Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra

I hope to have written the actual correct name, because since their origin Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra did change small part of the name more often than they change their line-up… and this was very often. The ideal band to guarantee headache to proofreaders of rock anthologies, music files, sites of this planet.

The weird custom goes back to the time of their “ancestors”, Godspeed You! Black Emperor is the band from where some of the members come and a band who had been playing with exclamation marks and weird characters throughout their career.

Changing tiny differences retaining the concept is the linking point of the two bands that during the years and the process evolved into different sounds.

A group of Canadian musicians closer to an utopic anarchic collective than to the modern concept of rock band.
The idealistic philosophy behinds them can be explained with several examples. I will use one that a friend who worked with them told me. Godspeed You! Black Emperor never released guestlists and press pass tickets for free to journalists, they were for sale and the earning was donated to charities.
The reason is that a reviewer is biased in the moment receives a free album or a free ticket.
Now you know why you haven’t ever read about them, now you know why this is a group of artists that British Council (well, Canadian) should preserve as Greenpeace tries to save whales! This is idealism at the service of purity.

Both bands, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (that seems to have lost the “& Tra-La-La band” bit in translation for the pleasure of words count), have in common a key element: Efrim Menuck.
Guitarist, Keboardist, singer and permanent mind behind those projects it is around him that the two projects evolved and intersected during the years.

Together with the idealism, and beyond the music, words are the other peculiar link among these two bands.
Words that change the name, words that are invented, words that are twisted, distorted, abused, moulded to their desire.
Words that were absent in GY!BE music, words that appear as proper lyrics in SMZ.

A careful use of words plus idealism make poetry and a Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra concert is a musical equivalent of a poetry reading.

As usual I arrive to the Electric Ballroom on a rainy night. I can’t remember a single time I arrived in Camden on a dry pavement. An endless winter that is now unabashed occupying even the weeks meteorologically reserved to the spring.

I get inside. It’s warm, the merchandise is selling very cool special editions of vinyls, the classic stuff that fans of cult bands love. I had to refrain myself buying a couple of vinyls. Before restarting collecting vinyls I should move to another house with an extra room, so it’s a no go.

The stage is prepared for five people, the present Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra line up. Tonight they are made of two violins, Sophie Trudeau and Jessica Moss, Thierry Amar on a double bass, Efrim’s guitar and David Payant, the drummer. Almost a proper band. I said almost!

No setlist on stage so if it wasn’t for the usual hardcore fans who knows every song and put them on I couldn’t tell you that they played

I Built Myself A Metal Bird
I Fed My Metal Bird The Wings Of Other Metal Birds
There Is A Light
God Bless Our Dead Marines
Piphany Rambler
1000000 Died To Make This Sound

Microphones In The Trees

Translated in human language, about half concert on the new album, Kollaps Tradixionales, with the three opening songs played in mixed order – a wonderful half hour in the pit for photographers, for free. Thanks for changing your radical policy with press folks! – plus the long closing suite, Piphany Rambler in the middle. the other are three classics (classics?) from three of their six albums.

This is for the records. For the opinions, unless you are so much into every note, the song (song?) structure is similar. Instrumental dialogues between the different band members, with the violin and the double bass adding epic-ness to the whole and the guitar bursting in metallic rushes which are the main reference to the post-rock era of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Frank Zappa experimentalism resounds from Efrim hair to his guitar and singing which, for unknown reasons, often reminds me of the sweetest Syd Barrett ballads.

The songs expand and constrain, pulse as a heartbeat on their path but sometimes lose the route and move in circles as wandering in an imaginary labyrinth. It can last minutes until they find the way to get out of it.
When this happens, suddenly even the most indecipherable section of their long suites magically seems to make sense.

When the exit is not found it arrives Efrim to fill the lack with his interventions.
Because the other reason why between attending a Silver Mt. Zion show and listening to their albums is a different experiences is what comes between songs.
When Efrim takes the microphone to use words beyond the lyrics you can expect some entertainment. He is a funny character. He jokes, rants asks questions to the audience and comments the answers with sarcasm.

His fans know him, so when someone provokes with “Bring Godspeed back!” he also knows that “Fuck Off bloody Godspeed! That was easy, just 4 chords and a highway!” is the most likely answer to get.

Humour. When a guy asks why they don’t do pop music the response is that they can’t because they don’t look like a proper pop band and after all in pop there are not money.

He is very sharp and can be brusquely candid. So when 1000000 Died To Make This Sound (I hope it was this, help me if I am wrong) is dedicated to several dead artists, from Ron Asheton to Jay Reatard with suggestion accepted from the crowd someone shouts “Bob Dylan!”. A moment of hesitation behind his sarcastic smiles then he goes “Bob Dylan isn’t dead yet. He would be if I met him, though”.

