September 28, 2003

The Desert Fathers "The Spirituality"

Tim Kinsella once remarked of his band Joan of Arc that its music “raises more questions than answers.” Although there’s nothing wrong with a band that wants to provoke thought in the minds of its listeners, most bands of this ilk often force said listeners to ask the wrong kinds of questions. For example, “Why the hell am I listening to this?” Joan of Arc at its worst, which is admittedly about half of the time, often provokes this question. At their best JOA, along with a couple other bands (Cheer-Accident and Need New Body are the first two that come to mind), craft music so listenable and engaging that even when I’m scratching my head in confusion, I have no urge to reach for the stop button on my CD player. If the meager half-hour of music found on The Spirituality is any indication, the Desert Fathers have that same elusive quality that enables even their most esoteric experiments to demand repeated listening.

The cover art, which consists mainly of crude drawings of dogs wearing white robes and angel wings, betrays a surreal religious bent. The liner notes contain a very long piece of prose in which the band, with the help of an elderly priest, consults a wild beast for Biblical wisdom. “Peace in That” envisions a heavenly afterlife filled with “dogs with graceful wings.” Four songs later, “Pitbulls” delivers a slowed-down spoken monologue about hell, which is interrupted by random bursts of furious canine growling. “Agnus Dei” begins the record with a two-minute symphony of looped, disembodied voices that sounds like a warped vinyl recording or a Catholic mass. “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” which comes five tracks later, is a similar ambient piece driven by choral washes. This is definitely the first time I’ve heard an art-rock album that sounds explicitly tailor-made for pet-loving Christians.

The guitar playing on this album is incredible. Six-stringer Acquaman (sic) gets more mileage out of his whammy-bar than anyone since My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. Whereas Shields’ playing was more serene, Acquaman’s whammy technique is more jarring and severe. On “A Practical Joke,” the two guitars don’t even sound like they’re playing in the same key as each other. How the vocalist manages to extract a convincing melody, a Middle East-influenced one at that, is far beyond me. He does it, though, and on various songs his tuneful caterwauling complements the pitch-imperfect guitars seamlessly. “Peace in That” is the closest the album comes to a conventional rock song. It’s built on the kind of Hum-style drop-D riffage that Steve Albini’s production was made for (you didn’t think I’d get through this review without mentioning him, did you?). Even that song, though, derails itself with a brief snippet of ranting from a toothless old man about evolution.

The Spirituality only gets more unhinged as it progresses. “The Age of Reason” begins with a guy arguing with his whining dog, and quickly turns into the kind of rousing anthem that the Swirlies forgot to put on Cats of the Wild, Volume Two (which is still an awesome record; don’t get it twisted). The last three songs form a sort of trilogy based on a simple drumbeat. “Focus” layers pretty guitar harmonics on top of each other until it feels like the song was recorded in a malfunctioning clock factory. “Life After Life Everlasting” is a slower version of “Focus,” with the guitars replaced by piercing synthesizer tones and more choral washes. The final song, “Transmorph,” chops the instrumental track of “Life” into smaller samples, completely rearranging them and forcing them to do battle with Acquaman’s guitar grinding.

At the CD’s end, I wondered why the Desert Fathers left me hanging without a couple more songs to pull the music back into normalcy. After a couple more listens, though, I realized that they probably meant to leave me hanging like that. The Spirituality is way too short and way too weird, but it’s also way too good to miss out on. Also, Acquaman just happens to be the drummer for the Forms, whose EP Icarus you should’ve bought already if you read my review of it. Threespheres released both of these records, which makes them two for two so far --- give me more, guys!

--Sean Padilla

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