First, it was A Silver Mt. Zion. Then The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra And Tra-La-La Band. And then The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra And Tra-La-La Band With Choir. With each release, Efrim’s Godspeed You Black Emperor! side-project grew in size and scope, not to mention pretense and bombast, ultimately resulting in the scattered and uneven “This Is Our Punk-Rock,” Thee Rusted Satellites Gather+Sing. But as the shortened moniker used for this latest EP (originally recorded as a tour-only release) might suggest, the band has reigned in the pretense, grown even more confident (lyrically and vocally), and delivered a much more consistent release.
So maybe the pretense is still there — the album begins with a PSA that might be a bit groan-inducing for the uninitiated or overly-skeptical — but it feels far more focused and directed. If Efrim’s vocals have bothered you in the past, you might want to avoid this EP as it shows a continuing transformation of the outfit into a vocally-focused one. However, the effects this time around are more potent.
In “Microphones in the Trees,” Efrim (joined by a 4-piece choir) sings/moans/wails “Microphones in the trees/Cameras in the sky” over a creeping bassline, warbling piano notes, and soft swells of feedback, making it the loveliest bit of paranoia you’ll likely hear all year. “Pretty Little Lightning Paw” is a far denser track, full of shuddering guitar feeback, drunken vocal wails, and what could be some of the best electric violin since U2’s War.
As with their bigger sibling Godspeed, the outfit’s greatest strength has always been the ability to find moments of light and hope in the midst of their ominous soundscapes. Efrim and the choir can be seen stumbling through the midst of the music, holding hands and warbling “There is a reason and beauty in life/There is a wonder and there is a light” while assaulted by jagged shards of guitar. There’s a very good chance that the lyrics are just drunken, nonsensical mumblings recorded late one night. But even so, it’s almost refreshing to hear such sentiments in today’s cynical age. And it doesn’t hurt that the song winds down with an absolutely gorgeous dénouement of swirling vocals and strings.
The album closes with “There’s a River in the Valley Made of Melting Snow,” which consists of just Efrim, his broken voice, guitar, and toybox. Efrim sounds especially lost amidst the sparse sounds, moaning about lost love, dark times, and glory whilst buffeted by eerie-yet-comforting swells of feedback. It’s Efrim at his most drunken and meandering — but when taken as a whole, the track proves much more affecting.
There’s something almost naked and shivering about it, a certain poignancy about it thanks to Efrim’s wavering vocals, as if he’s unafraid to just throw up his hands and proclaim his helplessness in the face of everything. Unafraid to admit his fear… and hope. To do so takes quite a bit of bravery, I think, in this superficial day and age when everyone has to be confident, know the answers, and respond with strength. That Efrim is so willing to revel in his weakness, or at least make no attempt to hide it, is courageous in and of itself, and turns the song’s — and the album’s — obvious flaws into something beautiful and arresting.