Music Reviews
Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

(Constellation) Rating - 5/10

It’s 2014 and one of the most overtly political bands of the 21st century ought to have a lot to say. Having made the shift from their instrumental music with their parent-band Godspeed You! Black Emperor to a more lyrical approach to political music in the aftermath of 9/11, Thee Silver Mt. Zion were a means of bringing protest songs – in their own oblique and idiosyncratic way – into the underground. This is their first record since 2010’s Kollaps Tradixionales, and the western political landscape is ever shifting to the point that the scenes of desparate destruction in What We Loved Was Not Enough are a consequence and necessary form of resistance: “There'll be war in our cities / And riots at the mall”.

If there’s hope in Fuck Off Get Free it’s scant: “Lord let my son live long enough to see that mountain torn down” is the closing incantation of Austerity Blues, which can be read as a reference to the four-year-old son of lead vocalist & guitarist Efrim Menuck and violinist Jessica Moss, whose voice is the first sound on Fuck Off Get Free (“We make a lot of noise because we love each other”). This theme of their son’s generation’s political inheritance is central, recurring on anaemic piano lullaby Little Ones Run: “Wake up darling the moon is gone / The sky’s a mess and falling down”. The record is pervasively pessimistic, where usually SMZ would usually find hope amongst a landscape of decay and brutality. “And the day’s come where we no longer feel”, they croon on What We Loved Was Not Enough. It can hardly be called protest music – and it’s not just the pessimism of these mantras; the album lacks urgency.

Take the melody when the group sing the album’s title on Fuck Off Get Free (For the Island of Montreal) – it’s limp and contrived; it just doesn’t conjure up any images of the shared experience of music, in spite of the avalanching layers of sonic density behind it. Where are the blues progressions or the folk-song underpinnings of their former work? The structures of this band’s music have always been complex, but were consistently centred around some sort of common musical rallying point, an avant-garde continuation of folk tradition; even on Kollaps Tradixionales where the band occasionally sounded in danger of lapsing into forgettable post-rock territory, they delivered the spine-tingling Americana opus ‘Piphany Rambler.

And instead, this record sounds – well, it sounds enormous, to SMZ’s credit. Where their earlier work often sounded intimidated and frail (“Musicians are cowards” they memorably sang at the end of Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upwards), this record is produced with all the doomy turbulence of a black metal record. It’s often rather astounding to hear the apocalyptic hugeness of Menuck’s guitar tones pouring out along with the band’s 3-piece string section, as if you’re hearing roomfuls of musicians. They achieve a lot amongst the five of them, in terms of sheer volume. I’m just left wondering: To what ends? They hit this gear within the record’s first few seconds, and when the clanging ebbs away it’s less a result of being cowed down (which they used to express so eloquently), as a kind of formulaic winding-down. I got bored of the rather nebulous “post-rock” genre which Godspeed & SMZ tend to resist, after hearing too many records which made the same mistakes as this one – hugeness for the sake of it, predictable climaxes, a dearth of memorable detail.

What We Loved Was Not Enough is far and away the record’s finest song, where form best reflects content (though it’s oft-trod ground for this band). From its haunting string glissandos and Menuck’s ragged howls, to its browbeaten struggle into something more anthemic, to its mournful coda of harmonized vocals, this is the only song where the musical narrative is as profound as its themes.

The music from the height of Godspeed’s powers (their first two albums and the Slow Riot EP) redefined my expectations of how much instrumental music could really say. It's not that the political fury of SMZ has eroded (take Godspeed’s refusal of the Polaris Music Prize last year for instance, a brave and important gesture for what underground music should be doing), but I wouldn’t have known it from this record. It rarely left me feeling exhilarated, which is what SMZ are ostensibly about: music which is supposed to be vital, worth shouting about. It has all their trademarks – simultaneously elaborate and raw, idiosyncratically punk-rock, dedicated to chronicling the unrelenting ugliness of western society – but this time little of it sticks.