Tra-la-la isn’t a weapon, it just looks that way

Last night Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band at Maria am Ufer, a little club tucked on the bank of the Spree, in I think what would used to have been the dead zone between Wall and West. They start by saying, “This is our third time in Berlin. The other times, we didn’t convince you, and you didn’t convince us. Maybe this time will be different.” I think this time did the trick.

Silver Mt. Zion is one of the Montreal spin-offs of Godspeed You Black Emperor, but it is the one that shares the most musical DNA, led by the same iconoclastic punk-art-hippie Efrim, awkward, angry, unsure of himself and his band’s place. Today the lineup includes two guitarists, two violinists, a cellist, a string bass, and a drummer who occasionally comes out in front to sing along with the others and play guitar.

SMZ seems at once the answer to GYBE’s success, and to the way the world has changed. GYBE was post-rock’s apotheosis, at once raw and rich, symphonic, beautiful and over-the-top rock. SMZ’s first album was a little like this too, with just a little of Efrim’s wavering vocals over them. They still create massive crescendos, haunting moments of near-silence, and gorgeous textures.

But now they sing, all of them, and especially Efrim. It’s not good singing. Sometimes it’s shrill, sometimes coarse. Often it is as much shouting as singing, having less to do with harmony or melody than with the power of people’s untrained voices in chorus. It’s offputting, intense, and there’s no way to ignore it the way you can with so many vocals. Which is the point.

There’s a few things going on here. I think they got to the point where just doing achingly beautiful soundscapes wasn’t enough. They’d done that. Voice is the next instrument for them, but they’re doing it in a democratic or anarchist way: Everyone has a voice, everyone can sing, it doesn’t need to be pretty, that’s not the point, they’re saying. Pretty is easy. Maybe honesty isn’t.

But there’s more than that, I think. They’ve always been a protest band, or maybe a band-in-opposition. Against corporate culture, against right and probably much of left politics, against consumerism and complacency and even self-confidence, for a co-operative space where everyone could create and stepping on one another’s vision was verboten.

I think that wasn’t enough. Their music was a protest in itself, but times have changed, and the stakes are higher now. I think Efrim in particular needed a voice, to scream, to mourn, to use words that were poetic and ugly and raw and couldn’t be ignored the way that music almost always ultimately can.

Maybe this is all fantasy. It doesn’t always work. But live, it is the best, the most intense, the most fully realized protest music I have seen since the U.S. and the rest of the world starting living under the rules of paranoia.

As a postscript: Archive.org has a number of their shows available for streaming or download.

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