Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (previously A Silver Mt. Zion, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band with Choir and Thee Silver Mountain Reveries) is a Canadian band which formed in 1999, originating from Montreal, Quebec. They use a number of different variations of the name on different releases, but the group use the shorthand SMZ and their name is most often simplified to Silver Mt. Zion. Since their inception, the group has undergone almost yearly personnel changes. The band currently has five members following the resignation of three in late 2008.
The band has released seven studio albums and one EP, publishing them through the influential record label Constellation. Their debut album He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms... was released in 2000 and--with the exception of two tracks--is a purely instrumental record. As other records were created, their sound and membership progressively changed from a sequestered trio to a boisterous quintet. By the release of Horses in the Sky, the group became overwhelmingly vocal in its style.
Their album, Kollaps Tradixionales, was released in February 2010. It consists of seven songs, three of which previously debuted at live performances. On November 19, 2013, a new album titled Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything was announced, which was released in January 2014.
Silver Mt. Zion's music has been described as "post-rock", though the band members are hesitant to use the term. Singer and guitarist Efrim Menuck identifies with punk rock ethos and aesthetic.
According to an interview with VPRO Radio in the Netherlands, Silver Mt. Zion originally began as a project in which Efrim Menuck hoped to learn how to score music. Already a guitarist in the Montreal-based musical collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, he explained that he hoped to communicate better with his fellow musicians by getting familiar with music theory. This idea was soon abandoned as Menuck realized that he preferred not knowing precisely what he was doing when writing, opting to "fumble" instead.
The Silver Mt. Zion project, however, continued. Menuck's decision to record an album was partly inspired by the death of his dog Wanda, who died while he was on tour with Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It also served as an outlet, allowing him to experiment with ideas and sounds he did not feel that he could effectively create through Godspeed You! Black Emperor's collective, consensus format. Seeking help in the albums creation, Menuck enlisted violinist Sophie Trudeau and bassist Thierry Amar, two musicians also involved with Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
The band made their live debut on March 6, 1999 at Musique Fragile, a performance venue organized by the record label Constellation. They released their debut album, He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms..., a little over a year later on March 27, 2000.
Save two minor exceptions, Godspeed You! Black Emperor features no vocals; instead, they use audio samples produced by Sophie Trudeau. Similarly themed samples also appear on Silver Mt. Zion's debut album, wherein Menuck sings on two tracks - "Movie (Never Made)" and "Blown-out Joy from Heaven's Mercied Hole". Menuck confessed that he was uncomfortable with this at first, feeling "foolish" and uncomfortable with the role of the singer in music generally. At the time at least, he did not want to be the focus of the band's music but rather wished to use vocals as a stylistic tool.
Expanding membership (2000-2004):
Before the release of their second album, the band recruited three more musicians, expanding the group to a sextet. The new members were cellist Beckie Foon, guitarist Ian Ilavsky, and violinist Jessica Moss. The name of the band was changed to reflect the larger membership; according to the liner notes of the second album Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward, they were officially called The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band.
The music was also growing and becoming more varied. While some tracks on Born into Trouble ... reflect the building but repetitive and instrumental nature of their first album and even Godspeed You! Black Emperor, some tracks here are more song-like in structure and the vocals definitely have a stronger presence. On "Take These Hands and Throw Them in the River" for example, the vocal parts complete with a building wall of noise dynamic and while "Could've Moved Mountains" features double-tracked vocals that the listener has to strain to hear, the effect is to make the lyrics a focal point of the song.
In retrospect, this period seems to mark a transition from Silver Mt. Zion as experiment and spin-off from Godspeed You! Black Emperor to a band with its own recognisable sound. Their first extensive tour took place in early 2001 throughout Europe.
The next Silver Mt. Zion album saw no change in the core line-up but the name of the band was slightly expanded again to accommodate the change in sound and the number of people involved in its creation. Now called The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir, "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, was released in 2003, featured four tracks each lasting over ten minutes in length and had a strong vocal presence as well as bigger emphasis on drums in two of the tracks. In fact, the liner notes suggest that the 'rusted satellites' of the album title refer to the choir pulled together to sing on the album. Thee Rusted Satellite Choir features twenty-four names, though four of these might be members of Silver Mt. Zion (only Efrim and Sophie's names are missing from the list).
