“I live by the railroad/I don’t get no sleep/Four corners resplendent/with indie rock creeps,” Efrim Menuck growls on A Silver Mt. Zion’s new album, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons. One assumes he is referring to the railroads just north of Van Horne, in the bobo haven of Mile End. Those rails have always loomed large in Menuck’s music; they lie just outside the former location of the Hotel2Tango, the studio where A Silver Mt. Zion’s entire catalogue was recorded, along with most of your favourite local albums. The train rumbles by for several minutes on “Goodbye Desolate Railyard,” from 2003’s “This Is Our Punk-Rock,” Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing. On those train tracks, Menuck’s other band – the legendary Godspeed You! Black Emperor, now on an indefinite hiatus – flattened pennies to slip into the sleeves of their first record, 1997’s F#A#∞.
But the railroad is under the knife, as is the band’s beloved Mile End. Big-box development is encroaching on the rusted train tracks, the old industrial area around the former Hotel2Tango is undergoing a massive, City Hall-initiated makeover, and Mile End has become so hip it’s a punchline. Investment and cultural capital have changed Mile End, and, with it, the band.
A Silver Mt. Zion’s earlier work was understated and meandering. Songs could be limited to a lone, plaintive piano and found sounds. The few times Menuck sang, his voice was buried deep in the mix and layered with effects. Gradually, though, songs became more structured, the band doubled in size, and Menuck’s howl moved to the forefront. Now officially adopting the clumsy moniker Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, the band has become more accessible – if that word can apply to 15-minute songs – and its politics are more explicit. A Silver Mt. Zion stopped just writing instrumental lullabies for a world on the edge of ruin, and started singing about it.
13 Blues for Thirteen Moons is furious. Heavy, jagged riffs drive the songs, Menuck yells as often as he sings, and the album is more rock than “post.” This anger is directed at the usual suspects – cops, bankers, politicians – but Menuck also has a new target: himself. “1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound” has the band repeat the phrase over and over, before Menuck wails “Your band/your band is bland/your band is bland ambition.”
Self-loathing is tricky to pull off, but 13 Blues is an elegant apology that avoids the vulgarities of a public penance. The architects of gentrification no doubt paid close attention to Mile End’s meteoric musical rise, and, Menuck, it seems, is atoning for his own small role in drawing “indie rock creeps” to his neighbourhood. His bands have undoubtedly, if unintentionally, helped make Montreal the hotspot it is today, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor member Mauro Pezzente is the co-owner of hipster hangouts Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa. Godspeed’s releases used to be peppered with fond references to Mile End. Now, on 13 Blues, Menuck sings, “This bright boy’s getting old/This town is too damn cold/I just want some action.”
But neither Menuck, nor Godspeed, nor A Silver Mt. Zion is single-handedly responsible for the mixed bag of Montreal’s cultural evolution. So it’s heartening that 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons ends on a joyous note. “BlindBlindBlind” begins in quiet, descending sadness before roiling into blaring major chords and dizzying strings. “Some! Hearts! Are! True! Some! Hearts! Are! True!” the band cries, and the naked honesty present in A Silver Mt. Zion’s best work is more sincere than ever.
A Silver Mt. Zion’s web site, tra-la-la-band.com, includes a hand-scrawled map of the area surrounding Hotel2Tango’s former location. On one side of the railroad tracks sits “Thee Mighty Hotel2Tango,” marked by a heart. On the other lies the “motherfucking Home Depot” and the “motherfucking 3 acre parking lot.” “Zombies wander here,” the map reads, with an arrow pointing to the parking lot. “(Sometimes you see people you know…they look embarassed [sic].)”
13 Blues for Thirteen Moons is, if anything, A Silver Mt. Zion’s own shame-faced encounter with the listener. But Menuck doesn’t avert his eyes or make excuses. “Silkscreen that, ye twits/Across thy internet,” he sneers to Godspeed’s online cult. Atonement has rarely sounded so blistering and defiant.