Album ReviewsReviews

Review: Raising Holy Sparks - A Mendicant Hymnal

Raising Holy Sparks - A Mendicant Hymnal
A Men­dic­ant Hym­nal

A men­dic­ant is a trav­el­ling monk — one who begs for sub­sist­ence, accept­ing what people and to world have to offer, in humil­ity. The music on this double album could be a dis­til­la­tion of the world exper­i­enced in such a way: a flow­ing by of land­scapes and vis­ions, an end­less sequence of steps car­ry­ing one to some unknown des­tin­a­tion. This is the final act of beg­ging and accept­ance: to see where the jour­ney leads you, always defer­ring to decisions made out­side of the self; offer­ing up the self.

Rais­ing Holy Sparks is the pro­ject that rose from the ashes of Agit­ated Radio Pilot and saw David Colo­han shift­ing from lo-fi and singer/­songwriter releases to some­thing more instru­mental, raw, and abstract. The divi­sion is far from clear-cut: Agit­ated Radio Pilot had its share of lush ambi­ent impro­visa­tions, and the occa­sional harsh gui­tar solo, while Rais­ing Holy Sparks has had plenty of songs inter­spersed on its earlier releases. All the same, there is a tan­gible con­trast between the two pro­jects.

A Men­dic­ant Hym­nal is part of a lar­ger series of albums by the same title, all of them inspired by North Amer­ican land­scapes, but I feel that this album is the cent­ral one. Its size is impos­ing: over two hours of music, with plenty of tracks cross­ing the 10 or even 15-minute mark. Exten­ded med­it­a­tions on soil and sky, tap­ping into their his­tory and pre­his­tory some­where between the Earth as exper­i­enced by humans and as it exper­i­enced itself over vast aeons of time. Per­haps it is the tempo: often too slow for any reg­u­lar sense of musical com­fort, too min­imal to hold rational atten­tion, furt­ively lived. The music, like the land, offers us some­thing in a par­tic­u­lar way, and we might have to shift gears to under­stand what is being said. Under­stand might not even be the right word: Earth does not speak to us in lan­guage, and neither does music.

Some tracks are closer to us: the per­spect­ive moves to meet that of the trav­el­ler. The open­ing track, “A Stretch of Haunted Road”, is short, over­whelm­ingly mel­an­cholic. It even has a sense of des­pair that would become over­power­ing if it las­ted for too long. The solu­tion is to let go of that per­spect­ive, and take refuge in a partly ima­gined wider per­spect­ive, to let go. “Rio de las Ani­mas Per­di­das” is the first taste of what that shift brings. The River of Lost Souls flows serenely, at first, per­haps because it is there to embrace those souls and give them solace. At the same time, the track’s second half is darker: a throb­bing bass pulse and more ambigu­ous melody make prob­lem­atic the idea of a com­plete, bliss­ful detach­ment from the human.

This impossib­il­ity seems to haunt the album: the men­dic­ant can live on a dif­fer­ent scale, change their rela­tion to the world, but they remain human. One can stretch away from the human exper­i­ence by com­mun­ing with nature — it is pos­sible to hear what it has to say — but we can’t let go of the human tragedy. The darker moments of the album bear wit­ness to this. “Within the Painted Desert” ends in anger, just as the first track ended in des­pair. So do their mir­ror images on the album’s second disc: “The Credo of Dis­solv­ing” and “There Is Evil in His Machinery”. They stand in stark con­trast to the peace that may be found else­where. Tem­por­ar­ily per­haps, but still. There are rivers to bathe in, to cleanse us of what ails us. At night, we can watch “Met­eors over the Mesa”, and bear wit­ness to the celes­tial glory that dwarfs us, our struggles, and our time.

Since it came out in late 2013, I’ve wanted to com­pare this album to one released six years before: Agit­ated Radio Pilot’s crown­ing achieve­ment, World Wind­ing Down. It was sim­il­arly ambi­tious in scope: two sym­met­rical CDs that show­cased some of Colo­han’s best songs, with guest appear­ances by a ton of his friends and fel­low artists. I wanted A Men­dic­ant Hym­nal to be that, but for Rais­ing Holy Sparks. But some­times sym­metry and per­fect ana­lo­gies aren’t everything. This album is not the same kind of intric­ately wrought cre­ation where every track is in its right place, where every piece of ambi­ent enforces the mel­an­cholic gui­tar song that fol­lows. Instead, A Men­dic­ant Hym­nal is what hap­pens when you don’t think over­much about impos­ing order, and listen to what (the memor­ies) of the lands you travel(ed) have to tell you. It is raw, full of the organic struc­ture that is more of nature than of art. And I mean that in the best way.

Behind the meta­phor of men­dic­ant jour­neys and Earth lan­guage, there is a very par­tic­u­lar set of instru­ments. The album’s ambi­ent back­bone con­sists of an array of syn­thes­izers, key­boards, and piano sounds — some straight-up, some sampled. There is har­monium, harp, gui­tar, and the occa­sional ele­ment of per­cus­sion and field record­ings. A small cast of guest musi­cians (Richard MoultCasey Den­manMichael Tan­ner, and Declan Kelly) take up some of these roles on some of the tracks, and the four final tracks are remixes of vari­ous mater­i­als found else­where on the album. All of it sounds organic, slightly hazy: a per­fect aural meta­phor for the sounds of the land.

Look­ing at the other tracks, I’m again temp­ted to force them into a sys­tem, but the album itself teaches us that some moments, some encoun­ters, just come along unex­pec­tedly. Among the plains and stretches and rivers, there is a place that this album calls “We Will Rest Forever in the Fields of the Lord”. Here, soft flows of gui­tar glide over the abode of crows. Out of nowhere, some­thing glor­i­ous rises and makes a per­fect, deeply hope­ful note in this bleak album. I asso­ci­ate this track with the death of loved ones, but also with the spir­itual hope — and it is a strong one — that they have found a peace that the wan­derer on Earth is unable to wholly reach.

But here, these places don’t last. Before we know it, time has caught up with us and we must away. A piano-driven ride — do men­dic­ants ride trains? — takes us through “Shadow City, Mis­souri” and we end up… I’m not sure where. “Mon­achus Mor­tuae Reli­gionis” exists in a place where wolves howl to intro­duce the most min­imal of synth chord pro­gres­sions. It’s like some­thing from  “Wicked Game” or “Streets of Phil­adelphia”, stripped down to bare bones, and it is grand. Like eth­er­eal waves end­lessly crash­ing on a shore.

It is these loose moments, unfore­seen, irra­tional, that are the power of this album’s strange jour­ney. It exists some­where between music, rooted in ambi­ent and the evolved exper­i­mental folk of North­ern Europe, and the North Amer­ican land­scape, the land­scapes of the mind — and per­haps the uni­ver­sal exper­i­ence of a human, given over to the uni­verse. This offer­ing of the self is at once the theme of this album, and a way of under­stand­ing it. Always tem­por­ary, but reveal­ing some­thing eternal. “Per­enne Lumen in Tem­plo Aeterni”.