A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: The Violet Burning
WHO ARE THEY? Essentially, they are Michael J. Pritzl, joined by a cast of revolving musicians. Pritzl was heavily associated with the Vineyard Church in the late 1980s, but the Vineyard treated him poorly and saddled him with a number of false accusations–and his music became much more interesting. Free to follow his muse, Pritzl has spent two decades now making idiosyncratic, artsy records for what I take to be a very devoted coterie of fans. (He is also a relentless re-recorder of his own music, which means that I’m not dealing with every album he’s put out here.)
GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): Dream Pop, Grunge, Pop/Rock, Shoegaze
RIYL Catherine Wheel, Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Spiritualized, U2, The Verve
WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? You probably don’t if you don’t follow this sort of music–unless you are confusing them with the Violent Femmes.
WHAT’S THEIR BEST SONG? “Gorgeous,” from The Violet Burning Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic (1998), a yearning ballad that’s too in love with the beauty of a dying relationship to grieve it.
The Violet Burning Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic (1998). For his fourth record, the peak of his career, Pritzl put out something that I’m not sure anyone else could have. The aural and lyrical touchstones are clear—the Smashing Pumpkins, absolutely, and the lyrics make clear reference to David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, R.E.M., and (I think) Michael Knott. But Plastic and Elastic is so personal, so distinctly Pritzl, that I can’t imagine it coming from anyone else. Most artists don’t have even one record you can say that about.
The plastic of the title, I believe, refers to the glossy, shinny, up-tempo songs contained within—many of them with an implicit glam-rock influence. The best of these is certainly “Berlin Kitty,” anchored by a genuinely magnificent riff, but “Moon Radio” and “Robot Fluide Robot” are among the best songs of Pritzl’s career, too. Elastic, on the other hand, refers to the vulnerability on display in songs like “Gorgeous,” “Seamonster,” and “Oceana.” The two depend on each other, of course—the glitz makes the vulnerability starker, and besides, 63 minutes of elasticity would be too difficult a listen for a pop record.
Other songs bridge the gap—“Elaste” begins simply and quietly before crashing into a screaming wall of shoegaze guitar, and “She Says Electric” slowly builds to its release, then builds again. These intermediary songs are the key to the album, I think, if only because they’re the place where the Violet Burning is demonstrating plastic and elastic, and it’s not an accident that they are the most religious songs on the record. Plastic and Elastic has a number of songs in which God hardly plays a role. (Despite the hermeneutic gymnastics of some of Pritzl’s more pious fans, it’s hard to hear “Ilaria” as about anything other than sex.) But because everything is grounded in plastic and elastic, the whole record becomes sacramental. (Surely it’s not an accident that Mary shows up in “Oceana” and “Seamonster.”)
All of this is just to say that Plastic and Elastic merits and rewards deeper reflection. And that makes sense—it’s not just the Violet Burning’s best album, it’s one of the best rock albums of the 1990s.
The Violet Burning (1996). At the absolute depth of despair, I suspect you can’t write—but when you’re close to that point, all you can do is write. Between the release of Strength in 1992 and the self-titled album in 1996, Michael Pritzl clearly went through something terrible. The result is The Violet Burning, a worship record in reverse, in horrible adoration of the absent God. It’s very difficult to imagine the band that put out Chosen and Strength singing songs like “Low” or “Crush,” but here we are.
Not to put too fine a point on it—or to sound like a chart in a Christian bookstore—but the Violets’ self-titled record is a Siamese Dream for the Christian market, and like Siamese Dream, it belongs to a late afternoon right at the point in late summer when the heat goes from pleasant to oppressive. Also like Siamese Dream, it blends the massive crunch of the grunge era with psychedelic and shoegaze influences, and if Pritzl lacks Billy Corgan’s prodigious guitar skills, he makes up for it with the increased range of his vocals.
In fact, Pritzl has never sounded better behind the microphone than he does here—his voice ranges, generally over the course of a single song, from a throaty whisper to a low groan to an impassioned scream (the last minute or so of “Fever” is majestic in that regard). The guitars, loud as hell and drenched in flange, complement him perfectly, and when they do pull back (as on “Silver” and album highlight “Goldmine”), they are felt even more strongly in their absence—which is maybe the point of the whole endeavor, now that I think about it.