After a break due to Godspeed You! Black Emperor activities, the band set out on its second tour in 2004. Starting with a brief Canadian tour at end of January, they then headed out for another long string of European dates from mid-February through the end of March. They headed across the Atlantic again in December for a tour of the UK, following their performance at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival.
The line-up was officially expanded again with the arrival of Scott Levine Gilmore, mandolinist and guitarist. The choir dropped, the band now simply added an extra 'e' to the first word of their full title becoming Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band for the release of their fourth full-length record. Horses in the Sky (2005) has six tracks, none of which are instrumental.
The band had their first performance in the United States (in Brooklyn, New York City) on August 13 of the same year; the culmination of a short tour of eastern Canada. Plans for a longer tour were cut short after Sophie Trudeau, one of two violinists for the band, broke her collarbone. In that time, Gilmore left the band and was replaced by former Hangedup drummer Eric Craven.
13 Blues for Thirteen Moons (2006-2008):
In 2006, the band headed to Europe at the end of April and they played shows up until the start of June. A tour of Canada and the United States (Silver Mt. Zion's first) began in late July and continued until the end of August. The tour debuted two new songs, "BlindBlindBlind" and "1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound". In a follow-up 2007 tour of Europe, they premiered another two new songs, "Engine Broke" and "13 Blues for Thirteen Moons". The latter of which became the title of their next album, which was released in March 2008 and contains all four tracks. The album also contains 12 short tracks of drone and feedback which feed into each other to create a fifth piece on the album, acting as a prologue to the album-proper, which, appropriate to its name begins on track 13.
Silver Mt. Zion then toured first Europe and then North America. This tour saw the premiere of two new songs, "I Built Myself a Metal Bird, I Fed My Metal Bird the Wings of Other Metal Birds" and "There's a Light". In the summer of 2008, the band's lineup changed again as Eric Craven, Rebecca Foon and Ian Ilavsky resigned. Since then David Payant has joined to fill the role as drummer and with the lineup change, the band officially renamed themselves Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. In September 2008, Silver Mt. Zion played at the New York ATP Festival which was headlined by My Bloody Valentine.
Vic Chesnutt collaboration and Kollaps Tradixionales (2009-present):
The members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion contributed to two works by Vic Chesnutt: the 2007 album North Star Deserter and the 2009 album At the Cut. Both were released by Constellation Records. In the spring of 2009, the band began working on recording material and have since constructed their latest album, Kollaps Tradixionales, which was released in February 2010. The tracks "There is a Light", "I Built Myself a Metal Bird", and "I Fed My Metal Bird the Wings of Other Metal Birds" from the new album were played live in the band's previous tour. The band began a tour of the UK and Europe in March 2010, beginning with an extremely well reviewed sell-out show in Bristol. The band performed at the ATP I'll Be Your Mirror festival curated by ATP & Portishead in October 2011 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The setlist included a new composition entitled "What We Loved was Not Enough".
Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything (2014):
A new album from the band was released on January 21 2014. In an interview with Vish Khanna on his Kreative Kontrol podcast, Menuck reported plans to release a Record Store Day 12" and an EP later in the year, both of which the band had just finished recording.
The official press release produced by Pitch Perfect PR and available on the Constellation website states that the band's influences include "free jazz, community sight-singing, Minimalism and American folkways - still anchored to a punk-rock take on neo-classical and modern music tropes".
Menuck has cited Deerhoof as a positive influence on the band, saying "there's a way they unpeel a melody so it's the oddest sounding thing in the world that we're always excited whenever we can even hint at that". He has been critical of bands like U2 who he claims are guilty of "manipulative emotionalism" in their music, something that Silver Mt. Zion try to avoid.
Menuck has also referenced Minutemen, Minor Threat, and early Black Flag in interviews though it seems that these might be more ethical influences as opposed to aesthetic.
An unidentified member of the band has stated in interview that as well as classical and chamber music, Jewish and Eastern European folk music along with American folk influences 'such as Sacred Harp Singing' all play a part in contributing to the band's sound. The same interviewee namechecked Fairport Convention as another band working in several different areas of music in the same way. All members of the band are apparently fans of Led Zeppelin.
