Saturday, March 9, 2013

Processing the Assembly Part I


Regular readers of this blog may remember that I have something of an interest in a gerne of music commonly referred to as "stoner rock" (and closely associated styles such as doom, sludge, drone and heavy psych), a style of which I find to be quite synchromystic. In the early days the lyrical content of such music typically revolved around cannabis (obviously), the "boogie van" and the occasional stoner take on Tolkien-As-Channeled-Through-Led-Zep. But even then there were hints of the mystical possibilities of the gerne by groups as diverse as Clutch and latter period Sleep (former members of whom would go on to found the highly occult and esoteric Om).


But as the years have rolled along and the occult and mystical, once the domain of New Agers and conspiracy buffs, have gained increasingly wider exposure the occult (and, dare I say it, spiritual) boundaries of stoner rock have been massively widened in turn. It appears in various subgernes of the stoner/doom/sludge/heavy psych community, but nowhere more prominently than in what can best be described as the 60s/70s occult rock revival movement. Taking their cues from classical occult rock bands such as Coven and Black Widow as well as early metal staples such as Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult (and even some prog, ala King Crimson and especailly Jethro Tull) the movement began to emerge in Europe in the mid-Zeros (though America's Dead Meadow may well have been the "pioneers" of this style). Sweden's Witchcraft is one of the earliest examples of this style. In the years to come they were joined by fellow Swedes Ghost, the Dutch outfit the Devil's Blood, Canada's Blood Ceremony, and most recently Berlin's Kadavar, among others.



Ghost (top), Blood Ceremony (middle) and the Devil's Blood (bottom)

Overwhelmingly these groups deal in the type of faux-Satanism that has become a staple of modern heavy metal, but with tongue much firmer in cheek. Blood Ceremony, for instance, is known to reminisce on such topics as "...witches in the sky/Flying toward a Quaalude eye" and smoking "black drugs with Saturn's bong." But there have been some serious attempts at this style, one of the most compelling being a "group" known as Sabbath Assembly.

Thus far Sabbath Assembly, formed in 2009, has consisted of mastermind David Nuss (drums, producer, and occasional vocals), whatever witchy woman he has fronting the band at the moment (originally Jex Thoth, more recently Jamie Myers), and a host of hired guns. Sonically they have a much more of a 60s psychedelic pop (with ample doses of gospel) sound than the more (classic) metal oriented groups mentioned above. For our purposes the most compelling aspect of the group is the source of their inspiration (and the bulk of their material): the Process Church of Final Judgment.

 
The Process Church of Final Judgment, commonly referred to as the Process, is a highly controversial and complex topic that I shall not try to address in depth here. That being said, it is impossible to fully appreciate Sabbath Assembly without some knowledge of Process, thus I shall discuss the Process as it applies to the music of Sabbath Assembly, especially in regards to some of their rituals and theological beliefs that are referenced in the music. But ultimately this series is in no way meant to be a conclusive examination of the Process, thus several of the most notable controversies involving them (i.e., their alleged ties to Manson) will only be touched upon in brief.

Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, let me present the reader with a brief overview of the Process and how it inspired Sabbath Assembly. The Process Church of Final Judgment was founded in England in 1963 by two former Scientologist, Robert DeGrimston and his wife Mary Ann. Failing to achieve much success in their native country the Process soon migrated to the New World, especially the United States, where their apocalyptic message resonated more strongly in a nation being torn apart by the Vietnam War. By the late 1960s the cult had gained a certain amount of notoriety thanks to they're justifiably legendary magazines, occasional associations with rock stars and other counterculture figures; and their long alleged links to Charles Manson and his Family. The Manson controversy ultimately proved to be a drain on the Process, however, and by the mid-1970s they were largely defunct (officially), having transformed into the Foundation-Faith of the Millennium and, ultimately, the Best Friends Animal Society (yes, the one that appears in Dogtown).

