anecdote about a 2003 Minneapolis gig the evening Shock and Awe began. Members felt compelled to acknowledge the war during the set, but found their opinions varied wildly, resulting in a tense, uncomfortable dialogue. "The words we had in common were dwindling," he says.
While reluctant to discuss his other band, Menuck describes A Silver Mt. Zion as a reaction to lessons learned. Formed in 1999 to eulogize his pet dog, Wanda (hence "memorial"), ASMZ were also instrumental at first, albeit comparatively serene and scaled back. But with 2001's Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward, things got interesting. That's when vocals were introduced, with the menacing "Take These Hands and Throw Them in the River." Menuck says it seemed a space to "add shading" to the song, and his reverb-drenched Syd Barrett–esque wail paints a picture of narcotic neuroses: "Cop cars on every corner, we're crawling home/Cop cars on every corner, we're all alone." That moment is also the point where A Silver Mt. Zion surpassed Godspeed.
For all the awestruck fan devotion cultivated in their seven-year career, Godspeed You! Black Emperor were based around a formula. Songs started out spare and delicate. Parts built and layered, measures repeated, erupted into crescendo, and faded into a drone bridge punctuated by field recordings and sampled speech. Then the process repeated, swelled, and closed on the most intense note possible.
It's powerful. It's effective. And after the first couple go-rounds, it has a feel of sameness. Call this view reductive—or even blasphemous—but 1999's stirring Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada EP is the band's only essential release.
While some points in ASMZ's catalog employ similar techniques—notably, "God Bless Our Dead Marines" from last year's Horses in the Sky—this band is just as apt to focus on a solitary idea. Acoustic guitars and Eastern European folk arrangements cluster into stand-alone structures, simple yet every bit as powerful as a pummeling epic.
Menuck calls it "an exercise in restraint," even though many ASMZ songs clock in at close to 15 minutes. "It sounds ridiculous, since we have so many long songs, but we'll say, 'Do we really need eight repeats of that B riff? Let's cut it to four."
Performing standing, surrounded by mics, cables, and bandmates, ASMZ are a different animal. Drummer Scott Levine Gilmore and guitarist Ian Ilavsky joined later to lend the group a louder live sound, an ability to adapt songs for playing "on any stage on any night." The confidence with which Menuck describes this is uncanny.
On a bigger level, the inclusion of lyrics creates more room for exploration of previously unspoken themes. Sung in an a cappella round, the ending of "Marines"—"When the world is sick, can no one be well?/But I dreamt we were so beautiful and strong"—is chilling.
For the listener, it makes the experience that much more fulfilling. If the change is uncomfortable for Menuck the musician, he keeps a brave face.