Standing alone in an apocalyptic sea

by
07 August 2015

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus have made their first album for 20 years, and will be performing at Greenbelt this month, reports John Davies

raij

Reconnecting: the band on stage

Reconnecting: the band on stage

THE film begins in monochrome, as a young, blond, shaven-headed boy runs through dense woodland, drawn to a seemingly abandoned wooden house. As he enters cautiously, a disturbed cockerel breaks a pane of glass to escape from the building.

The soundtrack crackles like an old vinyl recording, and in RP English tones a male voice slowly recites: “I have seen the sun break through / to illuminate a small field / for a while, and gone my way / and forgotten it. But that was the / pearl of great price, the one field that had / treasure in it. I realise now / that I must give all that I have / to possess it.”

The poet’s voice gives way to a melancholy music, a stirring vocal drone accompanied by flute and violin; the boy runs through high undergrowth as an increasingly severe wind sweeps through the woods. As the soundtrack fades back into the vinyl crackle and then to silence, calmness descends, and darkness gives way to colour; we view the house through an open window, revealing a sunlit interior where a golden-coated puppy plays.

 

THE film is sampled from the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, and the recording is R. S. Thomas reciting “The Bright Field”, and it is the work of a creative collective, The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. The track “The Bright Field” features on the band’s first album of new material for 20 years, Beauty Will Save The World.

Call it synchronicity, or the work of a harmonising Spirit, but the return of The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus to a stage at the Greenbelt Festival with this new material comes in the same year as the festival has adopted “The Bright Field” as its theme.

To most festivalgoers familiar with the band, their reappearance will have come as a surprise. The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus (RAIJ) were active for a decade between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, when they produced three albums: The Gift Of Tears (1987), Mirror (1991), and Paradis (1995). There was then a long hiatus in their public performances between 1998 and a one-off concert in their hometown of Liverpool in 2013, which coincided with the release of After the End, a three-CD box set of mostly historic recordings.

A measure of the time-lapse between their earlier work and now is that the director of the video for “The Bright Field”, Eilis Egan, is the youngest daughter of the band’s founder-member Jon Egan.

“There was never a clear sense that RAIJ was over,” Jon Egan says. “It feels like we were observing a prolonged secular fast, abstaining from creative activity until the appropriate inspiration or prompt came along. And ultimately it did.”

The band’s other founder-members, Les Hampson and Paul Boyce, also collaborate on “The Bright Field”. The extended RAIJ family now includes, among others, the pianist Hannah Harper — the daughter of another original member, Sue Boyce (now McBride).

 

TO FOLLOWERS of their work, RAIJ have always been elusive. Interviews with the group have been few, marketing has been minimal, and their early performances were notable for their shrouding the front of the stage with sheets of paper or cloth so that audiences could see them only as silhouettes.

Of this low profile approach Jon Egan says: “We never set out to create an aura of mystery or anonymity. We just didn’t want to be asked to explain or justify our work. The creative process is itself shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. We accept that, and simply wanted the work to speak for itself.

“We were also deeply uncomfortable with the whole process of marketing and promotion. The things that you really value in life are not the things that are sold to you but the things that you discover. We were always happy to be discovered. We are now a little bit more willing to engage, so long as we are not expected to explain and deconstruct what we do.”

 

RAIJ’s music is not easily deconstructed. It is multi-layered, and draws on a range of influences, from obscure European film soundtracks to Orthodox Christian liturgies. “Beauty Will Save The World” is a quotation from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot but, Egan says, “it also paraphrases an idea from Simone Weil, who proclaimed beauty to be the experimental proof of the incarnation. It’s an idea that weaves in and out of the album through the musical elements and in many of the quotes, sources, and samples that kind of glue this project together.”

Another track on the album, “Repentance”, has an audio sample from Peter Adair’s 1967 film The Holy Ghost People, a documentary about a community of Pentecostal Christians in Appalachia. Egan says: “During the recording process, the piece accidentally overlapped with the next track, ‘Sama’, which is based on a text by the Sufi poet and teacher Ibn Abbad. Somehow, a recording accident helped us to discern an underlying affinity between what might seem to be two very different spiritual traditions and cultures.”