Robert DeGrimston and his followers

Views on the Process and its legacy vary wildly, with the New Age somewhat embracing them as spiritual trailblazers grotesquely persecuted while the conspiratorial right has almost universally denounced them as evil incarnate itself.
"The Process Church of the Final Judgment officially changed its name and its Gods in 1975, but even today the original group enjoys cultural influence. It's screeds were reproduced as linear notes for two Funkadelic album; Skinny Puppy had an album called Process complete with anti-vivisection lyrics, a prominent Process Church concern. Process rituals were appropriated and valorized by Psychick TV and Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth (or TOPY), and The Process' misanthropic bombast appeared on the pages of my Apocalypse Culture compilation.

"The apocalyptic group also inspired sinister conspiracy theories and was called, by Murray Terry's The Ultimate Evil, 'one of the most dangerous satanic cults in America.'"
(Love Sex Fear Death, "Rarely What It Seems," Adam Parfrey, pg. 7)

the inner sleeve of Funkadelic's Maggot Brain that featured an excert from the Process' magazine (top) and Skinny Puppy's Process album (bottom)

Few, however, have disputed that the Process was involved in more than a few abuses in its day. Timothy Wyllie and other former members have not shied away from describing the organization as a cult and have outlined its various corruptions, which include financially defrauding members, psychologically manipulating and abusing them; and child abuse (due to neglect rather than the sexual variety). Interestingly, Sabbath Assembly head Dave Nuss seems to take a rather dim view of the Process itself even while being fascinated by its ideology. In an interview with Invisible Oranges he stated:
"I don’t like the Process Church; they were hierarchical and there was a lot of room for power and abuse. That’s why we aren’t trying to recreate it. But I think the ideas were quite strong."
The conspiracy theories surrounding the group are what most people know the Process from. Some researchers, most notably Ed Sanders in The Family and Maury Terry's The Ultimate Evil, have alleged that some offshoot of the Process (sometimes referred to as the Four-P Movement or simply the Children) was behind the Manson Family killings as well as the later Son of Sam murders that terrorized New York City in the late 1970s. This offshoot is held to be a nationwide cult network involved in drug trafficking, contract killings, and 'snuff films,' among other nefarious activities.
"In 1969, why gathering material for a book on the Charles Manson case, journalist Ed Sanders encountered reports of a sinister satanic cult alleged to practice human sacrifice in several parts of California, luring youthful members from college campuses throughout the western half of the United States. Calling itself the 'Four P Movement,' or 'Four Pi' for short, the cult originally boasted fifty-five members, of whom fifteen were middle-aged, the rest consisting of young men and women in their early twenties...

"Organized in northern California during 1967, the 'Four P Movement' evolved from a rift in the satanic Process Church of Final Judgment, drawing its cryptic name from the parent organization's stylized 'power sign...'

"Charles Manson and his 'family' reportedly had contact with the 'Four P Movement' prior to making headlines in Los Angeles...

"Convicted killer David Berkowitz -- more famous as the 'Son of Sam' who terrorized New York in 1976 and 1977 -- has also professed membership in the 'Four P' cult, backing his claim with inside information on an unsolved California homicide allegedly committed by the group. Aside from participation in human and canine sacrifice, with the occasional gang rape of teenage girls, 'Four P' cultists also reportedly share a fascination with Nazi racist doctrines. Berkowitz named mass murder of Fred Cowan as a member in good standing, and Muary Terry has also linked cult activity with the unsolved case of the 'Westchester Dartman,' who wounded twenty-three women in New York's Westchester and Rockland Counties between February 1975 in May 1976.

