Review: “He Has Left Us Alone…” Silver Mt. Zion
Image Credit: Constellation Records
I have always found it astounding that with our instruments, man-made constructions, we can so strongly evoke emotions tied to the most visceral reaches of nature, even when it is not explicitly implied. We can pick up on the minutiae and nuances that thread through the timbre of a piece and relate them to something much more personal. This is much the case with Silver Mt. Zion’s lengthily titled debut “He Has Left Us Alone, But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corner Of Our Rooms...”. For just a little background, Silver Mt. Zion (and the many name variations to come in the future) was formed when around 1999, Godspeed You! Black Emperor ringleader Efrim Menuck decided to embark on a solo experiment. Around this time, his dog Wanda passed away, which would serve as fuel for the theme of this project. Often times, one tragedy is enough to tear open a deeper wound, causing past hardships and anxieties to surface, and this album is a by product and testament to this phenomenon.
Menuck gathered other Godspeed members Sophie Trudeau and Thierry Amar to assist him with the recording of an album. Recorded in the winter of 1999, and released in the winter of early 2000, one can feel a frigid gale of a desolate winter rip through the harrowing alleys of this work. What this album pushes is a unique take on modern minimalism. Some have taken to describing the band as an acoustic, classical take on Godspeed’s post rock formula, and while some of this may hold true for their early works, I consider the album to stand completely separate from the works of Godspeed; while Godspeed focuses on the ills of society and how it affects the individual, SIlver Mt. Zion’s body of work, especially the first few releases, focus on the internal suffering of the individual, the morose stew that envelops the mentality of those suffering from depression and existential sorrow. What this means is a much more intimate, personal piece, and the stripped down instrumentation suits this perfectly. While a first look at the extensive title may make the listener wary of impending pretension, I would argue the overall work is simply too personal to be pretentious. It is not a visionary calling down to the people below him and telling them what to believe; it is but an ordinary man, lonely and scared, reaching into the void, his outstretched hand searching for nothing but the comforting grasp of another human.
Just from the thundering piano crash of a C# chord on the album opener “Broken Chords Can Sing A Little”, the listener can already anticipate that this will not be a jubilant experience. Menuck has traded his guitar for piano, and his style does not brim with shimmering arpeggios and technical note runs. Instead, sparse patches of chords are pounded out, reverberating outwards for uncomfortable lengths of time, until the near silence is shattered with another round of chords. Indeed a minimalist style, a cold sense of loneliness is instilled, leaving the listener feeling as if something massive towers over them, yet they remain alone, that fear of their own creation. Soon, the static and feedback of a radio fades into the mix. Over the piano, the sermons of a preacher fizz into earshot. Two voices are heard, but one cannot tell if these are two preachers, or simply one, modified in pitch and playing slower. Their words can be hard to decipher, and do not serve to create the spine of the meaning of the piece. Instead, they set the mood. As lectures concerning destruction by peace, warfare, the “pure messiah”, and Christ himself fade in and out, the vague religious theme of the album takes precedent. The members themselves are either Jewish or atheist, and it is clear that this album is not here to preach, but instead question man’s ties to religion, and how they make him who he is. Trudeau’s lone violin cuts through the mix, and the claustrophobic nature of the piece is explored until around the 8 minute mark. All instruments have dropped out, leaving only the words of the preachers, paramount and empty all at once.
Suddenly, the voices begin to give way to the low tremolo of Amar’s contrabass, chopping through the piece. Menuck’s piano is nearly buried in the mix, and is all but covered by the drums, played by guest Aidan Girt, who also happens to be a member of Godspeed. Trudeau takes lead with a repeated violin phrase, with a second overdubbed violin echoing with a counterpoint. Quite thematically fitting that the musicians are so few, they must play multiple instruments. This song, “Sit In The Middle Of Three Galloping Dogs”, serves to inject an immediacy into the work. The theme repeats monotonously, but manages to continue building in intensity, until about halfway through, where the piece breaks forth, a heavily reverbed guitar backing the violent thrashing of the violins, dashing the listener against the rocks. Finally, the instruments fade, and the piano marches back into the forefront.
“Stumble Then Rise On Some Awkward Morning” shows how effective song titles can be to perpetuate a mood, as do the rest of the song titles on this album. The piano is hammers out a slow, somber bar as violins reprise the motif of the previous song. The listener feels as if they have been awoken from a dream, be it a reverie or their own illusion of reality, and thrown out into the world, awkwardly stumbling forth, on a death march through the unending snows of life, struggling to crawl any further. The passages repeat over and over again, building on the theme of repetition, just as the songs before it. Just as the same music repeats, we continue to repeat the same mistakes, telling ourselves each time that we have learned something, yet we fall victim to them again and again, all the mistakes piling up, with each time becoming all the more enveloping and irredeemable, until our failures consume us, and we give in and collapse, convinced we can only do harm. This is the minimalism I speak of, and Menuck has realized its potential as well. Instead of notes being spat out at a rapid pace, the same parts are played over and over again, the slight derivations and modifications of each repetition wringing out every last drop of emotion from the work. A descending piano line leads blindly to the piece’s silent conclusion, ending the seamless structure of the album’s first three songs.
