It’d be easy to write off Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra’s latest LP, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything, as a simple meditation on the horrors of the world in 2014. Its centerpiece, “Austerity Blues,” is a winding 14-minute epic that leaves little to the imagination in the title alone: As you might expect, the track points its finger at austerity measures, namely in the band’s native Canada. The country’s cuts over the last seven years—and for the sake of this article’s word count, we’ll have to leave it as plain as that—have hit the poor where it hurts most, with the loss of thousands of jobs and reduction of health care. Factor this in with the album’s second most-direct offering, “Rains Thru The Roof at Thee Grande Ballroom (For Capital Steez)”—dedicated to the titular rapper, who committed suicide the night before Christmas Eve in 2012 at age 19—and you’ve got an album with themes that won’t take long to get you stewing.
“As a fan, he could have been 43 years old and it would have been heart-wrenching,” guitarist and vocalist Efrim Menuck says, reflecting on the death of Capital Steez—real name Jamal Dewar—who helped pioneer the Pro Era rap crew with Joey Bada$$. “The fact that he was 19 was unfathomably sad. I feel like, from my own adolescence, there’s a first wave of kids who fall away, and I remember that vividly from that age. There were friends who went nuts, friends who killed themselves, friends who overdosed. So yeah, it just seemed to make sense given what the song was about. It seemed like we should put the crown on his head.”
What’s more, a lot of the source material is familiar for fans of the band. Those “blues” were present on the collective’s last proper studio album, Kollaps Tradixionales, which explored the idea of a full structural collapse before any kind of lifetime improvement, pointing fingers at a society leaning on commerce and power (we see that pop up again in “What We Loved Was Not Enough” with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the West rising again). And most of the members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra had their collective say on austerity measures earlier this year, when Godspeed You! Black Emperor—which shares four out of five members with Silver Mt. Zion—issued a statement after being awarded the Polaris Music Prize. The collective unsurprisingly was a no-show for the ceremony, which was held at the restored, ritzy Carlu in Toronto, but its later-issued, collective statement pretty much outlined what would come in Silver Mt. Zion’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything. As Menuck tells me on the phone, you sit down and write an album for and about the people and things you know. In 2013, we could see those pretty concisely listed in one of Godspeed’s few active steps into the spotlight, that award-response statement:
thanks for the nomination thanks for the prize- it feels nice to be acknowledged by the Troubled Motherland when we so often feel orphaned here. and much respect for all y’all who write about local bands, who blow that horn loudly- because that trumpeting is crucial and necessary and important …
3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=
holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.
organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.
asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.
these are hard times for everybody. and musicians’ blues are pretty low on the list of things in need of urgent correction BUT AND BUT if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labor performed in the name of something other than quick money, well then maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords. and maybe a party thusly is long overdue- it would be truly nice to enjoy that hang, somewhere sometime where the point wasn’t just lazy money patting itself on the back.
It’s all there in heaps on Fuck Off Get Free: economic frustration, looming corporate presence in our culture, the effect those things have on musicians and artists. “It’s related to the world of commerce that we all live in; it’s related to the economic realities of the 21st century,” Menuck says. But what’s present throughout Silver Mt. Zion’s latest long-player is also hope—maybe that’s not immediately clear between the doomy, down-tuned guitars and bludgeoning drums, the yelping admissions that our dreams are only as possible as our oppressors allow them to be on the rattling opener “Fuck Off Get Free (For the Island of Montreal)” and the near-defeated hum of “Rains Thru the Roof…” But they’re there if you’re looking for them, starting immediately with a beautiful clip of Menuck and violinist Jessica Moss’ son, Ezra Steamtrain Moss Menuck: “We live on the island called Montreal, and we make a lot of noise…because we love each other!”
“It was just something that my son said,” Menuck says. And after hearing his son’s inspirational side-note-turned-album opener, he took a second to re-record the quote. “It fit the thesis of the record.” Montreal-rooted? Of course. Noise? It’s undoubtedly present throughout Fuck Off Get Free in many shapes and forms, from the aforementioned guitar blasts on the title track to the orchestral beauty that is “What We Loved Was Not Enough”—but that last part is the more difficult one. “It’s a hard world to be open hearted in,” Menuck says, and as many admissions of hope are added to equally upsetting explorations of modern living on Fuck Off Get Free. Still reflecting on Capital Steez, Menuck relays his own take on hope and getting through the more trying times as a young musician: “Living through my own difficult adolescence, having friends fall away, kill themselves, having friends overdose since adolescence, that’s all I ever told myself: ‘Hold on, hold on, hold on.’ That’s what I say to anyone I love. This world we live in is not easy. This life we live is not easy, especially for those with gentle hearts.”
That hope, that holding on isn’t without its own reality. When asked what it means to get free 2014, despite the aforementioned shackles present through Fuck Off Get Free, Menuck has to take a long pause. “That’s a really good question,” Menuck says. He holds a little longer, his answer tumbles out: “I think we all internalize these constraints and values that keep us in our place. Getting free can be as simple as—and this sounds hokey—but taking care of yourself. It can be a million things; [one of them might be] questioning everything around you all the time.” Or maybe making a lot of noise with a like-minded set of musicians.
In Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra’s case, that noisemaking came fast as is usual. Its lineup, which appears for the second time as a five-piece, was leaner and more hard-hitting than ever, something Menuck credits to an increased confidence in “making that noise.” During some time off from touring with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the quintet assembled quickly with a few road-worn tunes already mashed out.
“One great thing about the Mt. Zion band, I feel like we’re a limber and quick little unit,” Menuck says. “We’re really good at making use of a little bit of time. It’s pretty simple—we get out when the time is right and move on from there. Tracking was about a week. We went out to this weird mansion in the countryside. We knew we wanted to record outside of the city, and we found these guys, they were starting to build a studio in this mansion in the hills, very strange house. [‘It’s kind of a long story,’ Menuck says later when asked to describe how the band stumbled on this mansion/studio in progress]
“They were starting to build the studio, and we said ‘Okay, we’ll rent the space as it is now. We’ll bring our own equipment and our own console and all the rest, and we’ll just track in the living room. So that’s what we did. It went pretty quick, but they were long days because we were in the middle of nowhere. It was nice—there was nothing to do but record music.”
The results are in the recordings; the album’s long-form, six songs aren’t necessarily easily digestible in the fast-consuming age, but its rewards aren’t deniable, either. “People have commonalities and shared interests and concerns, shared worries and nightmares and fears, but you just have to face that if you don’t make things too oblique, people will get where you come from,” Menuck says on the set of tunes. “They might reject it, but they’ll still understand.” And as for the hope for change this Silver Mt. Zion band would like to see, does Menuck, who sings “Lord, let my son live long enough to see that mountain torn down,” expect to see his hopes for the future within his own lifetime?
“It depends on the day of the week. Chances are, no. But you got to hope for the best, right?”