"Despite the testimony of reputed 'Four P' members, authorities have yet to build a case against the cult. Some suspects, named by witnesses, have died in 'accidents' or 'suicides' before they could be questioned by police. Another obstacle appears to be the use of codenames, which prevent the cultist for identifying one another under questioning. The group itself relies of different names from place to place, with New York members meeting as 'The Children,' while reports from Alabama refer to 'The Children of the Light.' Berkowitz has also described active covens in Texas and North Dakota, with hired killers on call from one region to another."
(Raising Hell, Michael Newton, pgs. 145-148)


To say that such concepts are highly controversial would be an understatement.
"Maury Terry has insisted that there is a connection between Charles Manson and David Berkowitz, and he has based this conclusion largely on jailhouse confessions and some controversial interviews with convicted felons. His research has been attacked in many cases, especially as it has contributed to the rise of 'satanic cult survivor hysteria" in the 1980s and 1990s in the United States. Some of his conclusions have been drawn from an idiosyncratic decoding of the 'Son of Sam' letters to the press and by a loose association of the dates of the Sam murders to dates with alleged occult significance."
(Sinister Forces Book III, Peter Levenda, pg. 162)

Manson (top) and Berkowitz (bottom)

While there are varying degrees of merit behind the various 'satanic cult underground network' theories, especially as they relate to Terry's research, this article's purpose is not to address them. Thus I shall leave this topic now, though I hope to come back to it and how it pertains to the Process in the near future.

With that out of the way we now come to Sabbath Assembly and their roots in the Process. Dave Nuss, the mastermind and sole regular member, was inspired to found Sabbath Assembly in 2009 upon reading Feral House's Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgement. In an interview with Heathen Harvest Nuss explained:
"The first I heard of this music was through the author Timothy Wylie and his book Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgement. A friend of mine was the publisher of that book, and I got to meet Timothy when he came to New York for a book expo upon its release. Looking through it, some of the illustrations in the book were comprised of sheet music from the Church. I said to Timothy 'there must be some recordings of this music, and if there are I would love to release them on my label'. So initially the idea was a snapshot – let’s capture what it was in all its glory. Timothy said that these songs were considered sacred hymns only used in the context of worship, so they never thought about applying what in the 60’s was considered to be a pop medium, recording them for popular release. They always considered it to be sacred music and not pop music. Well, the world has come a long way and maybe it’s time to share this music. So my initial idea was to do a snapshot – let’s recreate it and see what it feels like. Right away once we started working on the songs we realized, well, that doesn’t feel like something I would be comfortable playing, or that lyric seems a little too out of the 60’s, and it is not the 60’s anymore! So let’s change this or remove that line, not heavy changes to the text or the song, but to just personalize the hymns a little bit. As time marched on over the last 3 years that process has brought us to where we are now. I would never describe what we do now as a historical, documentarian project in a 'authentic fashion'. Sabbath Assembly are absolutely interpreters of the music. The sheet music is very rudimentary, just chord changes, simple melody lines, and words. As a musician you can take that in a million different directions, you can give it whatever feel you want to give it. We are very much interpreters, and I believe in the hands of another band it would come out totally different."
Nuss

Jex Thoth, Sabbath Assembly's original lead singer, gives an almost identical account of discovering the Process hymns in this interview. However, their accounts of the Process hymns, specifically the lack of recordings, seems to contradict what Wyllie wrote in the above-mentioned book.
"Since we now had five or six Chapters in North America, some excellent musicians were starting to join us. We always recognize the power of music in our weekly Celebrations and Midnight Meditations featured some beautiful and moving liturgical compositions.

"Over time we gathered some of the best musicians into two Chapters, in Toronto and Boston. I can't speak for the Boston band since I never heard them, but the Process Version, as the Toronto band came to be called, with Father Joshua... as the lead singer, began playing in our Coffee House. As a Master I was put in charge of the band, and since I knew my way around the guitar and The Version lacked a lead guitarist, I was also co-opted into the group...

"We never set out to be a cover band and although we did a few classics, we didn't really come alive until we were playing our own songs. I wrote the lyrics to Joshua's melodies, which allowed us to couch our beliefs in a subtle manner and in a more accesible medium. We wrote well together and before long we had a repertoire of over 60 songs.

"The Version, as we came to called, was now playing in the Coffee House regularly on Friday and Saturday evenings and drawing a good crowd. We played around town too, in women's prisons, hospitals for the mentally sick and anywhere else we could find a captive audience. One of my fondest memories is sliding down on my knees Chuck Berry-style, with my guitar wailing, sweat streaming off me in front of a hall full of screaming, hysterical female prisoners.

