Sabbath Assembly: Restored to One

[27 June 2010]

By Scott Branson

Sabbath Assembly is the house band of the Process Church of the Final Judgment. The band wants to revive this ‘60s religious cult by writing an album based on their hymns. The main tenet of the Process Church is a reconciliation of Christ and Satan. They were accused of associating with the Manson Family.  Apparently, they began as a sub-sect of Scientology but were pronounced heretics by L. Ron Hubbard. But see, all of this information begins to eclipse the band.

There is a problem with a band entirely consumed by a message: in the end the music plays a merely supporting role. The attempt to write rock songs out of religious psalms seems inevitably to end up in what sounds like the score to a musical. The lyrics become so important—the vocals are so high in the mix and so perfectly enounced—that a certain gaudiness sets in. Rather than developing an original style, the album winds up producing a commercial idea of what a religious rock cult’s album might sound like. In fact, more than anything this album sounds like Hair,.

It was a troubling moment in the history of rock and roll when a slew of hippies at the end of the ‘60s and beginning of the ‘70s became born-again Christians and started espousing blatantly Christian messages in their songs. Sabbath Assembly wants to revive this trend.  With a band like the Byrds, for example, doing versions of traditional songs, it may be pardonable (though I hate when I catch myself singing “I like the Christian life”). But the earnestness of a Crosby, Stills, and Nash makes one wary. Sure, you could claim Jesus as the ultimate hippie, the first rock star, whatever. That doesn’t stop the cheese from seeping in when the lyrics begin to proselytize.

Restored to One begins in a rocking way. The first song’s catchy repetition of “Glory to the gods in the highest” seemed to convert me. The guitar sounds mean, even in its smoothness. The song pounds along joyfully. This song encapsulates the problem with the band. It starts with a chorus chanting “Glory to the gods”, before it lets the cool sounding guitar in. They put the hymn before the rock. Sabbath Assembly needs to get its priorities straight.

Don’t get me wrong. Sabbath Assembly is a good band. They are all good musicians. But technical exactitude doesn’t always add up to great music. The best way of describing what they lack uses a religious terminology: soul. The band culls members from other bands, like Jex Thoth (Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice), Dave Nuss (No-Neck Blues Band), and producer Randall Dunn, who worked with Sunn0))) and Earth (don’t expect any weird sounds though). The Church itself claims some great musicians as its supporters: Funkadelic, Genesis P-Orridge, Lydia Lunch. But if this album actually did anything as interesting as, say, Maggot Brain or 20 Jazz Funk Greats, then it might be able to get past the overly serious way it takes itself. Those bands and musicians all had a sense of humor, which, along with soul (whatever that is) is unfortunately missing.

There is something deceptive about the album. The music is good, but it’s mixed so low compared to the vocals that it becomes less important. After a quick listen, it’s sounds like a solid ‘60s-inspired psych rock album. As one begins to revisit it, the interesting parts seem to skim off the top. There isn’t enough either musically or lyrically to save it. The tonal form of the psalm restrains the music, so that it never seems to leave the Church.

What would have worked, especially going by the feeling the band seems to want to exude, would have been a sound more in the direction of Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. This is all light, no darkness. The few shadowy parts sound the way someone who didn’t know might imagine how dark music sounds. There is no danger and little interest besides what the words “cult” and “Satan” bring of their own accord. There is such a thing as good religious music; this just isn’t it. To be a figurehead is to be like a kind of advertising firm. If they were truly and divinely inspired to make music to go along with their Church, one would hope they would make much deeper noise, whether heavenly or hellish. It’s hard to separate them from those Christian bands that copy the bands you like. Suddenly, as you listen, you realize something is wrong. They believe in something other than rock and roll.

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