The brilliance of Wrekmeister Harmonies continues to shine on Night of Your Ascension. J.R. Robinson has become a master (if not the master) of dynamic contrast, and a cast of 30 guest musicians is on hand here to help him realize his vision. These guest stars include harpist Mary Lattimore, singer Marisa Nadler, and Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke, but they’re not the main story. The main story is how far the album travels from start to finish. By the time it’s over, one has not only forgotten the way back; one can barely remember the feel of the first steps.
The 32-minute title track begins with sustained organ tones and the heavenly voice of Nadler, alternating between wordless moans and poignant phrases, the most memorable being “you will never say goodbye.” Strings appear mid-piece, transporting the listener to a state of transcendent bliss; the entrance of a resonant church choir cements the association. Nearly a quarter-hour passes before the clouds begin to move in: distorted guitar, feedback, deep-throated male intonations; at 15:11, the first power chords. The groundwork has been laid, but the shift still comes as a surprise, even on subsequent listens. By the end, the track has become an assault of metal and melody, song turned to scream, organ to guitar, layer upon layer of power and grace. In contrast to the long build, it all ends in a single second.
Conceptually, Night of Your Ascension tackles enormously difficult material. “Run Priest Run” is inspired by the incarceration and murder of a child molesting priest. By providing the name (Father John Geoghan), Robinson seems to be proposing we feel some manner of empathy, or at the very least, sympathy, instead of the more natural scorn and disgust. It would be easy to judge the artist harshly for such an angle, but this would be a misinterpretation. Robinson is less interested in the sin than in the reaction to the sinner. Do vile crimes excuse complete ostracism and hatred? Or do they expose the deep corruption within us all? And if so, might one begrudgingly admit that beauty – and even redemption – might be found in the ugliness of tones as they attempt the unthinkable: honoring the unlovable? Robinson is doing something important here, and rare, preaching a sermon that sounds like nothing ever done in a house of worship, while putting such houses to shame. (Richard Allen)