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Music Review: Efrim Manuel Menuck – ‘Pissing Stars’

Efrim Manuel Menuck is no newcomer to experimental music.

He’s spent much of the last 25 years stretching his guitar tones into otherworldly shapes with Godspeed You! Black Emperor. His longtime side project, Silver Mt. Zion, occupied much of the same headspace, occasionally channeling a strange sort of punk energy. Even his first solo record, Plays “High Gospel,” distilled the ghostlike ambiance and musique concrète of his other projects into an insular, singular piece of music.

At its surface, Pissing Stars seems like more of the same. But there are some wonderful surprises in store.

The album is woven together from an atmosphere of shifting drones, tape loops, and overdriven vocals—think a crustier version of Flying Saucer Attack. The mix is dirty and chaotic – overtones run wild, lyrics are buried, and feedback runs rampant. But underneath all of the buzzing and whirring, there’s a singer-songwriter album buried in here.

“Black Flags Ov Thee Holy Sonne” opens the record with a dirge-like lament. A fuzzy electric guitar riff accompanies his quivering, delay-soaked voice. Oscillating drones and vocal samples join in slowly along the nine-minute playing time. Eventually, the crowded atmosphere evaporates, leaving nothing but monk-like hums and a few whimpers of Menuck’s voice.

It’s followed by “The State and Its Love and Genoicide [sic]” (GY!BE fans are no strangers to misspelled song titles). A glitchy, industrial drumbeat sets the tempo for a choir of lo-fi synths. In a parallel universe, this is the song the Flaming Lips ripped off to create The Terror. Menuck’s voice continues his lament over the cacophony, though it’s difficult to tell exactly what he’s mourning.

Three shorter instrumental tracks follow. “Kills vs. Lies” plays a noisy synth modulation over the first clearly audible words of the album: a woman’s voice justifying the murder of those killing the environment and oppressing children. It’s followed by “Hart_Kashoggi,” the first hopeful-sounding piece of music on the record.

But the album’s centerpiece, “A Lamb in the Land of Payday Loans,” switches gears.

Another electronic drum part sets a quick pace. Effect-drowned pianos and guitar feedback play a major-key figure. Menuck’s voice joins in with a melody that’s nothing short of triumphant. Were it not for the buzzing of noise and vocal-burying mix, it could almost be an Americana classic. It might not be the best soundtrack for a motorcycle ride, but there are shades of Springsteen and Jackson Browne buried in its noise.

Except for the closer, “Pissing Stars,” the record doesn’t spend much time in this victory. But “Payday Loans” isn’t a detour. In its clarity and exuberance, it pulls back the curtain to the rest of the record.

It’s easy to get distracted by the claustrophobic atmospheres and ignore what Menuck is singing. In fact, the mix seems to encourage it. But “Payday Loans” recalibrates the record. It lifts up the blanket of noise and directs your ear to Menuck’s songwriting. And obscured though it may be, the man has a lot to say. Perhaps the clearest statement is contained in the penultimate track: “In this troubled world, there’s just two things are sure: the beauty of children and the war against the poor.”

A bittersweet sentiment, to be sure. And in a world that seems to be increasingly dominated by mania, climate change, and class warfare, it’s easy to empathize with. In Pissing Stars, Efrim Manuel Menuck creates a protest album that is as focused as it is obscured by his own compulsion for noise.

About Nathaniel FitzGerald

Nat FitzGerald is a lifetime music enthusiast, both as a listener and a performer. He lives in South Bend, IN where he plays in the post-gaze outfit SPACESHIPS and runs the blog A Year Of Vinyl, wherein he reviews every record in his (sizeable) collection.

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