Review Summary: If the ingenuity and sound of the 1960's took place in the grunge era, it might have sounded something like this...
The Prayer Chain was THE seminal underground Christian band in the mid-90’s. During the overhaul in Christian music scene at the time, the larger labels were snatching up young alternative bands, hoping to cash in on the trend. One of those bands was The Prayer Chain. From their inception they had cultivated a sound that was unlike anything in Christian or secular music. The band could easily move from a grunge-hard rock sound to an ambient, free-form style in the blink of an eye. Their debut album Shawl raised some eyebrows, garnered a lot of attention and accolades and essentially put them on the map as the most revered and most popular Christian alternative band at the time.
Their first album spawned a minor single Crawl on the Christian radio channels. As they had began the sessions on their second album, which was Mercury, their label was not happy with the direction they were headed. Unfortunately, no matter how pathetic it may seem, Christian labels were trying to cultivate ‘alternatives’ to the secular world. For every Nirvana, they wanted a ‘Christian’ Nirvana to sell.
The Prayer Chain’s first album, more or less, fit into the grunge category fairly easily. However, that sound was gone, entirely. The band pretty much put up a middle finger to the label and continued on with the sessions for their second album and were subsequently dropped from the label. This was a blessing and a curse. They were free to create the album on their terms, however, they lost the distribution to store and radio that would have made this album more widely known and perhaps elevated it to the status that it deserves.
Mercury was an absolute stunning piece of art, that was totally lost on the Christian audience and an album that most people outside that circle of ‘Christian’ music were totally unaware of. This album is a slow burner, that leaves you wondering what you just heard, offering the opportunity for multiple listens to fully take in all the individual elements and styles that this record encompasses. Not a concept album by definition, every song is deliberate and the placement of each song allows the album to breath, with an ebb and flow typical of concept albums. At the time, there was absolutely NOTHING in the Christian market that had the scope and ambition of this album and not much in the general market, as far as, mainstream alternative artists.
Starting out with the track Humb, it opens the album with a curious ambiance comprised of a droning guitar sound, with the vocals so heavily layered with reverb it is nearly impossible to make out the lyrics. However, it creates a mood, resonate of lush beauty, much like Sigur Ros would eventually do and become so well known for. The track carries on for five and half minutes, slowly building into an almost tribal drum groove, with middle eastern sounding guitar riffs, but never culminating in a ‘pay off’, rather more of an introduction, leaving the listener wondering where this album is heading.
Without delving into a song by song breakdown, this album is driven by vibe. The band offers very few straight-up rock songs, but focuses more on creating an atmosphere, that almost sounds as if The Doors had decided to write an album in the 90’s. You get your fair share of wonderfully catchy guitar riffs, big vocals, and an extremely creative approach to drums using various percussive instruments. The album induces an almost trance-like state, weaving an album that leads you into a calm, meditative state, with sudden breaks into all out jamming, while quickly breaking back again into abstract arrangements.
I would hate to dumb this album down into comparisons that would give the listener any glib idea of what they would expect to get out of this, but much like The Door’s ‘L.A. Woman’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark side of the Moon’, this album is something that you experience, not just listen to. It is not an album to pop in and simply to listen to your favorite track, as all the songs have their own life, yet, rely on each other heavily upon each other as a whole.
The most straight forward rock track on here would easily be ‘Waterdogs’, probably the only song that follows a simple verse/chorus format and clocks in at just over 3 minutes. But songs like ‘Creole’ and ‘Sky High’ start off with a sense of ease, only to become almost an entirely different song by the time you reach the end of the track. There is a definitive sound to this album, as every instrument, is used, at some point to keep the trippy feeling this album has. Whether it is a strange repetitive guitar pattern, a ethnic sounding drum beat, or a trance-like bass guitar line, every song plays off the other, with the vocals being the only thing that truly would stop this from being an all out, drug-induced jam fest.
In closing, this album is not a ‘all or nothing’ album. The songs on this album have enough differentiation to enjoy a single track, and there are songs on this album that are not as particularly strong as others, but as a whole, this album can easily be enjoyed from beginning to end, as a grand gesture to creating a powerful, cohesive, musical body. This album gets a 5, because there is nothing else that has ever sounded like this, it a genuine creation of inspiration, where 4 guys at their creative peak somehow seamlessly blended together their individual ideas to create something that has stood the test of time without sounding dated or trite. This album makes me feel as if an alternative band somehow tapped into whatever was in the water back in the 60’s. A magnificent, trippy, sedated ride, without sounding like throwback, but something altogether new.