By Tris McCall
Listen: "High Bell"
From: JC. I think so, anyway. Their MySpace page identifies them as a Brooklyn band, but they call themselves a Jersey City collective. A few years ago, you couldn’t turn on WFMU without hearing a cut from Songs From The Shining Temple, which is weird, because WFMU is a free-form station. Their commitment to Flaming Fire is the closest thing to local interest that the station has probably ever taken. Shining Temple was released through Perhapstransparent, which is still the best indie-rock label in Jersey City history. Brian Wilson, the drummer from American Watercolor Movement, plays on half of these tracks; the great Brian Dewan, who isn’t a New Jerseyan but is a pretty constant presence on this side of the river, is listed as a bandmember. The Hambrechts – singers Patrick and Kate – feel like envoys from that old-style “weird” Hudson County aesthetic that is rapidly disappearing. I associate it with Hand-Mad, Pier Platters, the font on the menu at Maxwell's, certain studios at 111 First Street, and the Hard Grove Café before the renovation.
Format: Full-length LP. Twelve tracks, a few of which are longer than an average pop song.
Fidelity: Pretty good. Your Flaming Fire collective isn’t obsessed with perfect sound reproduction, and they don’t expect their listeners to be, either. The band cut most of these tracks at Studio G in Williamsburg, and when you record at Studio G, you sometimes get guest performances by Tony Maimone as part of the deal. Maimone is a hell of a musician; he’s credited here with some tambourine-shaking, but I suspect he did more. The non-Studio G tracks aren’t noticeably different-sounding, which shouldn’t be any surprise – these guys have been at it for awhile. They know what they’re doing.
Genre: Occasionally experimental alt-pop. Flaming Fire has probably had to deal with comparisons to the B-52s, since they’re very theatrical, they’ve got one guy singer who mostly chants, and two sweet-voiced girl singers who proceed as if they’re oblivious to his weirdness. Also, they like to get funky, and even at their most inane, the B-52s were always funky. Flaming Fire is never inane, though: their jokes are always pointed, and their performances lean more toward Old Testament prophesizing than nostalgia or art kitsch. In concert, Flaming Fire put on a backwoods-damaged revival show, complete with costumes and dancing, testifying, brimstone and damnation; you know, the works. Bands that do this kind of thing (read: Danielson) often have a tough time translating the spirit of their performances to record. But When The High Bell Rings is too raw to remind anybody of a show souvenir. A cast recording, maybe; a raucous, drunken, cut-during-the-closing-party one.
Arrangements: By now, you probably think you know what you’re getting here: one of those faux-religious services, kinda like Reverend Billy and the Church of Consumerism, or whatever it’s called. You get the gruff-voiced guy masquerading as a preacher, and saying some over-the-top stuff that’s meant to satirize itself, and a couple of chicks playing the part of temple girls. And that’s correct, as a direction – but the members of Flaming Fire aren’t just playing this for laughs. For starters, they take their religious-studies seriously: the Hambrechts run a Web site that invites artists to submit illustrations of Bible verses. So even if their mode of play-worship reminds you more of a UFO cult than any Christian group you’ve ever encountered, you can’t deny that they’ve done their due diligence. If they’ve got a critique of Old Testament theology and how it contributes to New World violence, they’re not uneducated about it. You never feel like they’re shooting fish in a barrel, or taking pot-shots at a good book they’ve never read.
What's this record about? As you might expect from a band whose best-known song is called “Kill The Right People,” Flaming Fire is concerned about the practical consequences of the jihadist mindset. Consequently, they’re attracted to the bloodier stories in the Bible: Revelations, Joshua, sacrifice, the ban, the family violence of Genesis. When The High Bell Rings is dedicated to Seila, who isn’t named in my Oxford Edition (there’s a further, and more terrestrial, dedication to Pandora Hastings, a California punk rocker who died of a heroin overdose). But Philo – or the first-century Jewish scribe who wrote in Philo’s name – identified Seila as the daughter of King Jephthah, sacrificed by her father in the name of religious allegiance and some sick notion of the importance of follow-through. Jephthah returns home from fighting, and he promises Yahweh the head of the first person he sees; to his dismay, it’s his child who comes charging out of the castle to greet him. Philo lets Seila speak for herself, a courtesy she isn’t given by the authors of the Book of Judges. Bible scholars have been debating the meaning of the Jephthah story for centuries; some think we’re meant to understand the King’s sacrifice as literal, while others have argued that it’s a cautionary tale about blind obedience and too-casual vows. It’s pretty clear what side of this dispute Flaming Fire is on: “High Bell” has Seila going to her death amidst blood and fire, and faith that she’s about to “make love tonight.” Is she getting screwed by her father on earth, or her father in heaven, or both? The implications of “High Bell” are made more literal on “Lemon Isis,” an interpretation of Serge Gainsbourg’s dreadful “Lemon Incest” -- here, Patrick Hambrecht gives us a lesson in early Egyptian mythology and the stone penis of Osiris. Other songs are more straightforward: “Wolf Farmer” is a carnivorous horror (“I eat my animal friends”), and “Dark Night” is pure apocalypse. It’s all written in the vernacular of our modern evangelical prophets; all gore and gutting, with no redemption or salvation waiting.
