Magazine article The Christian Century

Sound Alternatives

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sound Alternatives

Article excerpt

PSALM 96 ISSUES an invitation repeated throughout the Old Testament: "Sing to the Lord a new song." Today's Christian musicians follow that call into vistas that David could never have foreseen, from Celtic folk to speed metal to reggae. Yet it's hard to imagine a foray as bold, brash and challenging as The Divine Liturgy of the Wretched Exiles, by the Psalters (it's a self-released album: www.psalters.com).

If one could reduce sacred music to slideshow archetypes featuring a gospel choir, a praise band and a slick Christian music act, the Psalters might be depicted as a crude tribe of ragmen and women giving in to Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp" as they wrestle with brokenness, temptation and demons too frightening to name and with the shudder-surrender to Truth itself.

A self-described nomadic tribe "walking in the footsteps of ancients past," the Psalters take their cue from the temple musicians of 3,000 years ago: "'They were people intending to glorify God through music," the group states on its Web site. "They did not perform for the sake of entertainment, utility, or artistic expression." The Psalters summon a spirit of abandon and wailing on Exiles, organized into a liturgical movement of 21 tracks. "Trisagion" and "Psalm 6" open things with a whirlwind of percussive cannon shots, organ swirls, sandstorm Arabic scales, and vocals that sound as if ripped from the soul of a penitent trapped in a lice-infested hairshirt. It's exhausting to listen to, but closer to capturing the feel of soul-crashing prayer than any song in your music library.

Elsewhere, Exiles takes more carnivalesque turns. The minor-key "Gloria" pumps with oscillating cello and accordion before a whirling-dervish collision of handclaps and doumbek and djembe drums enters the mix. "He vindicates the little ones and gives worth to their suffering," the male and female singers exult, conjuring images of praise rendered around a Sinai desert campfire.

Then there is "Dig It Up," dressed in the style of a chain-gang chant, with spooky basso profundo singers sludging along as a coin-rattle sound loop drags beneath. "Dust and mud coming through my pores / You can't find God in the department stores," the opening lines intone; to listen closely is to take to heart the message that as consumers, we are more shackled than we can possibly know.

On the closing "Train de Vie," banjo, trumpet, upright bass and shouted vocals create a klezmer beast run amok: "Not conforming to this age or its kings / They pass away but on we sing / Pilgrim songs of hope incarnating."

Exiles is not for the artistically faint of heart. The songs resist categorization and are so collectively bizarre that they challenge the listener to embrace them. Still, a strong, resonant heartbeat pulses below its disturbing, often brutal surface. Exiles is vastly more authentic than all the Christian-themed music straining to play it safe. Flaring, daring and wholly original, this is the voice crying out in the wilderness, a voice impossible to ignore.

Some other CDs to note:

Driven to My Knees, by Tom Feldmann (Magnolia). Americana.

Minneapolis-based roots rocker Tom Feldmann has crafted a gospel record that's caked in the tumbleweed-dry textures of Americana music. While Feldmann's creaky voice serves the style well, his original material suffers on two accounts. First, his songs too often fail to escape their mid- and dirge-tempo rhythms, creating a mood that's more dour and dull than hypnotic. Second, his lyrics are often little more than simple refrains, devoid of any imagery or storytelling to give them added gravity. …

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