‘Stick together!’ Efrim Menuck calls from the stage. He has been asking the crowd to shout out statements that they think are worthy of endorsement and, despite heavy consideration of ‘Save 6 Music!’ and less heavy consideration of ‘Scientology is underrated!’, this is the one he has settled on. And tonight it rings truer than at most gigs: for all the distance that is built around the band through densely worded blog posts and announcements, a distrust of the press, constant name changes and songs far longer than most people’s musical attention span, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (as they are known for now) bring people together in a way few other bands could manage. Of course, first you have to wait for the opening act to play. Alexander Tucker sat alone on the Electric Ballroom’s sizeable stage and proceeded to make one hell of a lot of noise thanks to liberal application of the loop pedal. Pulsing cello loops built and built, from delicate and airy bowing to a wailing screech, occasionally accompanied by a droning electric mandolin. One minute beautiful and the next crushingly noisy, it was incredible to see Tucker shred his cello, with the only weak point being his comparatively lacklustre vocals that fortunately only cropped up every now and then. On record, Mt. Zion are hard to describe. Call them a political post-rock band at your own peril, ‘cause the band won’t hesitate to explain why you’re wrong. Live, though, it’s easy: they just fuckin’ rock, pure and simple. Arranged in a semi-circle, Efrim asked us all how we were and commented on the cramped conditions we were suffering through to watch his band play before a saw blade blast of violins tore through the venue, leading the band head first in to ‘I Built Myself A Metal Bird, I Fed My Metal Bird The Wings Of Other Metal Birds’, a piece spread over two tracks of last month’s Kollaps Tradixionales. The band were so tight on stage that it was unbelievable: drummer David Payant sometimes managed to play drums and organ at the same time and Thierry Amar was an imposing presence with his double bass, but it was the two violinists, Jessica Moss and Sophie Trudeau, who impressed the most as they exchanged glances from opposite sides of the stage, playing perfectly in sync. They each had a much more noticeable role in the vocals throughout the set as well, which was especially apparent on the second piece of the night, ‘There Is A Light’. Combined with the much more noticeable contribution from the drummer compared to on the record, this all made for an even more dynamic and powerful sound.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Mt. Zion are an unpredictable band to watch live, however. They can play your favourite song in the world and you won’t recognise half the words, or they can turn one of their weakest tracks in to a show stopping heartbreaker. This was definitely the case with ‘God Bless Our Dead Marines’, the opening track from their strongest record, 2005’s Horses In The Sky. Due to their constant line up changes and improvisational tendencies, many of their older songs sound incredibly different to their record in a way that their newer material doesn’t because it simply hasn’t had the time to progress, and tonight the song had an extra verse or two, and a different intro. Fortunately, the beautiful ending to the song featuring all the members singing together in rounds was left intact and was easily one of the show’s highlights.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
In between each song, the lights were brought up, and Efrim invited the crowd to shout out at the stage if they had anything to say, often engaging audience members in conversation and asking for people to repeat their incoherent yells from the back of the room. “Bring back Godspeed!” someone yells, early on in the show, and “Why don’t you fuckin’ bring back Godspeed? It’s not that hard” is the response. He then proceeded to ramble on about how he was never in Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the first place. He was in The Specials. But when he tried to sue them for reuniting without him, lawyers were adamant that there was never an ‘Efrim’ in The Specials. We are also schooled on British slang – a car accident is called a ‘Ripping Rodney’ over here, for those not in the know – and hear him discuss hair care with a guy who he suspects is more than a little high. Incoherent or stupid comments are met with a pause, a patronising cry of ‘Yeah!’ and a big thumbs up. Bands generally don’t communicate in this way with their audience, encouraging people to heckle and call out and actually thriving off it – Efrim is in his element discussing British politics in an irreverent manner or even just rambling on and cracking his violin players up with the size of the tangents he careens off on. After the evening’s fourth number, ‘Piphany Rambler’, the closing track from Kollaps and, unfortunately, the evening’s low point due to it being the weakest piece of the set, Efrim reeled off a list of dedications to dead musicians for ‘One Million Died To Make This Sound’ and called to the audience for more. Someone suggested Vic Chesnutt. ‘Every song is for Vic Chesnutt’ he replied, sadly. Someone else suggested Jay Reatard, and he admitted to never having heard one of his songs, but he recognised his face from obituaries and told us all about a dream he had about collapsing in a field and Jay coming over to ask him if he was okay. It was weird.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Holding their violins like guitars for the gently plucked intro of ‘One Million Died’, Sophie and Jessica led the song until Thierry’s dizzy bowed bass flurry brought the rest of the band crashing in to the glorious cacophony of it all. Before long, it was over and the band left the stage. All night, the crowd’s reaction had been huge, with each song being cheered like it was the last song any of us would ever hear, but the noise when they came back on for an encore was incredible. Thanking us, they played an absolutely beautiful version of ‘Microphones In The Trees’ from their Pretty Little Lightning Paw EP, which sounded the most different to the recorded version of anything all night, replacing the screeching strings and distorted vocals with soft melodies that made for an amazing end to an impossibly amazing show.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
They only played six songs in two hours, but it was impossible to feel cheated. They’re pretty long songs, anyway, and it is not much of a stretch to say that Thee Silver Mt. Zion are among the best live bands in the world.