Anchored by the fried electric guitar and plangent voice of band leader Efrim Menuck (who previously co-founded Godspeed You! Black Emperor ) SMZ continues to slide comfortably and unforcedly towards an expansive, loose and blues-inflected balladry – not so much the inexorably riffing blues shuffle of the title track from its previous effort, 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons, but a more languid waltz-time marking an almost smouldering dynamic arc, as heard on the new album’s opening track “There Is A Light” and gorgeous closer “’Piphany Rambler”.
Needless to say, the slow burn with SMZ, whatever the blues influence these days, bears little reference to typical notions of musical seduction, relaxation, or hip-swinging satisfaction. What smoulders here is much more precarious and anxious, driven by some of this decade’s more devastating lyrical conjurings – of the universal outsider and the thematics of 21st century western psychic oppression. As the lyrics to “There Is A Light” attest, these are no simple paens to the human spirit, but songs of complex, desperate and thorny hope. The words to this song (and so many others too often poorly understood in the SMZ cannon) should at least give the lie to the oft-repeated charge that Menuck is some sort of miserablist or glib pessimist. This time around, they are also legibly printed for all to see and read in the accompanying insert.
With Efrim now the lone guitarist, his shattered oscillating tone and staggered snarling leads collide against one another on tape, framed by a swirling widescreen backdrop of dual violins, courtesy Sophie Trudeau and Jessica Moss. Their playing is in ways more classically orchestral than ever in many places on Kollaps Tradixionales, serving up arpeggiated runs and modernist strokes that counterbalance and destabilize the more conventional progressions at the core of any given song or movement. Thierry Amar’s upright bass work as always plays a similar role, fluidly moving from harmonic anchor to counterpoint to adventurous extrapolation, displaying this player’s fluency and alliance with free jazz, improv and out music. The way all these strings push and pull, with their own multiplicity of influences, against those punk rock ‘lektrik guitars has long been one of SMZ’s crucial and inimitable strengths. It is on fine display in many exciting new guises on the new album, and the band’s freshest member, dummer David Payant, does a wonderful job playing into and off of this heady brew.
And of course there is plenty going on here that ain’t no blues at all, particularly the two middle sides of this four-sided album. “Metal Bird”, as it has been known to fans from set lists over the past couple of years, takes up Side Two (or tracks 2 +3 on the CD) and the two sections now bear titles that together spell out the entire first enigmatic line of the song. This has been a massive crowd favourite in concert in recent years, careening through a throbbing 7/4 template of intertwined ascending and descending lines, coalescing into unison melodies and pumping breakdowns. The sonic references are abundant, ranging from afrobeat to bouzouki music to hard bop to punk rock – culminating in the memorable refrain “dance you motherfuckers”. The three phases of the album’s ‘title track’ on Side Three (with their variant spellings and parenthetical modifiers) are indeed ‘traditionals’ of a sort, playing on tropes of American and Anglo-Saxon folk, marching song, sea shanty and hymnal. Together they make for perhaps the most overtly enchanting (“Kollapz”), tender (“Collapse”) and terrifyingly rapturous (“Kollaps”) music on the record.