By 2005's Horses in the Sky it was undeniable -- Silver Mount Zion, which started out as a sort of companion band to Godspeed You Black Emperor!, had grown out of the shadow of its parent band completely, blossoming into its own beautiful thing. The relationship between the bands though could still serve as the basis for description of where exactly Silver Mt. Zion (or Thee Silver Mount Zion Reveries and Tra-La-La Band with Choir, if you like) ended up. If Godspeed You Black Emperor! painted the world on the brink of some indefinite, soul-crushing apocalypse-type disaster, creating a panorama of the end of time which was profoundly striking and richly detailed yet strangely impersonal, then Silver Mount Zion found themselves on the other side of that same collapse, providing a voice for its human victims -- lost, hurt, confused, and bewildered yet still yearning for some hope and meaning amidst all the rubble. On their previous record, This Is Our Punk-Rock, Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, the band already took some tentative steps towards abandoning their moody soundscapes in favor of full-fledged songs, and here they pursue the same direction baldly, confidently, and without looking back. Efrim Menuck's quivering, earnest voice is much more a focal point of the band's music than ever before (which, understandably, may be quite a stumbling block for a lot of listeners) yet however an acquired taste his vocals may be, there's a furious conviction in his performance which more than makes up for it.
This determination is shared by the whole band throughout the record. Consider "God Bless our Dead Marines," the opening track, which moves trough a number of twists and turns during its dozen minutes. Starting off slowly with ominous strings and some apocalyptic imagery from Menuck ("They put angels in the electric chairs") it gradually builds into a beautifully ramshackle dirge suggesting a sort of East European carnival orchestra stumbling drunkenly down the hillside in the dark, before shifting gears and transforming into a majestic and beautiful march. The drama builds as Menuck sings about losing friends to various personal catastrophes ("Lost a friend to cocaine, lost a friend to health, lost a friend to suicide, lost a friend to shame, lost a friend to monsters" etc) and then suddenly, with the same earnestness and intensity, he continues "I love my dog, and she loves me, the world is mad, and so are we" -- and soon the song changes yet again, moving to a poignant, piano-led coda, with Menuck and the choir softly repeating the lines "When the world is sick, can anyone be well, but I dreamt we all were beautiful and strong." It's huge, dramatic, darkly funny, and heartbreakingly beautiful -- and it's only the first song of the record.
Though this type of epic songwriting is probably what they're best known for (and what's usually expected of them), it's far from the only mode the band work in on Horses in the Sky. There's a surprising simplicity to many of these tracks. For instance, the title track is a rather straightforward protest song dressed up as an introspective, sad folk tune; for most of its running time it consists of only a voice and an acoustic guitar. During another highlight, the (also) mostly acoustic "Hang On to Each Other," an actual crackling of campfire can be heard, as bandmembers sing "Hang on to each other and any fucking thing you love" in a quietly intense manner suggesting a bunch of close friends mourning over their inevitable separation in the face of impending doom. It's this mixture of urgency and beauty, insistent hope and quiet desperation, epic ambitions and staggering simplicity that elevates Silver Mount Zion beyond any sort of post-rock tagged playground, where they never really belonged to begin with, to a much higher (and much less populated) plane reserved for truly great bands and truly great records. Because with Horses in the Sky, Silver Mount Zion clearly made such a record, and in the process, essentially, became such a band.