Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra / My Empty Phantom - Live 2014.04.22 Mohawk, Austin, Texas

It's not often that I see a concert poster and say to myself, "I should see that show", but after all, that is how I found out about the show that essentially kicked off this blog in 2007. A couple weeks ago, I happened to see a poster for this show, and since I'd recently heard most of their new album and liked it well enough, I thought it was worth a shot. Tickets were cheap and the opener even seemed interesting.

Artist: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Venue: Mohawk (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 22 April 2014
Opening Act: My Empty Phantom

Setlist (thanks to here for filling in the holes of my knowledge):
01. Fuck Off Get Free (For the Island of Montreal)
02. Austerity Blues
03. Rains Thru the Roof at Thee Grande Ballroom (for Capital Steez) →
04. Take Away These Early Grave Blues
05. 'Piphany Rambler
06. All the Kings Are Dead
07. What We Loved Was Not Enough

08. Little Ones Run

My Empty Phantom is a local Austin multi-instrumentalist that does his live act by looping keyboard and guitar parts together and then playing live drums, as opposed to the "conventional" looping technique of starting with a drum loop and then building up the other instruments. He played five songs and they all followed the same pattern. There was some variance in whether he favored guitar or keyboard, but once he had a suitable instrumental base, he would then sit at his set and drum along for a while before bringing things back down. He was proficient at each of his instruments, and I liked the sound, but I didn't find it very noteworthy otherwise. You can stream his debut EP from bandcamp, and presumably the five tracks there are the same five he played live.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra is a consciously strange band and they are known just as much for their non-musical trappings as they are for their music. First, most people (including myself) know them mostly as a sibling-band to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a vanguard of the experimental rock/post-rock scene. The two bands share members (guitarist Efrim Menuck, bassist Thierry Amar, and violinst Sophie Trudeau) as well as a hometown (Montreal) and label (Constellation). Second, the band is known for changing their name and their lineup quite regularly. Most variations of their name include the words "Silver", "Mt.", and "Zion", leading fans to frequently refer to them as A Silver Mt. Zion as a compromise for consistency. (I will follow this convention for now.) Third, the band (as with Godspeed) are known for their left-wing politics, including virulent anti-capitalism and an honest attempt to live and work in a truly democratic, communal fashion. Fourth, the band's song titles and album artwork (again, as with Godspeed) are noted for being unconventional, atypically lengthy, and abstract, political, or both.

[Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra.]

A Silver Mt. Zion's music fits pretty well with their aesthetic. While it shares Godspeed's affinity for a less rock and more classically oriented composition style, as well as Efrim's powerful, effects-laden guitar, this band features vocals. While Godspeed seemed happy to let their album art, song titles, occasional samples, and musical atmosphere convey their message, A Silver Mt. Zion is a little more direct. The lyrics are almost confrontational in their honesty and anger about modern life. They claimed that they weren't political, that they are just telling it like it is, and while I agree, most people find honest discourse about the state of a nation or the economy to be inherently political. It doesn't really matter, but the band clearly has a lot to say about topics like the 2012 student riots in Quebec.

The only problem was that I couldn't actually understand the lyrics at the show. Hardly a single line, in fact. Part of the problem was that the vocals were mixed low, treated almost like an instrument à la My Bloody Valentine, and the other part was that Efrim sang most of the vocals and he has a terrible voice. I love his guitarwork, and I might sympathize with his ideologies, but I do not like his voice. He can usually stay on key, but his style is loose, yelpy, and shrieking. While all the other members also sang, they rarely sang lead, and they were mixed even lower.

That leads me to another problem I observed, although his may be a minor quibble of little significance. Much like Godspeed, the band appears to try to work as a collaborative collective, but yet Efrim was clearly the lead singer, he did the vast majority of the talking, and his bulldozer guitar dominated the mix. After "Take Away These Early Grave Blues", while taking a breather, he asked if the audience had any questions. Naturally, people called out a few things, and Efrim answered almost all of them, although he did insist that he couldn't speak for the other members. (I can thus report that Efrim's favorite song is "Complete Control" by the Clash and the first album he bought was ABBA's Greatest Hits.)

So while the vocals might not have done much for me, I found the music to be quite good. Thierry's basswork was excellent, and on half the songs he switched from an electric bass to a stand-up double bass. Drummer David Payant surprised me by occasionally playing a keyboard hidden behind his set. Violinists Sophie and Jessica Moss were unfortunately heard to hear in the mix, but I thought their contributions were the crux of what made the band's sound seem so nuanced and textured. Efrim's guitar tends to be big, heavy, delayed, and distorted, such that despite that he doesn't play many chords or traditional guitar solos, he still fills up a huge amount of space. Theirry's melodic bass parts make a nice bed of sound underneath that, and the violins complete the top end of the picture. It's a very big sound, and it's quite cool to follow its swells and movements.

My Empty Phantom: C+
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: B

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