Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The U.S. casualty count in Iraq recently exceeded 4,000. Most of us, numbed by the numbers, can go about our daily lives, but not everybody is able to ignore the bloodshed so easily. Montreal avant-garde rock outfit Godspeed You! Black Emperor has been on indefinite hiatus since 2003 because of what member Efrim Menuck has called a collective “existential freakout,” caused in part by the ongoing war. Though the members of GY!BE have never been shy about expressing their anti-corporate, anti-war sentiments, the fact that they made instrumental music made it harder for them to directly communicate their convictions. The message is clearer with Menuck’s splinter group, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, where his lyrics address wartime worries head-on. (“God Bless Our Dead Marines,” from 2005’s Horses in the Sky, gets at a typical sentiment.) On the group’s fifth release, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, Menuck continues to rail against the military-industrial complex, combining abstract lyrics with the intense rock crescendos that were his previous band’s hallmark. As the instruments crackle and hiss in the background at the beginning of “1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound,” the band repeats the song’s title in spooky singalong. A formulaic blast of post-rock catharsis comes in at the four-minute mark, as Menuck ramps up his already-strained vocals and the various string instruments—violins, viola, and contrabass—follow suit. The overall effect is not unlike the string-heavy, Gypsy-influenced rock of another overtly left-wing band, the Ex. Silver Mt. Zion has been actively performing for three years, and the four main songs that make up the album have long been live staples. The interplay between the seven band members is smooth, reflecting the fact that three members worked together in Godspeed, and the band’s excitement is palpable. Those merits help to balance the weaknesses that are seemingly inherent to a fervently anti-war record: a joylessly grim tone and pious lyrics that frequently take themselves too seriously (“Policemen in parallel lines…May the light of our striving still shine”). How to make an album that expresses disgust at the savagery of war and contempt for plutocracy and yet make it, you know, not such a slog to get through? The best way to enjoy 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons is to focus on the dramatic, sweeping instrumental parts of the epic songs—“Black Waters Blowed/Engine Broke Blues” best among them—and try to appreciate the “storm-the-ramparts” urgency of the most giddily absurd lyrics: “The hangman’s got a hard-on/The pretty minstrels sway/The pundit reeks of coffyn/The banker rapes a maid,” from the title track. (The spelling of “coffyn” isn’t a typo. The lyric sheet features alternate spellings of the same word within a song, presumably because proper spelling and grammar are such tools of the establishment.) That’s not to dismiss or belittle Silver Mt. Zion, who’ve made a powerful, heartfelt record. But my affection for the record is a little like having a passing crush on the strident vegan girl with the Crass patch safety-pinned to her jacket. It just would never work out: She’s on the front lines of the culture war, and I’m the shallow guy who thinks “This war sucks” is an acceptable pickup line.