WORTH A LISTEN
I Am a Stranger in This Place (2000). Subtitled “an experiment in vibe,” I Am a Stranger in This Place rerecords songs from Strength, The Violet Burning, and Plastic and Elastic, generally stretching them out and keeping them relatively quiet. The technique is quite appealing, although it works much better on the earlier songs (whose production left something to be desired): “Undone,” “There Is Nowhere Else,” and “Song of the Harlot” are much better here than they are on Strength. The songs from Plastic and Elastic are less successful because no change was necessary, although only “She Says Electric” is a real step down from its original version. (Pritzl’s changing “I’m such a lucky man” to “I’m such a special man” would seem to go against the meaning of the song to me.) Stranger is certainly not required listening, but it’s good rainy-day music and a demonstration of Pritzl’s range as an arranger.
Fabulous, Like You (The Gravity Show, 2003). The Violet Burning was never anything but Pritzl and a rotating cast, but the Gravity Show is a legitimate one-man band. It doesn’t sound much like a Violet Burning record, either, other than some of the glossier moments on Plastic and Elastic. Pritzl’s voice suits the electronic sound, though, and some of the songs here rank among his best, particularly the burbling opener “Rock and Roll Star,” the languid dream pop of “Perfect Day,” and the “Famous Blue Raincoat” rewrite “Halo.” The more Pritzl hews to the new sound, the more I like the result—it’s telling that the rockiest song here, “Dreadful,” is also the worst.
Hollow Songs (Michael Pritzl, 2004). These eight songs are mostly acoustic versions of songs from Fabulous, Like You and This Is the Moment. They work well in this rawer format, particularly “Perfect Day” and “Halo.” I also like the acoustic version of “Gone Gone Gone,” a song that didn’t strike me in its electronic incarnation on Fabulous. The album is filled out with the slowcore closer “Assassin Boy” and a spirited cover of Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.”
The Story of Our Lives, Pt. 3: Liebe Über Alles (2011). After five years and two rather disappointing albums, The Violet Burning returned with their most ambitious project: a three-volume concept album called The Story of Our Lives. The concept is difficult to justice to in a small space—it involves a being whose heart is wired into its body and who chooses to die rather than to exist in the mysterious Machine City, ruled by an evil robot called br0thr. Despite all these mechanical themes, there are very few electronic sounds on these albums. (What’s more, they are largely not on YouTube, so if you want to hear the songs, you’ll have to buy or stream the records directly.)
The first two records, as we shall see, are quite heavy and dark, but Liebe Über Alles, as the happy ending, is substantially more hopeful. The Violets are at their most U2-esque here—Pritzl repeatedly sings “All I want is you” in “Mon Désir,” and the closing track, “Made for You,” has quite a bit in common with that song. The strings that saturate “Made for You” appear elsewhere in the record, too, probably most effectively on the opening “Mojave,” which uses the same cello part as the instrumental that opens The Fantastic Machine. (It’s also very similar to “Sweet Caroline.”) Pritzl’s vocals are so deep as to be distracting at times, and a little more elastic to go with the plastic would be nice, but this album, along with its two companion records, is certainly worth hearing.
The Story of Our Lives, Pt. 1: The Fantastic Machine (2011). The first volume of The Story of Our Lives is the darkest and heaviest album Pritzl has ever made, darker and heavier even than the self-titled record. The band takes at least some cues from the more metal-influenced songs on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (like that double album, this triple album begins with a chamber pop instrumental)—witness the chaotic, harmonic guitar solo on “Where It All Begins,” for example, or “Machine Beats Sabbatha,” every element of it pushed to the limits. Lyrically, Pritzl seems to be coming to terms with everything he hates about American Christianity: “Churches entertaining me / Instead of theology,” he sings in “Br0thr,” and that’s one of his milder complaints. The Fantastic Machine is certainly not the band’s best work, but it is passionate and personal; likewise, it’s not an easy listen, but those of us who have followed Pritzl’s career will find a lot to love in it.
The Story of Our Lives, Pt. 2: Black as Death (2011). It’s certainly not a cheerful record by any stretch of the imagination, but despite its title, Black as Death is actually less dark than The Fantastic Machine. It shares an overall musical tone with its predecessor, however, and songs like “My Name Is Night” and “Sung” bring Pritzl’s alternative-metal influences to the fore again. By and large, the concept-album stuff is less evident here and the themes more difficult to see without intense study, but the songs are still strong, especially the two softer tracks, “Where Do We Belong?” and “In Ruin.”
