Posted on August 29th, 2011 (3:31 pm) by Joseph Bogen

I’ve always been genuinely ambivalent about Efrim Menuck’s two bands, Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. On the one hand, both have created some of the most unique, captivating and invigorating music of the last decade. But both projects have at times become too predictable and static. Godspeed plays epic instrumental rock songs that almost invariably start out softly and eventually build to a furious crescendo. On their last few albums, Silver Mt. Zion have done the same thing, only adding words to the mix. The exceptions tend to prove the rule. On the last Silver Mt. Zion album, the weakest song was easily the two track “Metal Bird” suite which was a failed attempt at a high energy rock song. So exciting me most about his first solo album, Plays High Gospel, is the chance to hear Menuck’s music unconstrained by the monolithic approaches of his two bands. Unfortunately, Plays High Gospel doesn’t really display anything new or interesting about Menuck as a songwriter. Rather, without a band to constrain him, his worst navel gazing is unrestrained.

The first track, “Our Lady of Parc Extension and Her Munificent Sorrows” shows promise. It begins with pulsing electric noise and Efrim singing with an off-key choir behind him. Eventually, drums and acoustic guitar rise in the mix. It sounds like a Silver Mt. Zion song. It builds, but unlike the crescendos of GYBE or SMZ, this one feels unforced and elegant. It’s followed by “A 12-pt Program for Keep On Keepin’ On,” which immediately shifts the album to darker territory. This time, Efrim sings alone, and his vocals have to contend with distortion, reverb and looping. The first six minutes consist of little more than this, and it’s not until the final couple of minutes that a propulsive drumbeat is added to the mix, making the song something somewhat less unpleasant but just as haunting.

But after that, the album becomes almost unbearably sparse. “August Four Year of Our Lord Blues” and “Heaven’s Engine is a Dusty Ol’ Bellows” bring the album to familiar territory with two instrumental electric guitar melodies that would fit right in on just about any Silver Mt. Zion album. “Heavy Call & Hospital Blues” is just piano and vocals. “I Am No Longer a Motherless Child” brings back the choir and ends the album with the third fully formed song. Unfortunately, the space in between those first two songs and “I Am No Longer a Motherless Child” is pretty sparse. It would have been a great ending to a Silver Mt. Zion album, but this album’s final moments of beauty feel unearned

This isn’t a long album, but it’s still easily 10 minutes too long, and if I’m being honest, there are at most three tracks on here that I liked. I’ve always thought Menuck’s claims of not being the leader of GYBE or SMZ were kind of ridiculous, because he clearly is the leader; he’s the one who talks to the audience, the most visible member, the only singer for SMZ and the only band member most of us can name. But with this solo album, he’s probably made the best case for his band anyone could ever make. All of his worst navel gazing is present, and very little of the beauty of his bands shines through. Not only does it not hold up especially well compared to SMZ and GYBE, but the album’s best tracks are the ones where Menuck doesn’t sound like he’s all by himself. So hopefully this wasn’t a permanent detour and his next albums will find Menuck in good company.

Track List:
1. Our Lady of Parc Extension and Her Munificent Sorrows
2. A 12-pt. Program for Keep on Keepin' On
3. August Four, Year-of-Our-Lord Blues
4. Heavy Calls & Hospitals Blues
5. Heaven's Engine Is a Dusty Ol' Bellows
6. Kaddish for Chesnutt
7. Chickadees' Roar Pt. 2
8. I Am No Longer a Motherless Child

Plays High Gospel
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

56 / 100
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