There’s also the “open mic” phase. Efrim wants important statements from the audience. Among them he amplifies a “Save BBC6” which is backed by the entire band. He gets perplexed by someone shouting “one solution revolution!”. It sounds out of time (politically is not on fashion anymore, is it?), just a few seconds before a bright fellow in the crowd pairs it with “two solutions evolution!” which makes everybody laugh and the band can start the closing piece. More grand music, idealism and clever words.
Microphone in the Trees closes the night in an acclaimed encore.

Heading back home, the rain stopped, I reflect on how these bands would need to be supported by the British Council (or the Canadian equivalent!) for keeping high the simple concept of playing for a reason and not for a market.
Doing what they like risking to disorient even the most open-minded listener but always ready to defend their purity.

From Post-Rock (don’t tell them they are post-rock!) to experimentalism, discover Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra here [website] [myspace]
Post-Rock pioneers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are here [website] [myspace]

Photo tip

A technical phototip. I have been asked several times about Vibration Reduction and Image Stabilization. Is that useful at concerts?

Let’s start from the answer. No, it is not.
I try to make clear why.

– What’s the aim?
Vibration reduction is a system that minimize blurred images due to camera shakes.
It allows the photographer to use a slower shutter speed and is particularly useful on telephoto lenses, more sensitive to shakes.

– How does that work?
It is quite complicated and there are different systems depending on camera brand and lens use.

The two most used in still photography are:
A lens element floating, counteracting the shake. It is used on Nikon VR and Canon IS lenses. This has the advantage of working on any body, including the film cameras and being dedicated, is optimized for the lens you are using.
Alternative is the digital sensor moving. This is obviously on the body and has the advantage that it will stabilize any lens mounted on it. It is used on Pentax and don’t know which other cameras.

– Why such a device is not useful at concerts?
Because a camera allowing a hand held slow shutter speed, let’s say 1/15s, doesn’t take into account the motion of the subject and the slowest the shutter speed the more blurred your photos would be because, as a matter of fact, rockstars are not static, in fact they tend to move a lot!
So with a stabilized lens you are going to have a sharp microphone pole with a blurred musician which is not the concert shot your portfolio needs.

At concert you need fast lenses that allow the fastest possible shutter speed to freeze the bloody rockstars! If you are after a concert photography lens and your options are a stabilized f/4 versus a non stabilized f/1.8 the choice is a no question. You want the second.
Always choose the fastest lens you can afford. Light is never enough and if it is enough you can always stop them down!

~ by Valerio on April 5, 2010.

9 Responses to “Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra”

  1. Lovely pics Valerio. Great job.

  2. Nice piece on VR/IS etc – I had a massive debate with a guy at a show six months ago who was a full time music photographer and making a fair bit of money from it who spent ages telling me why I should lay down 1500 on the 70-200 Canon 2.8 with IS. I kept saying to him that IS was useless for live stuff at low light and he wouldn’t hear any of it. Just kept saying again and again that I would regret it if I didn’t spend the extra on IS…..I am sending him this webpage to see what he says. Our battle continues….

    Oh and the body based IS is now in most of the Olympus DSLR bodies.

    Lovely Besnard Lakes pics on TLOBF btw!

    See you around,


  3. Thanks Paul, (and thanks Chopper!)

    I don’t really see the rational why VR/IS would be useful to shoot anything that moves itself, i.e. a rockstar. There may be some exceptional case like a static guy sitting with a guitar as you can use it with panning effects on a thing that move predictably (i.e. a F1 car), but for a random messy situation as concerts are, VR/IS is not worth the money as much as having a faster lens.

    The VR/IS mechanism has the same effect of having a monopod (on that I would write another tip one day!) built on your lens, which is useful for some kind of photography.

    Let me know what your friend says I’m curious to listen to a different point of view.

    see you soon

  4. These guys are soo good.
    The shot of her with violin flipped over the shoulder is a banger!

  5. I use to read your article and that’s geeat !!! ;)

  6. Great photos. I stumbled across your blog through a link on APUG. Caught Silver Mt Zion back in March in Dublin. Incredible gig. If you are interested my photo of them is here:

    A different sort of gig photography ….

  7. Vote for Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra or any of your favourite vinyl album covers of the year! Kollaps Tradixionales is one of the nominees for Best Art Vinyl 2010. To check out the nominations or to vote yourself, go to

    Vinyl love xxx

  8. I really love this piece. Such an amazing band.

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