Rock 'n roll and Jesus Christ have always been uneasy bedfellows. In certain cases, like Bob Dylan during his preacher phase, or Sunny Day Real Estate's The Rising Tide, it's almost enough to kill an artist's career and credibility. In other cases, such as with indie Christian band Pedro The Lion, their faith and direct references to the son of man prevented them from being as huge as contemporaries like Death Cab For Cutie and Modest Mouse, who were popular around the same time.
For someone who retweets messages that say, "the product of a true, growing, gospel-centered nature is often gentleness," the music on Pages Of The War is surprisingly fierce, with Zachary Simms shrieking his questions in the distance, like on album opener "Priest Forever” with its swirling analog electronics and catchy, chiming guitars. This is no Sunday school record, rather, this is the sound of a man looking for his faith, seeking peace with the universe and the unknown and uncontrollable in life.
Pages Of The War was recorded over the span of 15 days at Hi Fi Studios, with engineer Khaleed Matmati. Simms played virtually every note on the album himself, apart from background vocals on "Whatisman" provided by Simms' wife Kimberly. Like a kid in a candy store, Simms moved through a room full of musical tools, one at a time, to create a dense and moving kaleidoscope of organs, multiple guitars, drums and layered vocals. His singularity of vision, and multi-instrumental virtuosity brings to mind the exquisite multi-tracking of Elliott Smith at his finest. Not only does he play a dozen instruments on the record, he plays them well.
Simms cites Spoon, Grizzly Bear and Radiohead as influences, which I'll agree with, and add the two Buckleys, Jeff and Tim, with surreal, poetic and personal lyrics delivered in a high and tender voice, delicate yet still sturdy. These gossamer vocals are updated, laid over a fog bank of late '90s/early '00s post-rock guitars, a la Sigur Rós or Explosions In The Sky, which give an endless and wistful feeling, like on "Roots.”
Pages Of The War is not all existential and melancholy, however, as the bittersweet is laced with highly infectious swagger, ("Do You Remember When?"), a disco boogie from Jehovah, to storming raging fury, ("A Few Last Questions"). This paints a picture of religion as spirituality, of having a personal understanding and relationship with the Creator, rather than acting as "the opiate of the masses,” as Karl Marx put it.
It goes to show that faith doesn't solve or remove any of life's problems; it just gives you tools to cope with them. Zachary Simms is struggling with the same issues we all face, but filtering them through the parable of Jesus Christ and a legion of bible stories. If all of the music at worship service were this good, you'd probably get a lot more people attending Sunday service.
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