I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
A more appropriate combination than the pairing of Akron/Family with Angels of Light would be difficult to find. Both have firm foundations in American roots music and Appalachian folk and americana, and both have a tendency to melt your face with a sonic blitzkrieg (Angels of Light’s Michael Gira probably more so with his previous band, Swans). Brooklyn’s Akron/Family, who bear no relation to each other, were hand-picked by Gira to be his Angels of Light backing band on this album (as well as on tour and Angels of Light’s follow-up, Angels of Light Sing “Other People”) after peppering Gira’s record label Young God with demo tapes. (They had released their self-titled debut on Young God earlier in the year.) On Akron/Family & Angels of Light, the veteran band kindly cedes the spotlight to the upstarts, allowing the proteges to open the twelve-song record with seven songs of their own.
I think the best way to approach Akron/Family’s half of this “split” album is to position yourself in a hard, sweaty pew in a small church in the dead of summer, with nothing but overhead and handheld fans to move the stale air. “Awake” is the fearful and reverent prayer of an opener, the lyrics at once nervous and supplicant (presented here in its entirety): “I worked around your secret, / Suddenly someone was near me. / The touch of your thought was / Close to my neck, / Awaken.” “Moment” follows in a similar lyrical vein, but the Sonic Youth guitar freakout that begins the song highlights the two sides of Akron/Family – yeah, they’re pretty folky at times, and they’re extremely adept at beautiful four-part harmonies, but they shred a guitar with the best of them, a little treat for the art rock crowd. But once the groove kicks in after the maelstrom, we get what could be the heart of the record, distilled to four lines: “The word of our Lord scratched in sand / By the spittle drenched flannel of man / We struggle to stand higher / But our feet are attached to the land.” We humans labor throughout our lives to reach God or a higher plane of existence, yet we fail every time. We’re therefore vulnerable to influences promising salvation.
“We All Will,” “Future Myth” (with its falsetto intro that sounds positively inspired by Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”), and “Dylan Pt. 2” move from folk to rock to prog with ease, with the short, weird ballad “Oceanside” being the only momentum killer. “Raising the Sparks” begins as a battle hymn, seemingly “Onward freaky soldiers / marching as to war.” This is the part of the service where everyone starts handling snakes, a strychnine fiesta of eyes-rolled-back indulgence, speaking in tongues, and Pentecostal fervor. It starts Crazy Horse-ily enough, with ripping distorted guitar leads and group singing, but it quickly becomes a religious experience as a wordless breakdown of “ya-ya” syllables grows more frantic, whipping the congregation to a frenzy. After a second verse, the music (save the drums) drops out, and the four band members shout a variation of “raise the sparks!” for several bars, working themselves up more and more as they careen toward the resolution of their half of the split. Perhaps this is all a more pagan ritual than Christian revival, as the dust and dirt is palpable, and oneness with the Earth is attained through chant and physicality. Regardless, when the instruments come back in with the same guitar leads that opened the song, it’s like a holy thunderclap, as if God has descended to judge the living and the dead. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty damned effective.
Michael Gira is the wizened leader here, the man behind the curtain, overseeing the boisterous congregation from under a black hat, a shock of dark hair, and a smirk of satisfaction (imagine an inverted image of Big Love’s Harry Dean Stanton, he of the white suits and greasy black hair). He sits back and watches, and once his congregation has worn itself out with its earnest worship, he approaches the microphone. His world-weary tenor dispenses wisdom to an audience, sweating and heaving for breath in the pews, primed for his special message. His influence on a mass scale still plays to those who want to seek it. And so it is that this album ends feeling more like a cult meeting than anything else.
And that’s OK, we go into Gira’s music blissfully willing to let it soothe us to our doom. He begins with Bob Dylan’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” the subject matter instinctively winning us to his side. Gira’s voice isn’t quite as colorful as Dylan’s (in fact it can be pretty deadpan), but that does not detract – it instead helps me carry this crazy-church metaphor to its conclusion. And as Gira’s work with Swans and Angels of Light has often lifted the curtain separating love, devotion, and death, he therefore plays the perfect part as our master of ceremonies here. Case in point, despite its title, there is deadly menace in a song such as “The Provider.” And he takes the cult thing one step further in his reinterpretation of his own “Mother/Father,” originally performed by Swans: “There’s a place in space / where violence and love / collide inside.”
And this all makes the record a hugely compelling listen. There is beauty, and there is grave danger, and the juxtaposition of the two is unsettling. And Michael Gira is a deft Svengali here, manipulating the talents of Akron/Family to great effect. What you have then is the essence of the best “apocalyptic preacher” artists, such as Nick Cave or David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, distilled in jars, and hucked out of the back of a wagon as snake oil. You’ll be converting sinners left and right if you’re filled with this holy fire. Just remember to plug in the guitars.
RIYL: Crosby, Stills, & Nash; 16 Horsepower; Bob Dylan; Crazy Horse; Fleet Foxes; Swans