Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Spirit Penetrates Rock

Hey, how are you guys? I didn't write my blog for a while, cause I moved last April, and then my routine got disrupted, and I got out of the habit. With the dawn of a new year a few weeks past, I'm ready to re-inaugurate. For the first post of the 2012 FPE, Frances chose a record that's all about rebirth, rejuvenation, and an old meaning with a new medium: The Electric Prunes - Mass in F Minor, "composed by David Axelrod". Not the bad mustache Obama guy though. This David Axelrod is a composer guy and his upper lip is free of offensive hairs.

The Electric Prunes, in 1968, were known from their earlier hit "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)". Appropriately thrown into the "garage" and "psych" buckets, their minor mode vocal harmonies, fuzz guitar, and "these guys think about deep stuff" vibe made them a good fit for composer David Axelrod's rock mass project, and the LP they made together is a unique and thoroughly enjoyable re-enactment of the Eucharist.

(Side note: they didn't technically make it "together". They tried to, but according to interviews with David Axelrod and the band members in the June 2001 issue of Mojo magazine, the music was like, too complex for the garage band, and a lot of the album's performances are by "ringers". The one time they tried to perform it live was a fiasco along the lines of Spinal Tap's "jazz odyssey": bassist Mark Tulin said "I ended up just telling the cellos to 'Jam in E'." Anyway, issues of who actually played on the record aside, it sounds like the same band that did "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)". It's all about the vocal harmonies and the drippy psych veneer.)

This scene from Easy Rider uses the "Kyrie Eleison" ("Lord, have mercy" in case you didn't know) from this record. It's a total mind trip: food and wine, sex (for money), sacred art with boobies, non-sacred art with bigwigs, smoking, tinted glasses, and a dude with an American flag on his leather jacket saying "If God did not exist..." Far out, man. I mean really groovy. And heavy. Lay it on me, mama.

There are a bunch of "contemporary" and/or "rock" masses on records from the late Sixties through the Seventies. Peace, and love, and religion, you know? Not the strange bedfellows they've seemingly become in this day of Fred Phelps and the GOP Ricks. There's also Lalo Schifrin's Rock Requiem from the same year, 1968 (it's for orchestra and chorus, but it qualifies as rock cause it's got a drum kit playing rock beats, and also, you know, it rocks), and Salvatore Martinaro's punk-as-fuck, totally unlistenable mess of a Mass, whose 1977 recording by the group "The Ineluctable Modality" featured some seriously freaked out commentary in the liner notes by conductor Edwin London:

The trip down Church Street has not, in this century, been felicitous for the sort of music one might call American Serious. In regard to use of tonal art, the Church continues to worry deeply about the wide range of possible effect posited between static and "all-is-flux" concepts. For the needs of the Church (in the spirit of argument choose any denomination, though this statement applies in particular to the old-line corporates with the most highly evolved rituals), music history functions more than as study of static past; rather it appears too as Dream Image, a stupendous moving picture, with sound at the center, produced at great existential cost, starring all the biggies strutting, and other abutters, wryly bred for lesser tasks, interfaced in a massive dithyramb-bam-crackle-poppity-pop of substantive chaos--hoo--wee--instructional all the more.

Exactly. Wait, what? I think he means, the power of music is to unite the spiritual with the physical, you dig?

The tale of Life's Great Adventure - for a trek within which memory is not only a convenience but also a requisite governing benign progression - continues to resound. One finds it necessary to recall in order to arouse (tickle-tickle) the wires of thought - thereby manufacturing new things out of old fabric. Can one make old vestments out of new cloth? a Mass? Truth is, it is a Judeo-Christian pun and a creative act of consequence.

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the Mass is the manner of celebration of the Holy Eucharyst in the Roman rite, a celebration dedicated to the memory of Christ and His redemptive work, not simply to recall as in a picture but rather, too, to re-enact Christ's redemptive work sacramentally in the form of a mystery rite. The historical clothing of the event belongs to the past; the salvific act is eternal.

Right. The spirit is embodied in the rite; music is the body that the spirit takes on. I can see through time.

Yeah, but rock? Rock is the devil; boil it down and all you've got is a rhythm, a body sex grind, a fundamental opposition to the body denial of the spiritual life. Rock music blares; it glorifies the body as divorced from the spirit. How you gonna take Satan's envoy and clothe the salvation of mankind in it?

But a naked spirit is impotent, and what clothes can the spirit wear but the body? Rock's mind-erasing rhythm doesn't have to be sexual. Rather, it can prepare the mind for the spirit to penetrate.

The Catholic Mass flows like an album. It's a little short when you take out the in-between parts, but pad it out with some bombastic psychedelics and you've got yourself a nice set of six songs with a coherent theme and some useful contrast.

Does it "work"? Sorta. There's a part in "Gloria" where the drums and bass and (politely) screaming guitar come together in a way that recalls Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida". In the Garden of Eden, baby. The Latin chanting is as ridiculous as it is creepy as it is weirdly effective. The music's short on hooks but it's long on vibe. For me, it doesn't quite add up: it's like, yeah, that's the Mass, and that's some rock music, and they are happening at the same time. Isn't that something. Compared to, say, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, or Rob Tyner screaming about Motor City burning, it's a little bit of a tough sell. But hooks or no, it's an evocative vibe: when I hear it, I have a hard time keeping visions of body-painted hippies gyrating in black-lit rooms with beads and incense out of my head. It's real, and it's a celebration, and it's a mystery, and it's a ritual. So, it's a mass.

Does it turn you on, man? Does the drench of psychedelia make you want to partake of the blood? It's the ultimate drug, man, cause it makes your body merge with God. Your body merges with God! The bodies of humans shed their separateness; wine exists as blood. And now, thanks to the Electric Prunes, you can have your Host and eat it too: no more boring old chanting in churches. The spirit is continually renewed into the Now, its time and place without bounds, as it was intended.

Will Skrillex do a Dubstep Mass? One can only hope.