Christian rock. The very name suggests something sterile, lame, weak. There's something not right about it. Like a middle-aged man crashing a rock and roll teen party, busting a dance-floor move in a hopeless attempt to show his kids that he's still got a finger on the rock and roll pulse.
Certainly there's not much in the music that would make you think otherwise. Since its ascendance in the mid-Seventies following the widespread popularity of banal and bombastic musicals such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, Christian rock has been a pious and strident subgenre that exists for the most part outside the mainstream. Of course, a few songs have found the pop charts: Both Norman Greenbaum and the Five Man Electric Band had Christian-theme hits, the former with the 1970 fuzzbomb "Spirit in the Sky," the latter with the hippie-sap single "Signs" from 1971. The veteran gospel act the Staple Singers applied their emotional fervor and vocal melisma to the churning single "I'll Take You There," a brilliant distillation of gospel faith and supple funk groove that became a number-one hit in 1972.
The Staples song, however, was an anomaly. For the most part, the practitioners of Christian rock have always embraced the worst aspects of secular commercial rock in an attempt to distribute its holy message as widely as, say, Journey spread the sing-along word about loving, touching, and squeezing. Hearing the homogenized goo of Christian rockers such as Petra and DeGarmo & Key, you can't help but wonder: Does God really listen to this crap? Sure, these groups have won numerous Grammys and even more awards in the Christian music industry (Doves, they call 'em) but their music has always shown the influence of arena rock, and the results have been predictably execrable. (Cheeseball though it may be, "Spirit in the Sky" is at least built on an undeniable riff -- equal parts John Lee Hooker and ZZ Top -- hence its pop breakthrough.)
Also awful have been Christian rock's spinoffs into rap, reggae, and alt-rock via acts like DC Talk, Christafari, and Jars of Clay. Beyond dragging the themes of Christian salvation, devotion, and faith into their respective genres, none of these groups has done anything new or groundbreaking, despite their ever-increasing steps into the mainstream and their growing popularity. Whatever the groups' commercial clout, or whatever your religious passions, only a Christ-blind idiot would choose the milquetoast raps and hackneyed beats of DC Talk over the innovations of current hip-hop hotshots Nas, Ras Kass, or any member of the Wu Tang collective. (And I won't even touch the notion of Christianity entering into the music of the Rastafarians.)
How then to explain the ambitious, striking, and eccentric work of Soul-Junk, four San Diego-based God-niks fronted by guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Glen Galaxy (who began S-J in 1994 as a solo project). Their angular music not only overturns the conventions of Christian rock, it's as bold, daring, and innovative as any other rock and roll currently skronking and squealing on the sidelines of the alt-rock playing field.
Before Soul-Junk, Glen Galaxy was the guiding force behind Trumans Water. That perverse, fascinating, and wildly prolific outfit inhaled the works of Albert Ayler, Captain Beefheart, and Sun City Girls and breathed out something that wobbled and blurted like oddball jazz but roared with the power of avant-garde rock and roll. Over the course of more than a dozen releases (including four seminal longplayers in the Godspeed series), Trumans Water expanded the boundaries of postpunk and found new ways to express their angst and alienation, as well as putting their lysergic impulses to good use.
Galaxy, raised a Presbyterian but an atheist for most of his life, gradually began drifting back to Christianity near the end of his tenure with Trumans Water. After quitting the group in late 1993, citing his bandmates' lack of "spirituality," Galaxy quickly resurfaced under the Soul-Junk handle with a pair of self-released efforts: the 1949 EP and the album 1950. Musically neither set strayed far from Galaxy's work with Trumans, from the jittery rhythms and fragmented guitar to Galaxy's bug-eyed vocal wail. The difference was in the lyrics: Instead of the surrealist cut-up babble he offered in Trumans Water, Galaxy's new songs were heartfelt attestations of Christian faith, with hurried little bursts of free-jazz improv interspersed throughout the screeching sermons. Most of the songs were based on various Bible texts, along with originals with titles such as "So We Can Worship You."
From there came the deluge, a flood of Soul-Junk releases on which Galaxy honed his lyrics and gradually incorporated other players, allowing him to flesh out the improvs and add more muscle and power to his weird songs of devotion and spirit. By the time Soul-Junk knocked out the 1994 albums 1951 and 1952 (the latter of which was a 47-song, two-part opus), Galaxy's vision had snapped into focus, revealing a take on Christianity unique among both Christian and God-fearing secular rockers -- more charitable than Bob Dylan's fire-and-brimstone conversion in the late Seventies, less doubting and pretentious than Patti Smith's long-standing obsession with sin and redemption. In the liner notes to 1952, Galaxy wrote, "If this album is an altar and our worship is the offering, then let fire from God fall from Heaven and consume it. We don't build this altar as a monument to ourselves or our own spirituality." Hardly the stuff of megalomaniacal evangelists or money-hungry ministers.
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1953, Soul-Junk's latest release on the Homestead label, is a style-jumping epic that finds the quartet further expanding its arty scope and refining its sound, with Galaxy's lyrics gaining even more clarity and confidence. The first 3000 copies of the disc are appended to a second complete album (1954), making for a 26-song, 79-minute proselytization that veers from faux-funk hip-hop ("Junca de Sol Andromeda," "Graveyard Style") to hard-rock swingers ("Young Businessmens Psykick Makeout," "Shine Out") to bits of jazz-rock sputter ("Three Thousand Thirsty Thoughts," "Bass by Sonar"). Galaxy's message remains unique as his passions unfold across the lengthy disc; whatever power he derives from Christianity is expressed not so much to convert the masses as to fulfill a desire to simply write and sing about it.
As for what Galaxy is actually writing and singing about, you can either take it or leave it. Personally, I remain unconvinced that Christianity is the thing that will carry me through the hard times or put the good times into proper perspective. But the sincerity of Galaxy's outpourings, when combined with the adventurous, challenging music that accompanies them, is moving regardless of one's faith, or lack thereof.
In both theory and execution, the Christian rock that Soul-Junk has perfected on 1953 and 1954 is far removed from the pablum served up by the music's current purveyors, whose message is dolloped with sugar and lacquered with several coats of AOR gloss. And it has little to do with the golden era of black gospel that from the 1900s to the 1950s set the rhythmic and emotional tone for blues, rock, and soul. Galaxy -- like nearly every other singer who's ever drawn a breath -- is ill-equipped to compete with vocalists as dazzling as Marion Williams, Claude Jeter, or Clarence Fountain.
Given the tastes of the Christian rock masses, Soul-Junk will likely never find an audience any more formidable than the one Trumans Water built on the minuscule platform of indie-rock experimentation. Galaxy's devotion, however, runs as deep as anyone else's in gospel or Christian rock, unshakable the way ideologies are when felt deep in the bones. When you hear that kind of conviction, you have to stand back in admiration, soaking it all in, no matter what side of the fence you're on.