Celestial visions occupy Prayer Chain and Whirlpool on their new alternative-rock releases.
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.
The Prayer Chain
Rode Dog Records
A much-traveled contender on the alternative-Christian rock circuit, Prayer Chain takes a solid stride forward in its creative journey with its third CD since 1992.
After walking in the footsteps of early U2 and adding grunge rock density two years ago on "Shawl," the Orange County foursome follows its progressive instincts on an album that, at its best, is stately but not pompous, trippy but still intense.
While previous influences continue to exert some pull (the song "Waterdogs" echoes the toughened, rhythm-conscious approach of recent U2), Prayer Chain expands its reach and profitably incorporates elements of Indian raga, a helpful additive given the band's frequent goal of casting a mood of mystery and grandeur.
Never a band to bash listeners over the head with the Bible, Prayer Chain is at its most subtle here. Most of the songs contemplate the gap between fallen humanity and divinely given illumination, but they never pretend that making the jump is simple or easy. In a move that is commendable for a Christian band, the group includes an openly erotic number, "Bendy Line," that offers a deft mixture of dark and shimmering rhythmic currents as it poetically evokes a dreamily intoxicated state of desire.
The album starts slowly with "Humb," which spills over into pretentiousness with diffuse, exhalations-of-the-spheres sonics set as a backdrop for a psalm of thanks. It does, however, establish the cosmic scale of imagery and theme that Prayer Chain subsequently works in more interesting ways.
"Sky High," slow and straining, begins to fulfill the band's vaulting sonic ambitions.
The album's best song, "Mercury," showcases Tim Taber's plaintive voice and his band mates' ability to weave a mood that overlays tension with detachment. In theme and emotional tone, the song comes off as an extension of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," with the lost astronaut, Major Tom, captured in his most inward, downcast moment of despair: "I'm never coming home/So lost, so found, so what."
One advantage of being a Christian band is the ability to write apocalyptic songs from a viewpoint that's visionary instead of despairing. Prayer Chain caps its album with "Sun Stoned," in which crying vocals and Andrew Prickett's swarming guitars speak of earthly tumult, while Eric Campuzano's strong, confident, steadily proceeding bass-line signals a firm belief that the whole big mess somehow makes sense in the end.
(Available from Rode Dog Records, 2910 Poston Ave., Nashville, Tenn., 37203)
Like the Pixies, whose turbulent but melodious sound and male-female vocal tandem are obvious models, Whirlpool plays rock songs that are escapist in the most serious sense.
The Pixies' Frank Black is always singing about space as a magical alternative to the flattening realities of late-20th Century life on earth, and Whirlpool, a side-project for members of the area bands Sensefield, Mean Season, Outspoken, Reason to Believe and Final Conflict, often does likewise.
"Engines Down," with its images of death and dystopia on the Southern California freeways, opens the album with a vision of what needs to be escaped, and "The Sound" follows immediately with Whirlpool's prescription for transcending, via rocking out:
I just want to drive off into the sky
And take the deepest breath,
I just want to swim to the other side
And hear the sound.
For evidence that today's youth are growing up too fast, look to "Twenty Five," which moves up the usual age of midlife crisis by a couple of decades ("See myself getting older. . . . And I get so afraid now that I won't be no fun anymore.")
But Whirlpool presses on with its mission to escape drowning and wallowing. The band stays amused by playing its sci-fi angle for laughs on "Trouble," in which pressing the wrong button on a futuristic piece of machinery creates a nervous moment that's evoked with wryly mysterious and conspiratorial touches. And, in the end, on "Blinding Light," Whirlpool goes Bono one better by finding (or at least imagining) what it's looking for: a dream gig on the intergalactic touring circuit.
With familiar garage-rock and psychedelic elements arrayed behind an effective but not distinguished lead barker and a conventionally airy harmony voice, Whirlpool isn't exactly breaking new ground. But as it follows its already-marked path through modern-rock space, there's no mistaking that Whirlpool is an intelligent life form with a strong will to rock.
(Available from Revelation Records, P.O. Box 5232, Huntington Beach, CA 92615-5232).