THE SILVER MOUNT ZION MEMORIAL ORCHESTRA AND TRA-LA-LA CHOIR with Polmo Polpo at Clinton's (693 Bloor West), tonight (Thursday, January 22), $6. And with Michelle McAdorey and Eric Chenaux Friday (January 23). 416-535-9541. Rating: NNNNN
The term punk is gradually becoming meaningless. I remember a time when the phrase signified something greasy, urban and dangerous. It was anarchy and leather jackets, kids with neon mohawks, combat boots and safety pins through their ears. Punk was ragged DIY aggression and political revolution.
These days, it's morphed into a vague, watered-down mush of bratty three-chord pop songs and puerile wannabe Johnny Rotten snarls. Does anyone really believe Sum 41 or Blink-182's gonna help us smash the state?
Then you get a band like the Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Choir (also known as A Silver Mount Zion or myriad variations on the Silver Mount Zion theme), an offshoot of Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor collective, who spin intensely emotional, epic post-rock chamber music, and who, in the verbose title of their latest record, boldly announce, "This is our punk-rock."
Sonically, Silver Mount Zion's tunes are light-years away from the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, but, as founding member Efrim Menuck explains, their punk rock is more than an empty three-chord promise.
"There are a lot of us who are lost in the punk world from a really young age. It's about having a really strong, romantic belief about the potential of a really enormous group of people to support each other, finding people who feel as lost as you and realizing that there's all sorts of things you can do once we all find each other."
Menuck admits he sounds a bit flaky, but you feel what he's talking about when you listen to "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, (Constellation), Silver Mount Zion's latest opus. It's an alternately soothing and seething set of quivering strings, elegiac piano fills, incendiary Godspeedish percussion and desperate repeating guitar riffs that scream and fade, layered with disembodied field recordings, anguished vocals and a naive choir.
This is the more accessible mutation of the Constellation label's characteristic instro-rock, rooted in a philosophy of anti-pop deconstruction and a need to make concrete change.
"I was walking around with a head full of doom about the war drums being beaten, walking through an empty field that existed the day before but was filled with bulldozers and cement mixers," Menuck recalls. "I walk my dog on the train tracks every day, and I felt how all these spaces are disappearing in the area where we live. I believe in the idea of cities, and this neighbourhood is really being torn asunder slowly, for all the laziest city planning reasons you can imagine."
The album was born out of the intersection between these two feelings - fear of Bush and his war hounds and sadness at the gentrification of Montreal.
Of course, it has the added benefit of decipherable lyrics, which means that - in contrast to, say, Godspeed's implicit nonverbal critiques - you can actually understand the political underpinnings of Menuck's tunes. This is a good thing, since oblique and meandering track titles like Sow Some Lonesome Corners So Many Flowers Bloom don't necessarily clear things up.
Devoted Godspeed fans don't always dig the added vocal elements, but it's hard to agree when you hear the album's coda, a full choir softly repeating the line "Everybody gets a little lost sometimes." It's fucking heartbreaking.
"We just phoned up everyone we knew to sing," Menuck offers. "People get so self-conscious when they sing. They put their hands in their pockets or wrap their arms around their chests so they'll feel a little less vulnerable. They carry their protective tension in strange ways. We had a whole circle of people standing there with their mouths open, getting over their self-consciousness.
"It was a sweet, sweet thing."