It comes as a slight surprise to learn that Visions of the Hereafter is the first full-length album from John 3:16, but it turns out that all of his other releases were collaborations or EPs. So congratulations, Philippe Gerber, you’ve earned it! It’s an even bigger surprise to find the artist switching genres yet again, from drone and electronic to something in the range of industrial post-rock, or as the label calls it, cold wave. Pleasant shivers of New Order and The Cure greet listeners as wave upon wave of rippled 80s riffs swerve through the speakers. On their own, these melodic layers work incredibly well; they produce a feeling of pleasant nostalgia, while wearing a rakish hat. The downside is that their tone often runs askew of the album’s theme.
The album’s subtitle, Visions of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory is an obvious reference to Dante, whose Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso chronicle a journey through the layers of the (Catholic) afterlife. The order is shuffled on this album, but the associations are clear, especially in the titles: “The Ninth Circle”, “Ascent of the Blessed”. The latter piece closes with a passage of prophecy from Psalms that finds its fulfillment in the Gospels: blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Yet while the music seems tailor-made to match the themes of struggle and redemption, it’s just not dark enough to imply damnation; a voiceover is needed to bring the point home in the concluding track, “Fall of the Damned (Into Hell)”. This disconnection prompts a greater question: what is the right approach to the potentially damned?
Traditionalists believe that the “scared straight” method is best: let the sinners (that’s everyone) know the hellish fate that awaits them, and pray that fear leads them to change their ways. While this method has proven to be immensely effective over the years, it also has its downside: critics have called it over-simplified or even misguided, arguing that true salvation arrives not when a person seeks to avoid punishment or to receive reward, but prays in humility that God’s will be done. There’s no telling where Gerber’s thoughts lie; as on previous recording, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, he may be providing scores to traditional religious texts without agreeing with them. The ending of “Fall of the Damned (Into Hell)” is intensely bleak; the sinners have made their choice, and their chance for salvation has passed. The album ends on a sour note: not a vision of heaven, but a final glance at hell. In light of the ending, the middle pieces (tracks 2-8) seem to echo the ignorant celebrations of the damned: People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all (Luke 17:27, NIV). In retrospect, maybe we should not have enjoyed those guitar pieces so much.
The overall effect: the concept and track order get in the way of an otherwise engaging album. Move the closing track to the opening slot, closing instead with the bells of track eight, and the motivation shifts from fear to beauty. In the modern world, this may be a more effective means of evangelism. (Richard Allen)
Release date: October 22