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Amps for Christ 

The Oak in the Ashes (Shrimper)

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
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Amps for Christ is the ongoing recording project of Claremont, Calif., native Henry Barnes, former noise-wrangler for infamous "power violence" groups Man Is the Bastard and Bastard Noise. AFC is a far gentler beast, with Barnes playing stringed instruments of his own design while his "clandestine alter ego" Enid Snarb handles recording chores, keyboard modification, and the building of archaic "caveman electronics." Add contributions from Barnes' talented friends, and you have the kaleidoscopic, beautifully strange album The Oak in the Ashes.

Barnes' band name isn't ironic: Like indie Christians Soul Junk and Danielson Famile, Amps for Christ is infused with a sort of crypto-spirituality that's sincere, but usually more obvious in the packaging and liner notes of its releases than in the music itself. For instance, Oak's opening track, "She's With Me," seems more like a starry-eyed love song than a call to the heavens. Over a deftly picked acoustic guitar and distorted riffage, Barnes details his unabashed affection for a green-eyed woman, with only the line "God has given me your hand, our love is God's command" hinting at loftier concerns.

While Barnes scatters his trademark Celtic-informed love songs and lullabies throughout the album's 23 tracks, he also explores areas far removed from guitar-based folk. Clangorous electronics and tweaked-out organs abound, including bagpipelike keyboards on two tracks. The final number, "Prepared Hammond for 5 Hands," features nine minutes of squiggly lo-fi electronic clamor that should appeal to fans of Barnes' previous bands. Guests provide more diversity: A Turkish woman named Nese (most AFC collaborators are identified by last name only) supplies hypnotic Middle Eastern vocals on two songs, one-time Coltrane Church disciple Davis adds tenor sax to "Mission Accomplished," and Barnes' sculptor neighbor White recites seven beat poems.

This is AFC's third full-length on Shrimper and seventh overall, and it's one of the band's most satisfying to date -- paradoxically challenging and engaging. When compared to earlier offerings such as 1997's Thorny Path (a decidedly more dissonant, instrumental affair), it's apparent that the Barnes/Snarb axis is expanding its vernacular with each successive release. Praise the Lord and pass the acid.

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Mike Rowell

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