Grace Notes is a weekly exploration by Jason Morehead of signs of common grace in the music world. We hope to alert you to wonderful music, some of which will be spiritual in nature but all of which will be unique and worthy of your attention. Each week we will share brief reviews of albums worthy of your attention and maybe a video or two.
Last time, I spotlighted several Christian artists that I listened to “back in the day”, and were responsible for overturning many of my preconceived notions about what Christian music could be. This time, I’m digging even deeper and spotlighting some rather obscure Christian artists that hold unique places in the history of Christian music.
Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus
Taking their name from a fictional terrorist group in Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire, Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus may be one of the most obscure Christian groups ever. It doesn’t help that they broke up right before the Web took off, meaning that information about them is very difficult to track down (this is the closest I’ve found to an actual RAIJ website). More importantly, though, their music seems purposefully designed to keep them in obscurity. A blend of spoken word, traditional European folk, world/tribal music, and industrial/experimental sounds, RAIJ’s music was often described as “apocalyptic folk” and drew comparisons to Current 93 and Dead Can Dance. Permeating the band’s music, though, was a distinctly Christian spirituality, albeit of a more mystical and meditative variety. At times dark and ominous, and at other times beautiful and haunting, I’ve still yet to hear anything remotely resembling the Army emerge from Christian circles.
Unfortunately, the band’s releases, such as 1994’s The Gift Of Tears / Mirror / La Liturgie Pour La Fin Du Temps have long been out of print and can be rather expensive. However, some of their music can still be heard on MySpace.
The Trees Community
The Trees Community was a Christian “contemplative community” that began in an old loft in New York circa 1970. Self-described as a “group of disparate teenagers and young adults looking for the truth” who had burned out on Christianity, the group began a series of spiritual explorations that brought them back to Christ and an association with the Episcopal Church. Those spiritual explorations ultimately manifested themselves as an enthralling form of folk music that combined elements of psychedelia, Indian ragas, African tribal music, and Steve Reich’s minimalism. Lyrically, the songs are almost all Biblical in origin, and draw heavily on the Psalms in particular, e.g., their “epic” explorations of Psalm 42 and Psalm 45. Think Joanna Newsom meets Sufjan Stevens: delicate harp melodies and sitar drones blend with trilling flutes, bells, and mandolins. Meanwhile, the group’s lovely male/female harmonies sing out such lyrics as “Your throne, O God, shall endure forever/Your royal scepter is integrity/Your love is for justice, your hatred for evil/Your throne, O God, shall endure forever” with an equal mix of reverence and exuberance.
“Christian industrial” music had been around since the ’80s thanks to Blackhouse and The November Commandment, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s that it really “broke out” into the wider Christian culture. R.E.X. Music played a large role in this, releasing “traditional” industrial albums by Circle Of Dust, Brainchild, and Argyle Park. However, they also released arguably one of the strangest entries in the Christian industrial canon: Passafist’s self-titled album. I almost hesitate to describe Dave Perkins and Lynn Nichols’ (formerly of Chagall Guevara) music as “industrial”, though. True, some genre trappings are present, but Passafist was really a pop band that bore as much similarity to Prince and The Talking Heads as Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. And while industrial music is often associated with angst and other dark emotions, Passafist’s songs were often characterized by a skewed sense of humor as they tackled topics like gun violence and phone sex. The album’s highlight, though, is the ten-minute “The Dr. Is In”, which combines Dr. Strangelove samples with funky guitar licks to create a trippy meditation on Cold War-era fear and paranoia.