Strength (1992). The sound of the Violets’ second album is firmly planted in the late 1980s—glossy like an adult-contemporary record, although only “As I Am” really sounds like an adult contemporary song to me. Its most “alternative” element is probably the guitars, which are atmospheric the way the Choir’s Circle Slide is atmospheric (though they are not as interesting as that album). The lyrics are mostly de riguer worship stuff—lots of shining and raining. But there are some really good tracks, especially the jangle pop “Undone,” the (fake?) string-supported “Like the Sun,” and the alt-rock cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
Lillian Gish (EP, 1995). This is an independently released EP leading up to the self-titled album. Two of the songs from that record—“Goldmine” and “Fever”—appear here in very different form, along with three tracks otherwise unavailable. The best of these is “Hovercraft,” which sounds like a warmup for Plastic and Elastic in general and “Berlin Kitty” in particular. Lillian Gish—Pritzl sure wasn’t concerned about being compared to the Smashing Pumpkins, was he?—is probably most infamous for containing the unedited “f-word” in “Fever,” but two decades removed from that controversy, it sounds provocative more than heartfelt. (Incidentally, Lillian Gish was rereleased with another period EP, You Wouldn’t Understand Anyway. I bought the package from the Violets’ webstore but received only Lillian Gish, and no one with their organization responded to my email.)
Faith and Devotions of a Satellite Heart (2001). The Violet Burning was heavily associated with the Vineyard worship scene, and from time to time in their career, they put out what is essentially an album for congregational worship. I wrote in the first essay in this series that I think that the worship industry essentially killed what I liked about Christian rock music, but I will try not to blame the Violets for that. They are attempting something much artier here than Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman; the title references Depeche Mode and the Flaming Lips, although it doesn’t sound anything like either group. Most of the songs are vibey, and Pritzl stretches them out for a long time. But ultimately, I can’t help but feel I’m getting the same thing here as I’m getting from more mainstream worship records: Someone trying to make me feel something. I can’t recommend it, but because of my genre blinders, I’m putting it in the “worth a listen” section so that you can make up your own mind. Sample songs: “Forty Weight,” “Maker of the Stars,” “Nobody Else.”
THE DISCOUNT BIN
Drop-Dead (2006). The Violets’ last album for Northern Records incorporates the synthesizer textures of Pritzl’s Gravity Show side project, incorporating them with the slick guitars of the buzzier tracks on Plastic and Elastic. Unfortunately, the songs are not all that inspired; many of them feel like generic radio alt-rock. There are exceptions—“More” builds on its foundation of guitar arpeggios to create something quite passionate and appealing, and the opener “Humm” is in the “elastic” mode that Pritzl does so well. But little of the rest of the record is memorable, unless you count the supremely annoying “Rewind.”
This Is the Moment (2003). I don’t begrudge a band trying to make itself more commercially friendly, as the Violets clearly do on This Is the Moment. The problem is they do so by removing anything interesting from their sound, be it their left-of-center lyrics or their swirling guitars. Almost everything on this record is glossy and processed beyond all pleasure. And it worked—I remember my Christian college radio station playing the hell out of the insipidly titled “Radio Jesus Superstar,” whereas they never would have touched “Berlin Kitty” or “Goldmine.” The one exception to the tedium of the record is the final track, “Manta Rae,” a very personal piece of ambient pop that recalls the best of the band’s previous material—or the quieter moments on the Gravity Show’s Fabulous, Like You.
FOR FANS ONLY
Chosen (1989). To be honest, I’m not sure this one’s even for fans. The Violets’ debut is very typical late ‘80s commercial pop/rock, complete with corny guitar licks and synthetic drums. Pritzl’s vocals are uniformly overwrought. There’s no apex, but there is a nadir: the Christ-ventriloquizing power ballad “I Will Always Stand by You.” There’s nothing to love on Chosen, and no hint at the great band the Violet Burning would eventually become.
GREATEST HITS, ETC.
As far as I know, they don’t have a greatest-hits release, unless you count I Am a Stranger in This Place and a few other records that feature re-recorded versions of their songs.
Quite a few of them, none of which I’ve heard. I did see The Violet Burning at the Cornerstone Festival in 2000 and can report that they were an excellent live band at that time.
Pritzl went on tour with the 77s’ Mike Roe a few years ago and promised a “Mike Vs. Mike” album at some point. I don’t believe that has materialized. Temporary members of the Violet Burning have been involved with groups like The Prayer Chain, Raspberry Jam, and–hey!–The Smashing Pumpkins.
Other essays in this series: