As the ’80s slid into the ’90s, music morphing from day-glo paisley pastel Spandex to grungy flannel, the contemporary Christian music world remained on its same course set two decades earlier: a handful of artists riding if not leading the secular music curve, their reward consisting of being almost universally ignored by industry elements in favor of tightly hewing to the softest side of whatever was popular pop three years prior. One member of the tiny family aware of what was going on was The Prayer Chain, a Southern California quartet whose gritty atmospherics and great leaps forward every time it hit the recording studio endeared it to a loyal following. Although the band swiftly burned out, its one EP followed by three into two albums were genuine landmarks in Christian alternative rock’s second generation.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and The Prayer Chain has followed the lead of several other compatriots by putting together crowdfunding campaigns with which to feed its fans voracious appetite for vinyl releases of albums previously available solely on CD and maybe cassette. Both 1995’s Mercury and 1993’s Shawl have received the twelve inch treatment, the latter taking place on its twenty-fifth anniversary. Somewhere along the line of assembling reward packages for Shawl‘s re-release, an idea was broached. How about getting together for a show? The enthusiasm for same was twofold: immediate and widespread. Thus, last summer the at least briefly reunited band played two shows, one in Anaheim and the other in Nashville, recording the former. A couple of months ago it was made available. And oh, is it good.
Shawl 25th Anniversary Concert showcases a band single-handily destroying the notion that you can’t go home again. The playing is crisp and unified; the vocals spot on. Shawl was a transition record between The Prayer Chain’s enthusiastic (if somewhat generic) modern for its time fairly hard rocking Whirlpool EP and the adventurous, borderline avant-garde sonic assault of what was originally recorded as Humb but was muted by record company pressure into Mercury. Varying from the tribal stomp of “Crawl” to the ferocious pounding suddenly shifting into ethereal whispers of “Never Enough,” with numerous brilliant stops in-between such as the heartbreaking “Fifty-Eight” in which a now grown child decries the earthly father who abandoned him, Shawl was unlike anything contemporary Christian music had seen. It still sounds remarkably fresh, and the live performance captured on Shawl 25th Anniversary Concert does it full justice. Also included are a few songs from Mercury and one from Humb, each bristling with power and panache.
There is of course a certain sense of nostalgia in such an album; memories stirred of when we were the young lions ready to take on and over the world. This is as opposed to today, when we are the lions in autumn watching the same Christian music industry we intended to directly, or at the least indirectly, drag into the real world instead drag its audience through an endless parade of rice paper-thin praise and worship choruses, with an occasional sprinkling of sound-alike artists performing virtual karaoke renditions of – you guessed it – whatever was riding high on the pop charts three years ago. Nevertheless, we endure. Thankfully, so does The Prayer Chain.
The album is available on the band’s Bandcamp site.