VA: Song of the Silent Land

Originally produced to commemorate the Spring 2004 Constellation Roadshow Tour in Europe, Constellation has now decided to distribute Song of the Silent Land more widely. The compilation showcases the label's breadth by including material from every one of its artists (although some are remixes or older bits and pieces) and thirteen of the fourteen tracks are previously unreleased, the exception being the Black Ox Orkestar's “Toyte Goyes In Shineln” lifted from its Ver Tanzt? debut. Like the label itself, the music is often raw, uncompromising, rebellious, and experimental.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor arguably remains the label's premiere act, with Silver Mount Zion, Do Make Say Think, and Fly Pan Am inhabiting a slightly lower tier. Joining them are Exhaust, Hangedup, Re:, 1-Speed Bike, Sackville, Sofa, Polmo Polpo, and Frankie Sparo, plus new additions Elizabeth Anka Vajagic and the already-mentioned Orkestar. Certainly a key issue concerns how well a selection distills a given artist's essence into its one track and, in most cases, wise selections have been made. For example, the frenetic drumming and strangulated guitar scrapings in “Wool Fever Dub” effectively capture Exhaust's minimalist dub-punk style; similarly, the abrasive viola-drum roar in “(Re)View From The Ground” relays Hangedup's spirit. Naturally, certain pieces stand out, like Sackville's “This Machine,” a bluesy folk-ballad distinguished by appealing baritone singing and violin playing, and Polmo Polpo's “Dreaming (…Again),” an uptempo instrumental with buoyant bass lines and brightly ringing slide guitars. Godspeed You! Black Emperor's “Outro,” a concert finale recorded in France, May 2003, is as lovely and affecting as one might expect. Following a glockenspiel's simple folk theme, strings and drums join in but never so loudly they overpower the viola's mournful tones. “Sky Lay Still,” a stripped-down rendition of a song from Vajagic's Stand With The Stillness Of This Day, also deserves mention. In this intimate folk-blues, Vajagic's voice is so closely miked it picks up every tiny throat clearing, making it easy to detect the Patti Smith rawness, Diamanda Galas intensity, and even Edith Piaf dramatics that inhabit her voice.

Some choices are less satisfying. For its contribution, Do Make Say Think remixed Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn into the 5-minute “Winter Hymn Winter Hymn Winter Hymn” which might sound like a great idea but the death metal brew of heavy guitar slams and distorted grinding noises that results comes off like a bad trip; worse, the piece lacks the musicality and melodic inventiveness the band so distinctively fashions on its albums. Silver Mt Zion's “Iron Bridge To Thunder Bay” similarly conjures a cacophonous, droning roar that is inarguably powerful but hardly suggests the tender nuances heard on the band's full-lengths.

Does Song of the Silent Land present an encompassing portrait of the label's stylistic range? Absolutely, while also demonstrating its open-mindedness and uncompromising sensibility. While some artists' selections might puzzle for being misrepresentative, such provocative choices admittedly honour the spirit of the project and the label in general. Ultimately, the bottom line is that Song of the Silent Land offers newcomers a superb introduction to the label and to the already-converted a wide-ranging and generous collection of unreleased material.

September 2004