Heaven may be called “contemporary church music,” but only the most contemporary of churches might consider hosting such music ~ and that’s a shame. In recent years, congregations with limited budgets have begun sharing spaces with the arts, to sublime effect. To hear A Winged Victory for the Sullen in such an intimate setting ~ or Mono in a larger venue, where the bass may rattle the pews ~ can be transcendent. Dino Spiluttini‘s approach is even more direct, specifically designed for a spiritual audience. In the spirit of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Spiluttini produces music that ignores the mainstream in an attempt to capture something deeper.
The “holy trinity” of organ, harp and choir is present, although not in the expected fashion. The addition of bass (common in churches with praise bands) and distortion (something most churches try to avoid) pushes this album to the frontiers of the unexpected, which is where many people find God. The irony is that so much church music is uninspired, reliant on traditional patterns and afraid to rock the boat ~ unlike prophets and disciples. To delve into the unknown, to offer more questions than answers, is to step into the whirlwind, literally reflected in the album’s passages of drone.
Spiluttini began this journey after having a conversation with his mother about death. She brought him to the local church to witness the place where their urns would one day be deposited. Much of the organ music on Heaven comes from this same church, while the emotions reflect Spiluttini’s reactions and ruminations. Will there be animals in heaven? Will there be bodies? If so, what will they be like?
Many weekly churchgoers will not like this music at all. Conversely, many non-believers will embrace it. The access points are many, while the abstractions create intrigue. Despite the common projection, music in heaven is likely not just “harps and choirs” (especially given the popular t-shirts that read, “On the 8th day, God created (insert name of favorite band).” It would be strange to believe in a God who inspired musicians while enjoying only a few. Following suit, Heaven invites conversation about what constitutes good church music. The major chords that close “Body at War” sound like a distant hymn, but despite the organ, “Weakened Centurion” would make a disturbing offertory.
Heaven‘s most curious aspect is the subject of the first single. “Touch Isolation” addresses “the toxic masculine stigma against platonic touch between men” (for example, the habit of men attending films together yet sitting a seat apart). By setting the choir against a wall of distortion, Spiluttini reflects not only the fear, but the dissonance created by the fear. It’s a hard subject, so rarely tackled that to find it in this arena seems like a revelation.
With Heaven, Dino Spiluttini joins the distinguished company of musicians like Kara-Lis Coverdale, who are unapologetic about themes of faith, with a compositional courage that stretches toward the 22nd century. Churches are slow to evolve, but they eventually do. The leap from “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” (William Cowper, 1771) to “Blood Fountain” (Dino Spiluttini, 2019) is not as far as one might imagine. In like manner, perhaps heaven is closer than we think. (Richard Allen)