8.3 BEST NEW RECORD
Ba Da Bing Records / 2015
The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers had their genesis in an LA living room, where church friends gathered to play old-timey gospel music together. They certainly tapped into something, because they drew other players in like a tractor beam. Eventually the music grew so big it leaked, then burst out of the living room and onto the stage. Now, after five years and a pair of EPs, they've released their debut full-length, Heavenly Fire, and it's an absolute barnburner.
The Gospel Singers' sound is deeply rooted in the past - they have special affection for American religious music of the '30s, '40s, and 50's, and it sounds like they've been stewing in compilations like Goodbye, Babylon til the spirit of the era's black gospel and Appalachian folk is deep into their bones. Even so, this traditional music is founded on the rock - indie rock, that is. That anchoring sensibility might not be immediately apparent, but there's a driving, kick drum-powered energy wedded to the traditional sound that brings it to hair-raising life.
The other element that keeps The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers flying so high is the twin-prop combo of lead vocalists Will Wadsworth and Kim Garcia. On Heavenly Fire, Wadsworth plays crazed hillbilly preacher à la Brother Claude Ely with conviction, and Garcia brings hurricane-force passion to every line she sings. When she warns "I have walked on the edges of sane/Fear my honesty/Fear his reign" on opener "Little Light", you believe her on all counts.
Songwriting is divvied between a number of individual members of The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers, so there's a unique lyrical flavor to each of the tracks here. But putting musical meat on those bones is a group effort, and the band brings a wealth of ingenuity and talent to bear on a wide variety of roots styles.
Scripture is the obvious and recurrent inspiration for many of these songs. "Stephen" canonizes the first martyr all over again with the accompaniment of a galloping Memphis rock-and-roll rhythm, and "MMLJ" takes its acronym title from the gospel writers with the memorable declaration, "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that's where I get water from." It's on these two tracks in particular where Heavenly Fire's unique recording method really shines - almost every song was recorded with the choir horseshoed around a single microphone tracking straight onto magnetic tape. There's a distinct warmth thanks to the analog setup, and because many of the parts are double-tracked, the sound is simply massive - the foot-stomps are like thunderclaps, the handclaps like cracking tree trunks.
"Meet Me" is a sassy kiss-off to the material world in general, and romance in particular ("I don't need your love/I don't need your touch/I don't need your hand/I'm gonna walk with Jesus") before it morphs into a preemptive obituary, announcing death to everything but the Lord. The defiant tone continues on "No Apologies", where Garcia dares listeners to "Declare your doubt and mock me/And tell me Jesus, he is not the way." The song is Heavenly Fire's biggest step outside of the ancient gospel style, with cues from The Black Keys' brand of Southern-fried blues rock. It's got the momentum of a freight train behind it as the choir wails, "We, we, we, we're gonna break every chain/We're gonna raise up our hands to the sky".
The breaking of chains and shedding of burdens is the through-line of The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers' music. When asked in an interview where songwriting inspiration comes from, Wadsworth replied, "Honestly, pain is a huge inspiration. If I don't feel like I am crying something out and relieving myself of some kind of burden in a song, then I don't usually bring it to the band." Like so much of the music that inspired it, Heavenly Fire is suffused with that almost dangerous spiritual catharsis, and the result is intoxicating. Gospel was birthed from anguish, desperation, and ecstatic joy, and The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers prove that as there's no shortage of them in the world today, the music remains as riveting and vital as ever.