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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Live Review, 2/6/12: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra Gets Comfortable at Great American

Posted By on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 8:42 AM

click to enlarge Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra last night at Great American Music Hall.
  • Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra last night at Great American Music Hall.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra

Matana Roberts

Feb. 6, 2012

Great American Music Hall

Better than: Any use of a flute in a rock song, ever.

Before the five members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra ascended the stage last night at the Great American Music Hall, it was evident that the quintet intended to deliver an intimate performance. But the show firmly exceeded intimacy, in that each instrumentalist asserted their tasteful proficiency individually, while balancing their roles as members of a group.

The intimacy of a live performance is hinged upon the audience's ability to witness a group perform in their most natural setting, and Silver Mt. Zion's equipment was arranged more like a rehearsal than a concert. Amplifiers were situated in a crescent, rather than pointed out at the crowd, and the floor was strewn with pedal boards and other wiry, flashing minutia. The gear was set upon tall stacks of equipment cases like harrowing pillars, as the amps were rather small by the standards of rock bands performing at a venue the size of the Great American.

click to enlarge silver_mt_zion_3.jpg

This was not an indication of the band being out of its league, however. Small, vintage tube amplifiers run through a venue's sound system are often an indication of musicians concerned with cultivating dynamic, circuitous tones, and that was precisely the case for Silver Mt. Zion

Its opening song, "13 Blues for 13 Moons," simultaneously revealed each member's virtuosity and their skill at collaborating. It used an odd time signature, but every performer briefly came together on the first beat of each measure, and seemed to refract off one another into fits of subtle, kinetic percolation.

Violins and cellos are often used as pretentious distractions for otherwise bland rock groups, but Silver Mt. Zion demonstrated how such unusual instrumentation can reinvigorate the genre. The next few tracks avoided thunderous climaxes, and thus showed the group at its most effective. As the cellist laid down gloomy, understated melodies, a violinist would interject discordant counter-points with odd bowing techniques or by indulging in her elaborate pedal boards.

These softer segments were much more interesting than the overblown, cymbal-laden climaxes, which compromised the instruments' timbre in an undesirable way -- but luckily the set aired on the side of understatement. When Silver Mt. Zion let loose on record, it conveys a compelling, post-apocalyptic intensity. But without careful studio treatment and mixing, the effectiveness of those passages is dampened significantly.

The bandmembers' demeanor and appearance reflected the rehearsal space-like nature of the stage setup as well. Nearly oblivious to the crowd, their gazes meandered across the floor, their instruments, and bandmates. The style in which Silver Mt. Zion operates lends its self to pretentiousness, but the group's attitude shirked that trapping. In casual, neutral-colored clothing, they took time to tune their instruments multiple times, erratically coughed, sipped beverages, or abandoned footwear.

click to enlarge silver_mt_zion_1.jpg

When frontman Efrim Menuck introduced one new song, he began to explain the lyrics by saying, "This song was written in the past tense because it seems like the book is already closed," and then abruptly stopped to playfully criticize his own metaphor. Such playful banter was a pleasant respite from the overwhelmingly gloomy music. It revealed an endearing duality to Menuck; he could describe tortured imagery over bleak music, and laugh at himself in the same breath.

Before a particularly long track, he even sarcastically suggested that attendees leave, offering an alternative itinerary. "Just go get some fries, drink lots of water before you go to sleep, and bone your ex-girlfriend in the morning." The rather crass suggestion was redeemed by an intelligent derailment of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's domestic policy, instigated by an audience member's inquiry about the upside-down portrait of Harper behind the band.

Most of Silver Mt. Zion's "post-rock" peers, (besides Godspeed You! Black Emperor, naturally) seem to flounder and degenerate into tedious dawdling during softer segments and endlessly rehash the same guitar-centric climaxes, but last night at the Great American, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra triumphantly defied that cliché.

Critic's notebook

By the way: Silver Mt. Zion shares some members with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who are likely to deliver an equally compelling set at the Great American Music Hall in April.

Opener: Matana Roberts opened the show with a series of improvised, solo saxophone pieces inspired by her recent journal entries. Roberts' charisma was staggering, and each piece was prefaced by a description of a recent journal entry. Surprisingly, the thematic content of each song seemed aligned with the sentiments conveyed beforehand.

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Sam Lefebvre

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