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Our New Punk Rock

Kevin Canfield

Punk rock emerged in the 1970s as the decade’s most compelling music of social criticism, a mantle that in the ’80s was handed off to hip-hop. In the ’90s thoughtful kids with acoustic guitars pushed their way to the fore, delivering some of the smartest commentary of the Clinton era. It’s still too soon to tell who’ll get the baton in the early years of the 21st century, but don’t bet against a Canadian collective that is single-handedly inventing a new genre of politically progressive music.

Despite its grandiose name, the Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir is actually a group of six musicians who make an improbably big sound. The band recently released its third full-length record, the idiosyncratically titled “‘This is Our Punk Rock,’ Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing.” Melding classical music (violin, cello and piano) with traditional rock instruments and a variety of found sounds, the album is less a commercial product than an indictment of militarism, globalism and conspicuous consumption. Like the best and most enduring art, it is complex and thought-provoking. But then, this is nothing new for the enigmatic Efrim Menuck and company.

If Menuck’s Mt. Zion is perhaps the most interesting band working today, a close second is another musical outfit of which he is a part, the equally abstruse Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Though the two bands share several members, they don’t necessarily mirror one another; a nine-piece band, Godspeed plays big, muscular instrumentals while Mt. Zion employs abstract lyrics and spare arrangements. Jointly, though, they are creating their own movement.

What’s the movement about? Well, to judge by the handful of interviews band members have granted, the album art that accompanies their records and, of course, the music itself, it’s about opposing imperialism and forced gentrification. It’s about combating corporate takeovers of local communities and resisting crass consumerism. It’s about the right to voice dissent and to live free from government snooping. As it says in the liner notes that accompany “‘This is Our Punk Rock,’” “hearts in need make symphonies.”

What’s truly exciting about Godspeed and in particular, the new Mt. Zion record, is the way in which the two bands have managed to make music that is at once listenable and emblematic of a unified artistic and social vision. Even more impressive: They do it with nothing resembling conventional rock lyrics.

Godspeed’s compositions are vast, surging instrumentals that derive their appeal from the clash of musical cultures (rock and classical). Mt. Zion’s songs are also long—the four tracks on “‘This is Our Punk Rock’” consume nearly 58 minutes —but, if only for the presence of occasional vocals, are somewhat easier to appreciate. As its title suggests, “Goodbye Desolate Railyard” is a song about the old railroad at the center of the band’s Montreal community and the way it is being overrun by condos and big retail outlets. “American Motor Over Smoldered Field,” with its warning to the Western world’s power brokers—“The ice around your garden/ Won’t keep the walls from falling,” Menuck repeats again and again—is at once poetic and hypnotic.

Menuck, too, has hit on something new with his vocal delivery; he sings off-key, and he does it on purpose. It’s as if he’s saying to anyone who will listen, “We may not be conventionally beautiful, we may not share your ideas, but we are here, and you are going to have to deal with it.”

In an era when Britney Spears is celebrated as socially aware because she spends an hour with poor kids while the MTV cameras roll, it’s premature to suggest that a band like Mt. Zion or Godspeed You! Black Emperor will be an iconic voice. Band members refuse to play the publicity game; they do not appear in videos, are almost never photographed and, judging by the relatively low price of their records, have no interest in money. But in their own way, Godspeed and Mt. Zion are changing the world, one complicated record at a time.

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.
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