War Prayers manages to exceed quite handily the monolithic drones of Helium circa their indispensable Pirate Prude document, as well as the towering inferno of early Swans — the rich tradition of gospel and old eerie/foreboding but still communal/traditional folk music. It’s thoroughly American, in all the best and most mysterious (Beat Happening, Carter Family, Velvet Underground) senses of the word. A new canon is being formed before your very eyes/ears.
Percussionist/vocalist Katie Eastburn (from a theater background, which explains the bombast and strength in her lungs, away from the usual shrinking violet vocal quality of indie rock) belts and coos along the lines of Shannon Wright and early-Helium Mary Timony. Her spare drum style owes equally to Moe Tucker and Viking drummers aboard slave ships. The twin guitars (and occasional drums) of Jeff Rosenberg and Jarrett Silberman form a dense web of flickering sound, such that I didn’t even realize their wasn’t any bass until I read the album credits. Stylistically, it’s minimalist and foreboding, going from drones to squalls to desolate dustbowl picking. They reject forms and techniques of the moment, from jangle to garage, and seem to embrace a neo-primitive aesthetic. In their thrashing and muted outbursts are hints of Bauhaus, Pil and likeminded alchemists.
“El Paso” is an overwhelming opener: a martial beat keeps order amid chaotic overlapping feedback, and rather than struggling to be heard above the glorious din, Eastburn confidently belts out her lyrics like some mix of Judy Garland and PJ Harvey. A perfect mess. “Tammy Faye” begins like an extended free-flowing tone poem and ends with a powerful worksong coda of “We Are All Going” over and over, powered by insistent drums. “Ne’er Do Well” plays out vast expenses of sound like a plateau, slide western flourishes and beautifully out-of-tune vocals. It’s a cold night on the mesa.
“Dutch Oven” is almost overwhelmed by sheets of guitar static, but a Melvins-speed drum and a bizarre vocal turn that would make Bjork jealous provide balance — not a song in any sense of the word. “The Lord” is Beat Happening meets old country/folk, impossibly chirpy and joyous, but still so familiar sounding. Perfect for singing to yer kids at picnics, maybe you did when you were one. Then “The Valley” explores the flipside of this ancient music paradigm, with down-and-out blues so desolate no man would dare speak its name — random muted percussion accompanies truly worn-down vocals. The only structure is in the slurred verses. An amazing exploration. “Early Pottery,” on the other hand, is pure optimism, wrought through ringing harmonics and feedback. Survival. Let it buoy you. “I sing because I am free” — yes! Creation!
On “Night of the Hunter” — dissonant country, strums, feedback, randomness — her voice holds it all together with nursery rhyme homilies, and then out of this dense noise comes the most beautiful Greek chorus of lilting voices you’ve ever heard (jaw dropper). Eastburn starts in with an acoustic guitar and tambourine exhortation of “dream little one, dream” — then on to drum rolls like Beetlejuice and a good old fashioned Madder Rose-y rave up complete with sax. Then the guitar drops out and children ask her for bread. “You kids don’t have anyone in the world, do you? No.” Back to the “dream little one, dream.” And a bombastic coda. Wow. Musical theater for the community children’s camp. Perhaps the closest thing independent rock has had to the reach of “A Quick One” for years — this is the one.
Young People make music like Leonardo Da Vinci sculpted marble, the forms were already present, they were just waiting to be discovered by the chosen hands. Prayer music for a new world.
Dim Mak: www.dimmak.com