Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

I have never before heard anything quite like this album.  And since I first listened to it at a friend’s urging this past weekend, I find myself returning to it again and again.  It resists description, yet compels a response; it’s utterly fresh but feels like it’s been around forever.

Working as a loose creative collective since the mid-1980s, Liverpool’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus have consistently pursued what they describe as “echoes of the sacred” in their work, striving to access a sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world.   On their fourth album Songs of Yearning, they’ve discovered new room for rumors of glory to run, and the result is uniquely powerful, its resonance strikingly amplified by the shadows of doubt that now openly stalk our lives.

RAIJ’s music calls to mind much that I’ve heard and loved over the years — abstract soundscapes by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno; the “holy minimalism” of composers Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki; the sparse, charged post-rock Talk Talk found with Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, to name a few.   But comparisons to other artists fall short of describing Songs of Yearning’s rich mix of reticent modesty and bold experiment. Dissecting the music into its component parts — a breathtaking gamut of sound sourced from liturgy, folksong, chamber music, pop & rock of all stripes, ambience, industrial noise, found dialogue and much more — won’t do the trick either.  The only way to catch the breadth and depth of what’s here is to dive in:

Short and relatively direct as it is, “Celestine” unfolds the Revs’ approach with inviting clarity.  The simple acoustic guitar pattern and the female vocal in French doubled by bells — they’re straightforward enough.  But that flute — is it slightly out of tune, or carving out its own tonality?  The acoustic bass and harmony vocals — how is it they sound now consonant, now dissonant, flickering in and out of sync by the second?  And in the end, each layer goes its own way, ever so gently drifting apart harmonically and rhythmically, but still bound up in an organic, contemplative whole.

This dance of multiplicity and unity, this art that takes shape in addition, subtraction and succession instead of development, is what RAIJ constantly seeks and regularly finds throughout the album.  Long-term members Paul Boyce (clarinet, keyboard, voice), Jon Egan (harmonium, melodica, organ, voice), and Leslie Hampson (percussion, piano, guitar), as well as newer recruits Jessie Main (vocals), Eliza Carew (cello), Zander Mavor (guitar, bass, sound design) and Hannah Harper (flute, piano), form an intense creative unit; whether a particular piece’s impetus comes from one, two or all seven contributors, the overall mood and sound is remarkably unified and ego-free.  Every person’s work is always in touch with the others’, but there’s no rigid definition of roles or quota of necessary licks; each is unafraid to take the lead, follow the flow, strike out on a different path or even refrain from contributing, as the moment dictates.  (And the open, atmospheric sound field they work in is beautifully delineated by co-producer/guitarist Nick Halliwell.)   What emerges hovers in the air like an aural mobile, or a soundtrack for art-house cinema — a major influence on the group’s sensibility.  The music is both earthy and ethereal, sturdy yet somehow tethered to a presence or a message lying just beyond the ensemble’s reach.

But though the words, spoken and sung, add to the elusiveness of the work, they also provide tantalizing clues to the endpoint of the Revs’ quest.   Whispered Swedish, spoken Russian, sung French all leave traces of unfulfilled desire and overwhelming need, of a yearning for peace, born from an deep sense of helplessness and dependency.  Out of which comes unceasing supplication — the measured tread of the opening “Avatars”; the quietly anguished requiem of “Kontakion (for St. Maria Skobstova)”; edgily meditative settings of “Ave Maria” and “Miserere”; the remarkable, sprawling rhapsody “Belonging/O Nata Lux” (encompassing everything from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” to the medieval office hymn for Transfiguration of Christ).  And when the storm passes, leaving birdsong in its wake, what’s left is a final petition, offered up in humble trust :

Primal and postmodern in the same eternal instant, Songs of Yearning is brimming with rough-hewn beauty and deep mystery, pairing audacious scope with quiet, insistent appeal.  In a time when the idols of prosperity and progress suddenly, uncertainly totter around us, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus’ music feels like genuinely good news — a sacramental transmission from, then to, the heart of creation.

Songs of Yearning is now available on Bandcamp as a high-definition download; LP and CD pre-orders are also being taken there for a projected June release.  I highly recommend the limited edition packages with the bonus album Nocturnes; its eleven selections include alternate versions of tracks from the parent album plus change-ups like the grinding Velvet Underground homage “Visions” and an outright pop song (albeit with lyrics from W. B. Yeats’ “Now Those Dancing Days Are Gone”), “I Carry the Sun”.

— Rick Krueger

(Dedicated to Michael Kivinen, who graciously introduced me to the music of RAIJ.  You can read Michael’s interview with them here.)