The band’s treatment of “Before the Ending of the Day”came about, Egan says, as “another instance of a kind of creative accident. We were trying to create a piece starting with samples and field recordings of maritime sounds (waves, fog-horns, bell-buoys, etc.), and had a completely separate idea to record a setting of ‘Before the Ending of the Day’.

“We know the Gregorian chant setting from the old Radio 4 broadcast of Compline, which used to be broadcast late on Sunday nights. This was a kind of sacred counterpoint to the Shipping Forecast.

“Both broadcasts invoked a vivid sense of enveloping mystery, and the precarious transient nature of human existence against the backdrop of something unfathomable. I think the piece fuses these collective memories into a merged soundscape that opens out into eternity.” 

 

MUSIC critics have struggled to categorise RAIJ into any one strand of contemporary music. The online music periodical Heathen Harvest wrote: “While Christian imagery and liturgical extracts reside within [the Apocalyptic Folk genre] en masse, there really is no comparison to The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus as far as thematic efforts are concerned. Possessing an eclectic world mix of chants, percussion, and even jazz elements, they stand alone in the ever-expanding sea of the Apocalyptic genre. Theirs is an otherworldly mix of haunting fragility and strong brodaccio wrapped into one esoteric and beautiful package.”

I asked Egan about the Holy Spirit.

“Christianity is a shared position for the RAIJ, and beyond that there are different forms and shades of personal commitment. The shared position is that Christian ideas and experience are a vocabulary for the pursuit and rediscovery of the sacred.

“In particular, we have been influenced by the Orthodox tradition and its understanding of restoration. For the Orthodox, the icon is not a representation of something sacred: it is a sacred object; it’s a fragment of glorified nature, a moment of eternity framed in a finite space.

“The Eastern Churches have always stressed God’s immanence and the active agency of the Holy Spirit. This is an idea that has appealed to us. There is a beautiful quote from the Orthodox writer Kallistos Ware — ‘Man’s purpose is not to dominate and exploit nature, but to hallow and transfigure it.’ This is the perfect imperative for the artist. Our creative methodology, how we go about identifying and collecting the sources and fragments that are part of our compositions — to us this is not about deconstruction: it feels like restoration. We are trying to reassemble and reconnect things in a way that reveals a deeper truth and a more elusive beauty.

“There is no conscious premeditation to this process. We are searching for, or maybe being guided towards, something that is just beyond understanding and perception. It is meaning or beauty that resonates in a different kind of space; — what was once called the sacred.”

 

IN THESE explorations, RAIJ do not always offer easy listening, or viewing. The track “Nativity” from Mirror features the repeated vocal, “Where is this child, that we too may worship?” filtered through a loudhailer over fierce electronic sound distortion. The poet Anthony Wilson witnessed the band performing this at the Harry Festival in 1992, and recalls their “ending their set with ten minutes of cacophonous feedback”.

The new material is more melodic than some of these earlier pieces, though still intense.

Looking forward to their performance at Greenbelt, Egan quotes Emerson: “Simplicity is difficult because it requires nothing less than everything.”

“Greenbelt is a bit like that. We have a reduced canvas, but somehow need to design an experience that doesn’t limit or distort what we are trying to say. We are looking forward to it. . .

“Whatever and wherever the sacred is, it can only be approached in a spirit of innocence, and we can only be guided by a kind of insatiable nostalgia. That ache and restless yearning . . . is so difficult to analyse and explain, but it is maybe the most perfect realisation of what we have been trying to communicate throughout the album, which is the unceasing longing for transcendent beauty.”

 

The Revd John Davies is Rector of the Cam Vale Benefice, south Somerset, and an occasional Greenbelt contributor. Beauty Will Save The World is issued by Occultation Records (LOGOS7DF042).

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