There’s a scene in Home Alone where Macaulay Culkin’s character, Kevin, wanders down the street and into a chapel, looking lost, alone and abandoned on Christmas eve. Inside the chapel is a choir, dressed in long papal coats, singing about the birth of Christ. Kevin sits down on a wooden pew and looks across the room, making eye contact with Old Man Marley, whom he believes to be a murderous villain. The scene is perhaps the darkest moment in an otherwise comical film, but in that scene, director Chris Columbus perfectly captures the camaraderie between fear and loathing.
When I first heard Father Murphy’s album Croce, that scene instantly popped into my head. The chiseling harmonies and caustic rhythms reminded me of the gowned children singing Catholic hymns, and the morose tension between Kevin and Old Man Marley.
It’s a far drawn parallel, but there is perhaps something in cinematic history that links the the two.
Movie aficionados may recognize the name from Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy — Tom, an elderly addict played by writer William S. Borroughs, was nicknamed Father Murphy.
On March 17, the Italian papal protagonists released Croce, their fifth full-length album — their first was released in 2001. Originally a trio, the band now consists of guitarist Freddie Zanatta and keyboard player and percussionist Clare Lee — both add vocals. For more than a decade they have crafted dense, destructive noise-rock, using avant-garde rhythms and abstract noises to fulfill their musical prophecy. Along the way they have collaborated with some notable underground rock stars, including Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier and Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart.
Croce is undoubtedly their darkest record, reinterpreting biblical scripture and exploring the relationship between death and the resurrection. The album is designed to have traditional A and B sides. Detuned guitars, satanical chants, and large walls of reverb make it a challenging listen, but beneath the wreckage there are moments of clarity.
In one of Jim Morrison’s more notable monologues, he repeats the verse, “You can petition the lord with prey,” before shouting, “You cannot petition the lord with prey.” It’s the beginning of “The Soft Parade,” during one of Morrison’s madcap chapters. His mind is a collage of ideas, resulting in a deeply paranoid song.
Father Murphy express similar notions of religious paranoia, albeit through noise and repetition rather than poetic verse — but they’re far from just another indie-rock band channeling the 60s to create a familiar aesthetic.
In May 2012, on a hot summer’s night in Seattle, Washington, I ventured into the basement of Neumos. Father Murphy were on stage, spread out like a crucifix. Their music was brooding and destructive, unsettling and hypnotic. For a few moments the room felt like a dungeon in the catacombs, lit only by a blood-red stage light that dissolved and disappeared into the wine colored wall drapes.
They were on tour with Xiu Xiu and Dirty Beaches, which included a show at New York’s Lincoln Hall. Later that summer Dirty Beaches hit the festival circuit, appearing at Primavera and Pitchfork Music Festival.
In his review of the Lincoln Hall show for indie-music site Brooklyn Vegan, Milos Markicevic drew an excellent comparison, writing, “If people thought Nick Cave’s first band, The Birthday Party, was one of the darkest and heaviest post-punk bands around, Father Murphy would like a word with you.” Indeed, if it was 30 years earlier the two bands could have easily shared the stage.
Proof of Father Murphy’s polarizing music is well documented. The same BV review goes on to muse, “Out of relief or awe (maybe a bit of both), the crowd cheered as Father Murphy profusely thanked everyone.” A recent review on Toronto website Exclaim declares, “Most of the crowd didn’t know what to make of their cinematic and claustrophobic soundscapes — the only thing more deafening than the sound of the duo’s undulating distortion was the silence between songs.”
While comparisons to The Birthday Party may have once been attainable, Croce now renders them less relevant. Cave and co. often created a violent symphony, controlled by Cave’s contorted, cabaret-style antics. At the time, it aligned The Birthday Party with the sound emanating from New York’s post-punk enclave on the Lower East Side, however Father Murphy seem an unlikely fit for CBGB or Max’s Kansas City. In fact, it’s hard to define Murphy within the confines of modern punk music.
Geographically, Europe is more likely to provide a reference point than North America. Father Murphy has recorded in a medieval castle in Italy and played live in a historical engine shed in Strömstad, Sweden; in an ancient church in Verona; and inside a cave in Itri, Italy.
Croce was recorded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was mixed by Greg Saunier. From the outset, Murphy’s intention is clear — there’s going to be bloodshed, maybe not literally, but definitely contextually.
Opener “Blood Is Thicker Than Water” starts with a sacrificial chant: In unison, the pair sing, “You spilt your blood.” After a reference to blood spilling down the cross, the song moves forward using a distortion pedal to imitate Christ’s final breaths, as he struggles, strung out, nailed to the cross.
Lend a close ear to the following track, “A Purpose” (which premiered on VICE along with an animated video), and you’ll hear the effect of steel supposedly clashing with flesh and bone. As a noise-rock hymn, the song oozes pain and brings forth the catharsis of Catholic guilt.
There’s a moment of reflection midway through, just before it’s time to flip the disk (if you’re listening on wax). “In Solitude” is a gentle, soothing guitar track, with just enough dissonance. The second half — side B — is more experimental, adopting silence as an unlikely tool. There are brief sections that recall the great German industrialists Einstürzende Neubauten, when Murphy weave together fragments of industrialized sound to signal the beginning of the album’s (and the subject’s) resurrection.
If you make it to the end, which I highly recommend, you’ll have witnessed an unusual interpretation of the biblical novella. Croce, somewhat ironically, ends quite peacefully.
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