This blog, in case you didn’t know, is especially interested in cataloguing trends among young Christians who are seeking creatively to wed the historic Christian faith with modern expression in worship and music. The Opiate Mass is a fantastic example of this, and yet they are doing more than providing a packaged expression of ancient-future worship. They are pursuing innovation in church music.
The Opiate Mass isn’t quite a band. It isn’t quite a concert-experience. It isn’t quite a liturgy or worship service. It’s something in between all those things. The Opiate Mass is a collection of musicians and artists out of Seattle, led by director Zadok Wartes. In an interview, Wartes relates its origin:
A group of dear friends and I were all experiencing a rather bothersome dissonance between our rock/club/band experience on Friday nights, and our Sunday morning music direction/performance. We dreamed up our ideal of both worlds — composing and performing epic music in large holy spaces all in the name of the sacred and beautiful. It was an awkwardly indulgent and desperate desire to experience God.
The Opiate Mass performs (leads worship experiences) in a host of venues across denominational lines. They draw inspiration from the broad Christian tradition—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Their albums are elongated and contemplative. They create spacey, ambient music, rich in texture and layering, with a mixture of old and new instruments, from horns and pipe organ to synths and electric guitars. If you had to boil down their expression to one band, they most resemble the indie-eclecticism of Radiohead. Yet their choice concert hall is an old, classic sanctuary (high ceilings, stained glass, ornate woodwork), not a rock arena. The textual content for their music is historic and eclectic, from hymnody (e.g. “What Wondrous Love is This,” on Albatross, and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” on From the Belly of a Woman), to service music (e.g. “Sanctus,” on Make a Sound), to Orthodox liturgy (e.g. “Paschal Troparion,” on Albatross) to Scripture (e.g. “Isaiah 35,” on From the Belly), to original material.
Their three recordings (to date) are mixdowns of live performances, which, in the words of Wartes, “have their warts and abrasions.” Still, they’re beautiful. And, amidst the worship biz’s heaps of hyper-polished “live” recordings with more post-event overdubbing than preserved original tracks, The Opiate Mass’s material is refreshingly human and boldly experimental.
Perhaps what I appreciate most about The Opiate Mass is their insistence on not bifurcating the sacred and the secular when it comes to artistic musical expression in ecclesiastical contexts. In the language of my own Reformed tradition, they observe God’s “common grace” in places like clubs and rock concert halls. They don’t disavow the genuine experiences they have and feelings they feel when they hear a great band in a “secular” venue. But, taking the approach that all truth is God’s truth, that all beauty is God’s beauty, they seek to sanctify musical expressions that isn’t readily associated with Christian worship. I wholeheartedly applaud this endeavor.
I likewise appreciate the unashamed merging of musical and liturgical worlds which are often kept apart in Christian worship. They are unafraid of blending classical instruments with modern ones. They do not flinch at the juxtaposition of ancient texts with futuristic sounds. They newly arrange tried-and-true musical works (check out their redressing of Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” on From the Belly of a Woman).
I don’t know how reflective their recordings are of the actual experiences they lead in churches, but at least what is recorded is meant more to be listened to and reflected on than sung with. In other words, they’re not creating original congregational music. Still, they’re contributing something powerful to the ever-evolving corpus of church music.
From the Belly of a Woman is their latest album, released this past Tuesday. It is the fruit of their work during Advent/Christmas 2010. They recognize that May is an odd time to release a Christmas album, but they nevertheless press on, and they’ve given the Church a beautiful gift. You can download all their music directly from their website, under “Catalog.”