Easily what would be the most divisive track on the album, “Movie (Never Made)” opens softly with piano and Efrim’s wavering voice: “On silver Mt. Zion, all buried in ruins”. The only track with persistent vocals on the album, “Movie” showcases the first main use of Menuck’s vocals. Some listeners are not fond of them, even to this day, which is understandable. The delicate, almost whiny quality of them turns a lot of people off of some of this band’s later work, which is more predominantly vocal. Here however, I cannot say that there is a voice more befitting. These vocals are not meant to be belted by someone with a catchy or powerful voice. Similar to Bob Dylan’s, they are meant to instead serve as the vessel for a deeper message. Further so, the timid fragility captures perfectly the desperation of the atmosphere. Cryptic lyrics hint at Jewish tradition, financial and moral depravity, political strife (possibly even recounting the events of Kristallnacht), the unity of community, and the fear and realization of losing someone close. “Oh, don’t be afraid, though the parade will not pass our way” cries Efrim for the last verse. “It’s nobler to never get paid, than to bank on shit and dismay…”.
Side 2 of the record is born with the muted sobs of a keyboard, seemingly sampling a heavily modified choir. It sounds almost angelic, which makes sense, considering the title “13 Angels Standing Guard Around Your Bed”. This track by far the most unique on the album, in terms of its instrumentation. The tender voices begin to conglomerate into an ever present reverb, until it seems there are infinite layers to each single chord. Trudeau enters with violin, shortly after doubled with her overdub. This is the track I perhaps experience the most emotions from, yet I have the fewest words to objectively describe it. Few pieces have ever so simultaneously walked the line between sorrowful and beautiful. The truly ethereal, even heavenly sound of the piece evokes much imagery, perhaps one being the fading breaths of an old man. Lying in bed, he is surrounded by his family and his loved ones, and as his breaths become longer and fewer, he sees the angels at his side, welcoming him forward to a warm light, leaving the cold hardships of life behind, yet also leaving all those dear to him with them. The chorales climax with ever more dominant voices, until finally we return to the dry, monophonic voice that started the track, as if the circle of life has finished, arriving where it began.
A strange six second track bridges the gap between “Angels” and the next song. Titled “Long March Rocket Or Doomed Airliner”, its existence raises some question. Beginning with a distant bassline, the nearly ten minute “Blown-Out Joy From Heaven’s Mercied Hole” hosts one short verse. “Don’t tell me that I am free” Menuck and Trudeau quietly harmonize. “‘Cause I have not been well lately”. The delivery of the lines feels like a punch to the gut. The bass continues its march beneath piano and violin, as a lone guitar occasionally decorates the sparse track with shimmering accompaniment. Feeling very free form in nature, the track lumbers on, different instruments taking precedent at times. Brief chromatic splashes of notes add a very unsure, even avant-garde atmosphere to the piece, and strange echoes perpetuate the piece, sounding as if they were bellowing up from the floor of a long empty steel mill or decrepit tenement, darkened aside from patches of metal and snow illuminated by rays of light emanating from long broken windows. Towards the end of the track, a bass clarinet plays a few lines, over which one can barely make out harmonizing vocals. The instruments run their course, until it all sort of falls apart into silence, closing what was a very atmospheric piece, feeling like the stream of consciousness spilling from a troubled mind. The final track opens with echoing acoustics of some large building. Strange streaks of sound are joined by a distant human, of whom it is unclear if they are laughing or sobbing. Heartrending piano enters the mix, and we can tell that those strange noises are indeed the sounds of bombs dropping, with distant explosions being heard over indistinguishable voices. The track, “For Wanda”, feels incredibly lonely, like the listener is at length from his fellow man, and can now only remember them for their innate desire to war with one another. We feel as if we are at the center of man’s self destruction, just as we feel a million miles away, and we ask ourselves what it even means to be human anymore. But as a nondescript rumbling takes the place of the piano and violin, we soon hear it stifled out by the saccharine drones of an organ. It is here that we are reminded of all that we have to live for, all that has ever made us smile, for one person it may be a friend, for Menuck, it may have been his dog Wanda. Just like the tragedy I mentioned earlier, opening the scars from past griefs, these memories can do just the same, flooding you with a euphoric happiness. When heard out of context it may sound overly sweet, but placed at the end of such an emotionally draining collection of songs, it goes a long way to demonstrate just how a little optimism, even if exaggerated or unrealistic, can go a long way in helping us feel welcome, and remind us what it really means to be human: our connectedness with one another, and how in the face of adversity we see those feelings amplified, joining hands and sharing our tears as we trump austerity. This is the running theme of most of Silver Mt. Zion’s works, the investment in hope and the belief that mankind is inherently good, and our very nature will allow us to overcome our sorrow in the long run. The existence of this album is a testament to that belief, a sign of the empathy that runs through the most desperate of people and their peers all the way through a society, connecting their inner desires and dreams, highlighting the human element in all of us, our wish for a shared jollity and humility. The ordinary man, lonely and scared, reaches into the void, and his outstretched hand is found by a parade. He feels many hands of different sizes and colors reach back, and he finds that the darkened corner of his room is graced by their shafts of light, melting the snows of regret and doubt, and warming his thoughts with a uniquely human hope. He smiles, realizing the togetherness that mankind will never lose, “because a people united is a wonderful thing”.