"Great fun for us, but we weren't really that musically together.

"This hit the band most strongly when it was decided to bring in a producer from the outside to see if he could polish us up enough to make an album. It was a rude awakening, yet we had to admit his comments and criticisms were correct, and when we applied them, we improved immensely. He drove us hard in the rehearsals that we were now having daily for about six hours, until he felt we were ready to record.

"Through a contact in Toronto's Thundersound recording studio, I was able to negotiate a deal whereby they would give us 24 hours of recording time, while their engineers got to know their new Olive 2000 24-track recording system. Would be their guinea pigs, pledging to be patient with the staff and hopefully we get an album out of it.

"Given the time limitation (whoever tries to cut an entire album in 24 hours?) and the constant technical adjustments on the board, let alone our own musical insecurities, this made the experience for me one of the most intense of my life. We barely left the studio, ordering in coffee and sandwiches, and only rested  briefly when our fingers refused to work. Our three female backup singers were curled up in the corner snoozing until they were needed. Our producer was uncompromising, stopping as the slightest deviation from his arrangements. The smart new board coughed and spluttered as the engineers finally mastered its intricacies.

"In spite of the tension and chaos, we staggered exhausted out of the studio 24 hours later into the blinding sunlight, with the tape of ten of our songs professionally recorded, and played as well as we'd ever played them."
(Love Sex Fear Death, "My Life Inside the Process Church," Timothy Wyllie, pgs. 102-103)
the Process Version

What became of the recordings is impossible to say. According to Wyllie, Robert and Mary Ann DeGrimston (who were known as the Omega within the Process), especially the latter, were not especially impressed with the recordings.
"We proudly sent a cassette tape of our album up to the Omega, only to hear sometime later that they had disliked the music and Mary Ann was known to have spoken sarcastically about our accomplishments to others...

"Even if the album wasn't as great as we might have thought it, to hear that it had been dismissed in such an offhand manner by the Ones we considered to be the ultimate arbiters of our lives, was a crushing blow from which the band never recovered...

"If only I could have seen it at the time, but a pattern starting to emerge in Mary Ann's reactions. Whenever an activity of ours showed promise of a wider appeal, she would do something to squash it. I don't think the Process Church was ever destined to be particularly successful in worldly terms, it is curious to think that right at the center of the community was a woman whose intentions appeared so contrary to many of our best efforts.

"The plan was for me to take the completed tape down to New York City when the sound mixing was finished to see if I could arrange for an agent. In early spring of 1972 a companion and I flew to New York, and though dispirited by the Omega's reaction, we were still hopeful to interest someone in the music business into promoting our record.

"The one agent who would talk to us, Peter Thorne, was kind enough but ineffectual. Thorne seemed to lose zeal marketing our recording when he realized how blunted our enthusiasm had become. After that we let the matter slip and never heard anything more about the recording again."
(ibid, pgs. 103-104)
It was at this point that the Process hymns apparently disappeared from history until Timothy Wyllie gave Dave Nuss the sheet music to the roughly 60 of them over 35 years later, or so the story goes.

Wyllie

As far as the group's name is concerned, I have found two different possible explanations in Love Sex Fear Death. The first, and most likely of two, were actually referred to as "Sabbath Celebrations," weekly gatherings that the Process held which were open to the public (or at least those among public who had expressed an interest in joining the Process).
"... weekly Assembly, the Sabbath Celebration...

"Since we had become a church much of the Omega's attention had been devoted to creating rituals for the various services we conducted. In spite of our pessimistic dogma, the public Celebrations tended to be relentlessly upbeat, full of music and spirited responses, closer in tone perhaps to a Southern black church than the boredom of the church services back in England.

