You can also read this post on medium.com.
So, a company called Faithways International released a record called The Sounds of American Doomsday Cults Vol. 14 in or around, I guess, 1984. Neither I nor anyone I have spoken to about it over the years (the Internet included) has ever encountered volumes 1 – 13, so it’s something of an anomaly.
The album is a document of the actual proceedings/rituals of The Church Universal and Triumphant, a sort of New Age-y, theological mishmash founded and formerly led by a woman named Elizabeth Clare Prophet.
Here they are on Oprah.
Anyway, I came across the album the same way I’ve come across, like, tens of records that I’ve acquired over the last fifteen years: by traveling around in a touring rock band and meeting people who hand me a CD and say something like, “Dude! You should check this out. It’s completely insane!” The records, mind you, aren’t always actually insane. This one, however, was insane and I ended up spending a lot of time with it.
At some point, years ago, it vanished. Every so often, it would pop into my mind and I’d ask a friend if he or she had a copy, but no one ever did. The original vinyl records, which can still be found online, are prohibitively expensive (though there are a few mp3s and youtube videos kickin’ around).
So, flash forward to last week. I was, for an unrelated reason, digging through the special, gray, metallic, international-spy-style case that houses all of my CDs and, to my utter delight, I happened upon The Sounds of American Doomsday Cults Vol. 14. I’ve since been spinning it kind of non-stop and it’s better than I remembered.
The [what I would call] centerpiece of the album is a twenty-eight minute long chant voiced by the entire congregation in unison (well, rhythmic unison — for interested parties, they’re singing a seemingly haphazardly-assigned combination of unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves).* What blew my mind when I first heard it was the way that the entire group modulates at the same time — sometimes in the middle of a phrase — up a half step. If you can stick with it for the first five minutes, you can hear what I’m talking about:
If you lasted through the whole thing, I can only imagine that the sort-of, like, coda at the end, when the rhythm and text changes, melted your face off.
So, re-flash forward to this morning. Picture it: Joel at his desk, tea in hand, writing emails, and listening to the above track, waiting patiently for that first key change.
I don’t know what about it struck me today that hasn’t struck me any other day over the past week, but I clearly noticed that the first key change actually brings the ensemble back to their original starting pitches — like, the target-pitches of the modulation are the same pitches that begin the piece (to hear this super clearly, start at 4:40 or so, wait for the key change, and then immediately go back and listen to the beginning).
That means one of these two things is true:
1. While they thought that the key change was moving them up to the next note, they had actually just failed to realize that they had slid so flat that it simply popped them back up to their original starting pitch.
They’re not professional singers and singing well is really hard. Anyone trying to sing a sustained pitch for a long time who isn’t used to it will almost certainly and severely (but subtly!) alter the pitch until they’re comically distant from their original starting point.
2. They strategically and very slowly lowered their pitch in an effort jump back to a, like — I don’t what you’d call it — “pitch of power” or something at the modulation.
Now, I’d really like to believe that they cooked the slow descent and re-popping-to-pitch-of-power into the chant. I started writing this post because I thought it was intentional and I had this “Damn it! The world needs to know!” sort of feeling. It would stand to reason; I mean, they’re certainly trained enough to tune simple intervals pretty well, hold them for a while, and then find other pitches rather quickly at the modulation points. They also seem to have some sort of nuanced understanding of rhythm and rhythmic changes which might speak to their overall level of intent.
But, here’s the thing: I kind of get the feeling that Elizabeth Clare Prophet (the main female voice) is leading the vocalization here, so the rest of the congregation could just be following her; I mean they are, after all, following her. To that point, just after I wrote the line above about your face possibly melting off, I went back and listened to the first track on the album, which is simply her, alone, incanting in a similar style (though slower). She modulates once, with the same effect. Well, not exactly — she stays consistent in the beginning, modulates a full half-step up and then slowly comes back down to her starting pitch.
Take a listen:
So, I don’t know what else to say. I guess the argument can be made that the slow-descent-and-pop is Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s “thing.” But, then one has to ask why a singer would make their thing sound exactly like a problem that has plagued every amateur-singer throughout history.
In conclusion, I started writing about this because I thought it added a new level of insanity to this recording, which I love. Now, I’m thinking that I still love the recording, but the singers don’t always stay on pitch.
*That’s a fourth down from the tonic and a fifth up from the tonic creating an octave parallel to the tonic octave. Also, an earlier draft of this post claimed that they were singing a second-inversion major triad, but listening again years later, I think I was hallucinating the third. (back)