At the great risk of sounding like my father--something I always told myself I needed to stay away from--I’m just going to come right out and say it:
"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I have no doubt that everyone’s dad says that, while they’re talking about how the thingamajigs or whatchamacallits the family owns are fine because they’re still in working order, but the old adage applies in more than just the practical sense. It applies to music.
It certainly applies to Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra. The now five-piece has gone through several dramatic lineup changes (and names) since their 1999 debut, He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of the Room..., and with those lineup changes have come changes in sound. Changes that are not entirely for the better. The group’s sixth studio album, Kollaps Tradixionales continues TSMZ’s recent trend of being a more vocal-oriented band, and oftentimes the gorgeous string and organ work is lost in the fray.
What that leads to are stretches of music so frustrating that you question whether or not the album is even worth seeing through to the end. For many gorgeous string arrangements, there’s a patch of off-key, borderline indistinguishable vocals from vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Efrim Menuck. I understand that all of TSMZ’s incarnations have existed under the tenet that there is no average song length and there is no verse-chorus-verse structure; still, this infusion of vocals that randomly comes and goes is at times more a hindrance than an accent.
The 15-minute album opener, “There Is Light” perfectly exemplifies the damage that Menuck’s vocals can do to his group’s own cause. Gliding on nothing more than violin and guitar, the song picks up pace and volume for the first few minutes until Menuck’s vocals enter the picture. As the violin work loudens and waves of drums and distortion splash behind it, Menuck gets louder and louder and the words coming out of his mouth more and more impossible to understand. In a classic case of subtraction by addition, all of the piercing peaks and valleys of the violin are overshadowed by Menuck’s off-key delivery and seeing the song through each of its 15 minutes is more of a chore than a pleasantry.
Album closer “Piphany Bambler” is similarly hampered, but to nowhere near the extent of the opener. The decidedly slow-moving track sees Menuck in a much more reserved inflection above minimal instrumentation, until slowly he fades from the song entirely. Slow, heavily distorted chord progressions mix with a lush violin arrangement until Menuck returns over the same minimal instrumentation that the song came in on. The long, drawn-out violin work eventually leads into an epic crescendo--the kind of crescendo the band sounded so adept with on songs like “Stumble and Then Rise on Some Awkward Morning” and other earlier works. This is Thee Silver Mt. Zion. This is grandeur and ingenuity brilliantly coming together.
There are other times when Menuck’s voice fits the band’s direction, too. The muddy riffs and thick chord progressions of “I Built Myself a Metal Bird” present a post-hardcore departure from the album’s orchestral lean, and in that capacity, Menuck’s wailings sound so perfectly at home. It’s dirty, feedback-laden music like this that he sounds made for. Violinists Jessica Moss and Sophie Trudeau can be heard accenting the background with rich bursts of beauty and it’s on this song that the direction of TSMZ truly comes together. “Kollaps Tradicional” offers a wider array of sounds as violin, upright bass and guitar form an odd but entrancing base, and Menuck’s toned-town vocals are delivered in perfect time with the subtle pounding from drummer David Pyant.
It’s no secret that 2010’s TSMZ is not the same as 2000’s ASMZ and it’s no secret that some of the lineup and stylistic changes have not been positive ones. But the collective will soldier on regardless, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes haphazardly.
I’ll see if I can get my father in touch.