The singers: Patrick Hambrecht belches up fire on the first few tracks, bellowing and snorting like a cartoon version of a country preacher. That would be unsustainable over the course of an album, and by the time we reach “Satellite,” he’s lapsed into a more conversational register. Hambrecht’s unaffected voice is likeably nerdy; his Swaggart act is authoritative, but two-dimensional. Neither Kate Hambrecht nor Lauren Weinstein can really hold pitch, but it’s not much of a problem – when asked to chant absurdities as if in a trance, or intone things like “penis” and “incest,” it actually helps the joke to warble a little. Unlike Megan Smith of Danielson, Kate Hambrecht communicates an ironic awareness of her role as an interrogator of religious orders. But it’s Weinstein, a cartoonist by day, who steals the show; her deadpan performances are simultaneously hilarious and upsetting. If they ever shoot Jonestown: The Movie and they need to fill the role of a wide-eyed ingénue who hits the Kool-Aid with cultic zeal, they ought to look here first.
The musicians: Three drummers and two percussionists are credited on When The High Bell Rings, and it often feels like they’re all playing at once. As I mentioned before, one of them is Brian Wilson of American Watercolor Movement – but only on “Satellite” does he gets to flash his signature breakbeat-influenced style. Bassist John Mathias is the backbone of the group: Flaming Fire songs tend to be built around funk grooves. His is the prominent instrument in most of the mixes, and he holds Flaming Fire songs together during long bridges and digressive passages. (He also does a clumsy-but-spirited Chris Squire impersonation on the band’s version of “Astral Traveller.”) Guitar parts are minimal, and mostly echo the bass; analog synth fizzes over the top of the rhythm section, but rarely does more than add color. The Dewan Brothers contribute some “Dewanatron,” which sounds so cool on paper, and is probably responsible for some of the electronic noises. Still, if I was lucky enough to get Brian Dewan in the studio, I think I’d try to convince him to bust out the zither.
The songs: Back before I knew better, I used to confuse Flaming Fire with The Fiery Furnaces. Gallowsbird’s Bark cleared that up for me, but the two groups have more in common than a predilection for Bible studies. Both are, essentially, psych-blues bands whose reps for experimentalism are mostly due to pastiche and section-shuffling. Flaming Fire doesn’t depart from verse-chorus structure as much as the Furnaces do, though: instead, they prefer to throw in proggy midsections, breaking the groove and shifting abruptly from rocked-up choruses to dreamy bridges. They’re also fond of song-ending freakouts, where they pile all the treble instruments on top of each other and add some chaotic, atonal squalls. I should mention that only about half of the numbers on When The High Bell Rings are Hambrecht originals; the rest are oddball covers and interpretations. “Satellite,” my favorite track on the set, is a Matty Charles number, “Astral Traveller” is a very smart choice of Yes cover, and “Khar Shabi” is a traditional Tajik folk song. Just as Bongwater once did, they haul in obscure material, dip it in acid, and tie-dye it in their own colors.
What's not so good? Of course, they also do “Shout,” a crummy Devo song from Gerry Casale’s show-me-the-money period. Weinstein and the Hambrechts try to trick it out, but the lyric is just too dim. Some songs are maligned for good reason and can’t be rescued; this is one of them. Also, my momma raised me to believe that the most important tracks on any album were the first and the last. But lately, everybody from Flaming Fire to Outkast have been closing out their sets with meandering, unfocused space-noise pieces that drag on forever. I guess it’s better to deal with “The Moon” at the end of the album, because you can cut the CD off if you get tired of it. It’s tolerable as background music, I suppose, but it never coalesces into anything more than that.
What differentiates this record from others like it? I remember walking through Times Square on the day The Omen remake dropped. The studio paid for a bunch of actors to stand out on the streetcorners in vestry outfits and preach that the end of the world was coming. Making fun of religion was part of the film promotion, you see. New Yorkers who take religion seriously have become desensitized to this stuff – during the secular '90s, mock-revivals and evangelical parodies usually meant boffo indie box office. But a funny and ironic thing happened after the millennium: eschatology started to feel relevant again. And with it, a new wave of Hipster Christians (not all of whom wear beards) decided that indie rock would make an appropriate pulpit. People who used to turn up their noses at Christian content suddenly started rushing to praise these subtle proselytizers; I ain’t going to name names, you all know who I mean. Flaming Fire is more like an old-school fundamentalist spoof than any of the new, poker-faced “freak folk” acts. But check the liner notes: these guys thank God first. Their version of spirituality might be apocalyptic and millenarian, but it also strikes me as weirdly sincere. Such is the archetypical power of Bible stories that even those who seek to poke fun at them (see: the Brick Testament) often end up reinforcing their power. Or, to put it another way, we’re often praying most fervently when we don’t even know that we are.
Recommended? Danielson’s newfound pop moves did pretty well on the Critics Poll this year. If you liked “Did I Step On Your Trumpet?” and you wished that Ships had more of that kind of thing on it and less “Time That Bald Sexton,” I assure you that When The High Bell Rings is about 85 percent trumpet and 10 percent sexton. The other 5 percent is purely Dewanotronic.
Where can I get a copy/hear more? When The High Bell Rings is out through Silly Bird Records, a New York City label. The roster looks pretty interesting: California hippies, convicts, four-track freaks. This Web site is worth a visit, friend.
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