Lyrics and themes:
It's implied in many interviews that Efrim Menuck writes most of the words sung or spoken in the band's pieces, though guitarist Ian Ilavsky noted that Menuck "has really pushed and encouraged people to join in and write a certain number of the lyrics with group singing in mind"
There are strong political motifs in the band's music. The instrumental "13 Angels Standing Guard 'round the Side of Your Bed" is apparently directed toward black bloc anarchists, according to liner notes. The song "The Triumph of Our Tired Eyes" could be interpreted as lamenting the present state of the world while espousing strong hope for the future. It also references the old anarchist song, "To The Barricades", sung by anarchists during the Spanish Revolution. Horses in the Sky contains ostensibly political tracks, including "Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone)", and "God Bless Our Dead Marines". However, it is worth noting that when asked about the political elements of A Silver Mt. Zion's songs after a concert in Nottingham, England in December 2004, Efrim Menuck said that the band are not trying to be 'political' with their songs, but write songs about the sorts of things they talk about with their friends.
13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, released in March 2008, was the first album to contain lyric sheets in its insert. According to an interview with Menuck, he'd wanted to include lyric sheets with all the albums "mostly because there are a lot of people who don't speak English as a first language" and he would not want the songs to be misheard and misquoted. However, one of Constellation's managers has a "hardcore aversion to lyric sheets" and it was only with this latest album that Menuck confronted him about this.
The band's original name, A Silver Mt. Zion, would seem to refer to the Mount Zion in Jerusalem. However, Efrim later noted in an interview with David Garland, host of Spinning on Air from WNYC radio, that the name hailed from a misheard song lyric. Efrim himself is Jewish, and motifs relating to Judaism are occasionally present in the band's music (he described the band's recording of their first album as a "Jewish experience").
All of the band's names have revolved around the words "Silver Mt. Zion", except "Thee Silver Mountain Reveries" for the 2004 EP.
Imagery and packaging:
As with most Constellation releases, Silver Mt. Zion records come in recycled cardboard cases with detailed artwork, do not feature the band's name on the album cover (the band's name at any particular time can be found on the spine of each album) and no copyright details on the disc. 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons was the first album case to feature a photo of the band inside (along with the lyric sheets).
Birds tend to feature heavily in the artwork, often in detailed pictures. Album artwork has also included a sketch of a horse, a mountainscape from the back of a packet of cigarettes and a picture of Nina Simone (in relation to the song "God Bless Our Dead Marines").
Menuck is often identified as the band's frontman and leader, despite the fact that he has repeatedly stated that this is not the case. Though Menuck's voice and lyrics are often very prominent on the records, everyone in the band sings and this collective spirit is much more prominent in a live setting when every member of the band is singing in a different harmony. On stage, the band tend to stand in a semicircle, with most members facing each other as often as the audience.
The band's dynamic has gone through changes with additions and replacements in the line-up. Significant recent events such as Trudeau's breaking her collarbone in a motorbike accident prevented them from touring, have forced the band to approach playing together differently, leading to "more singing and more confidence". Scott Levine Gilmore's departure from the band has led to a "more live, louder, sound" due to replacement drummer Eric Craven (from fellow Constellation band, Hangedup) who was subsequently replaced by drummer David Payant.
Menuck, speaking for the band in interview, has said "they all believe in music as labour".
In popular culture:
The song "13 Angels Standing Guard 'round the Side of Your Bed" from He Has Left Us Alone ... was included in a scene from Harmony Korine's film Mister Lonely and was also the soundtrack to Gaspar Noé's short film Eva (2005).
"Could've Moved Mountains" from Born into Trouble... plays over the ending credits of Demonlover.
The song "This Gentle Hearts Like Shot Bird's Fallen" was used during the climax of the David Gordon Green film Snow Angels
The introduction of the song "Tho You Are Gone I Still Often Walk w/ You" from Born into Trouble... was featured in the trailer for the fourth season of the television show Lost.
The Sound of Animals Fighting released a song titled "Horses in the Sky" on their album Lover, the Lord Has Left Us... as homage to the band, in particular the album Horses in the Sky.
The song "Broken Chords Can Sing a Little" was used in the 2010 American Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret starring Amanda Palmer.
The song "God Bless Our Dead Marines" was used in the 2010 film Daydream Nation.
Efrim Menuck - guitar, piano, vocals, sound effects,
David Payant - drums, percussion, organ, vocals,
Jessica Moss - violin, vocals,
Sophie Trudeau - violin, vocals,
Thierry Amar - double bass, bass guitar, vocals,
Ian Ilavsky - guitar, organ, harmonium, voice,
Beckie Foon - cello, voice,
Eric Craven - drums, percussion,
Scott Levine Gilmore - drums, percussion, guitar, mandolin, voice
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license