"Toward the end of the Celebration, senior Processeans took turns every week in giving an impromptu sermon, the 'Revelation,' we called it, and some were better at delivering the spontaneous speech than others."
(ibid, pg. 87)

The less likely inspiration was the final meditation session that Processeans underwent at the end of the day in what was referred to as the 'Alpha.'
"Then, at the end of the day, everybody in the Chapter put on their black robe again and gathered for the evening meeting at 11 p.m. After all the aecdotes had been swapped, people met on the street described, the money made for the day announced, the Master might well deliver a pep talk, or a scolding if that was needed before we all filed silently into the 'Alpha' (the name of our assembly hall) for the final meditation of the day.

"Lit by red and white candles, with two silver bowls --one with fire and the other water --in the center of the room, while we sat cross-legged in a circle, relaxed by a gentle guitar and the rote responses we knew so well, and reinforced the closeness of bond we all felt."
(ibid, pg. 98)

In both cases the experience was meant to invoke a kind of transcendence in the experiencer through a combination of music and the Process' peculiar philosophy, with the latter ritual obviously working on a much more personal scale. It would seem that creating the music for Sabbath Assembly very much had this effect upon Dave Nuss during his work on their two studio albums. In an interview with Invisible Oranges he stated:
"I feel like I’m using music as my therapeutic vessel. I feel like I’ve found the antidote, the solution that helps me cope with the feelings of being split. Sabbath Assembly helps me feel whole again. When I look back to Restored To One I get tears in my eyes. And not because I played awesome drums – it’s the message of the music, the way forces conspired to make it come together. I feel the same about Ye Are Gods. I have a lot of passion and emotional investment in this project."
Next to Nuss the other significant collaborators in Sabbath Assembly have been the two singers, original vocalist Jex Thoth and her replacement, Jamie Myers. The decision to use a female vocalist for this project was one of genius. Of course when it comes to occult metal it has become increasingly common for groups in that style to use female vocalists -- Blood Ceremony, the Devil's Blood, Jess and the Ancient Ones and Jex Thoth's own band as well as heavier outfits such as Witch Mountain and Dark Castle are all fronted by chicks. But in the case of Sabbath Assembly it's hard to imagine these songs working without the female vocals even though they were originally sung by and large by male vocalist. I suspect this is due to the matriarchal nature of the Process itself. According to Wyllie Mary Ann DeGrimston was very much the dominant figure in the Process despite the fact that Robert was its public face. Indeed, something of a cult eventually developed around her within the Process' inner circle.
"It was Claudia, a Welshwoman with a Celtic flair who first said it aloud as five or six of us --all women but myself -- sat crammed into the tiny space she had carved out for herself on top of a large closet in the basement of Balfour Place. It was also obvious! How could we have missed it? Mary Ann must be the Incarnate God Herself, the Mother of this World and She'd chosen to incarnate and manifest to us. To us!..

"To be fair to Mary Ann, in those early stages, I don't believe that she ever claimed this role for herself. But over the years the acknowledgment became implicit, though seldom talked about. We all just knew who She was and I suspect we felt it was too sacred to bandy about. And to be more down-to-earth, may be if we had talked about it more openly, the concept would not have had quite the same hold on us all.

"Somewhat later, when we were all playing with different names and identities, Mary Ann came to call herself after the Greek goddess Hecate, known among other things for her hounds, and then briefly, after the Hindu divinity, Kali. So perhaps she did have some fleeting insight into the damage she frequently inflicted on those who displeased her."
(Love Sex Fear Death, "My Life Inside the Process Church," Timothy Wyllie, pgs. 35-36)
Mary Ann DeGrimston

Both Jex Thoth and Jamie Myers were able to capture this goddess component breathtakingly during their work with Sabbath Assembly. Indeed, it may be the spirit of the goddess that runs throughout this style of music that makes female vocalist so apt for it in general. Certainly the frontwomen mentioned above are all the dominant component in their respective bands and are crucial to both the image and atmosphere of their music.


Jex Thoth (top) and Jamie Myers (bottom)

And it is here that I shall wrap things up for the time being. In the next installment I shall thoroughly analyze Sabbath Assembly's two albums, Restored to the One and Ye Are Gods, and several of the songs contained therein. Hopefully this will provide a fascinating glimpse into the theology of the Process Church of Final Judgment. Stay tuned.

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