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Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra Horses in the Sky

Efrim, lead singer of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band (formerly known variously as (amongst others) A Silver Mt Zion, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir and Thee Silver Mountain Reveries and complete pains in the arse for my filing system) has quite possibly the technically worst singing voice ever put to tape. It is little wonder that his greatest claim to fame is as leader of the instrumental Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Yet lack of natural ability seems to have hindered him little as is (almost) immediately evident on the first track of ASMZ’s latest album, ‘Horses in the Sky’. Almost, because the first few moments of God Bless our Dead Marines cause a little concern as he sings ‘We put angels in the electric chair’ over plucked upright bass and screeching strings, sounding more like an electrocuted cat than angel. But things slowly build as more strings and then drums come in. Pretty soon they are joined by hand claps and the whole calamity starts to sound like a traditional Eastern European dance. Cue guitars and increasing tempo, and just as I am about to get up and join in the jig, it all dies away to nothing.

When the world is sick, can no one be well, but I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.

When things re-start we are left with Efrim mournfully singing of ‘Vulgar kings on their dirty thrones’ over the foreboding sound of single piano and string notes. But it is here that things get exciting. Almost five minutes into the song, well after the ‘Radio Mix’ of the song would have finished, the lone bass is back and that most damaged of voices shows what it is capable of. Sounding as if it could all fall apart any moment, he sings:

There’s fresh meat in the club tonight, God bless our dead marines.
Someone had an accident above the burning trees.
While somewhere does stand peacefully our vulgar prince’s slave,
Dead kids don’t get photographed, God bless our dead marines.

All the time piano, drums and then guitars play simple melodies underneath, slowly building. It is here that you realise that for all its limitations, Efrim’s voice is perfect for the song. Its weaknesses provides the perfect representation of the imperfections and faults in each one of us, the repressed masses. For this is not, unlike many protest songs, a sermon, moralising from on high. This is a song from the battlefield by one of the foot soldiers:

Lost a friend to cocaine, a couple friends to smack
Troubled hearts map deserts and they rarely do come back
Lost a friend to oceans, lost a friend to hills
Lost a friend to suicide, lost a friend to pills
Lost a friend to monsters, lost a friend to shame
Lost a friend to marriage, lost a friend to blame
Lost a friend to worry, lost a friend to wealth
Lost a friend to stubborn pride, and then I lost myself

It is all so overwhelming because despite it fragility and damaged nature you can feel the potential power behind it, once again reflecting the protest movement in this post-9/11 world. Nowhere is better portrayed in the outro as Efrim sings over solemn piano:

When the world is sick, can no one be well
But i dreamt we was all beautiful and strong

Slowly he is joined by other voices, until they form a powerful choir which can’t help but leave you with the feeling that we, however insignificant, could together make a difference. God Bless our Dead Marines has to be the best protest song written this side of the Vietnam War.

There are another five tracks on the album. Mountains Made of Steam is very beautiful and at times menacing. Horses in the Sky is a delicate song with just Efrim’s vocals and acoustic guitar. Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns shows that natural ability does count for something with Efrim’s refrains ‘O Canada, O Canada, I’ve never been your son’ and vehemently screamed ‘Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns’ wavering between being annoying and downright unpleasant. Hang on to each other sees Efrim and his choir of comrades singing little more than the track’s title repeatedly over a barely audible organ. Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone) is the track on the album most reminiscent of past ASMZ albums, and is a reminder of how good this can be. Throughout the personal is balanced with the political, the emotional with the intellectual, the unbelievable with the unlistenable. These last five tracks on their own would have made a fine album but never again do we soar to the heights of God Bless our Dead Marines. However that one 12 minute track makes this album more than worth the price of admission.

6 comments posted — most recent by Tom on 22/08/05