For the uninitiated, few genres can carry more stigma (and thus more stereotypes) than the various manifestations of “Christian music” found floating around the airwaves nowadays. Sure, gospel still has healthy legs to run on — and plenty of respect, at that — but pre-eminent bluegrass figures like Del McCoury help fight that holy battle alongside even cooler spiritual torch-bearers like the Blind Boys of Alabama.
So, gospel’s one thing; but when labels like “Contemporary Christian” or “Christian Rock” start getting thrown around, inevitably eyes start rolling and ears close. This condition holds true for all sorts of people, of many different faiths. Even Christians may find mixing music and Sunday messages distasteful, as the likes of MTV-rockers Creed or the softy-pop of Michael W. Smith are enough to make many serious music fans seek shelter far, far away from such music with a message.
But you can forget any fluffy preconceptions looming on the horizon about Christian music when approaching the sonic fallout of Scotty Irving, the mad percussionist who conducts the one-man-band explosion of Clang Quartet.
“Conform ye not to the world,” Irving tells Xpress from his oddly tame day job at a talent agency in Greensboro — invoking some favorite guiding scripture from the New Testament book of Romans. “That’s pretty much exactly what I’m trying to show [with Clang Quartet]: that I’m not conforming to the usual musical or spiritual ideas.”
Indeed not: Clang Quartet’s about the farthest thing from typical you’re likely to find in a solo act this side of Adam. And Irving’s decidedly un-church message for Christ, delivered via often strange and raucous soundscapes, scores as neither contrived nor pompous in delivery.
In fact, some observers don’t even catch the message until it’s pointed out, as Irving opts for theatrical elements while performing rather than actually speaking words to evoke his still-potent message. Conversely, his recent record, The Separation of Church and Hate, makes some use of spoken-word elements in tackling universal themes like brotherly love, racism and especially the hypocrisy of supposedly devout Christians.
This accomplished drummer approaches Clang Quartet with avant-garde, percussive antics that are steeped in an intense improvisational spirit. Irving’s un-quartet features loud and occasionally ferocious stage energy, while his innovation and expertise in drumming are enough to startle any student of the form awake with a clang.
“We’ve all got demons,” Irving acknowledged in a recent documentary about his faith and life as Clang Quartet. The short film, dubbed Armor of God after a verse in I Corinthians, chronicles Irving’s unusual performances and undeniable talent. “We don’t necessarily think of them in the same way,” he adds. “But we’ve all got demons.”
Irving certainly makes good use of his own demons, as the only apparent rule governing his improv circus is that there are none. He beats on drums and broken symbols with brush-strokes (or hammers), and totes along a potpourri of found percussion treasures and other homemade sound-makers. Consider “The Crutch,” one of the most unusual handicap aids imaginable. The actual crutch comes covered in effects pedals and a host of other electronic and non-electronic knickknacks, all intended for various degrees of impassioned beating and general aural abuse.
The result of Irving’s treasure chest of sounds is as hard to describe as it is to label. It’s not just drumming and percussion, because electronic effects and countless other bells and whistles give Clang Quartet a layered, strangely electronic sound. One moment it evokes the reverb-haunted mayhem of Sonic Youth, then the next, it conjures acid jazz in a junkyard symphony. Clang Quartet safely eludes labels by blending styles and sounds in a cacophony of inspired improvisation.
“I like the idea that I have the ability to make things shake hands that would never under any circumstances meet unless I had something to do with it,” explains Irving, a Stoneville, N.C., native whose earlier musical endeavors included a post-punk band called Geezer Lake. “I would have tried to incorporate some of that [Christian message] into Geezer Lake’s framework … but some of the stuff I’m doing is too personal.”
Without a doubt, personal conviction remains the centerpiece of Irving’s mission. But you could be the next Slow Train Coming-era Bob Dylan — or the Apostle Paul for that matter — and if the vehicle for your message (i.e. the music) is broken or unoriginal, then it won’t get the chance it might deserve to be heard. But nothing could be further from the truth with the sound of Clang Quartet, which easily shatters conventional music boundaries — with just a little help from the armor of God.
[Stuart Gaines is a contributing editor to An Honest Tune and writes Mountain Xpress‘ “Junk Journal” column.]
Clang Quartet plays the Neighborhood Studio in Marshall (100 Main St.) on Dec. 10 at 8 p.m., with Projexorcism and Skoweyajeed opening; then at Green Eggs and Jam (82 N. Lexington Ave.; 254-3232) on Saturday, Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. with Projexorcism. Cover for both shows is $5.