.:.ALL IS GRACE.:.
An Exclusive Interview with Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus
by Lee Powell | Header Photo Credit: Dmitri Korobtsov
Shrouded under a veil of mystery and intrigue, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus (RAIJ) has tread a shadowy path of anonymity since their earliest days and their subsequent inception into the wider musical domain wherein they initially fell, somewhat bewilderingly to the musicians involved, into the burgeoning UK industrial music scene in which they found themselves becoming uncomfortable bedfellows with the likes of Current 93, Coil, et al, as well as the likes Dead Can Dance. Whilst the music of RAIJ isn’t industrial in the more traditional sense of the word, it does share, perhaps completely coincidentally, a number of attributes to this genre of music. Yet, they transcended the boundaries of the time to incorporate a beautifully seductive spiritual overture to the very essence of their work producing a subtle fragility that encapsulates their sound and its atmosphere. Haunting spectres of shadowed ambiance dance suggestively over a breadth of vocal and musical styles ensuring that as one they hold the listener spellbound, whilst projecting a deeply emotive mysticism that resonates from the very essence of this union. Their debut release, The Gift of Tears, is a truly phonemical introduction into the band’s intentions as musicians and artists; skilfully weaving fluctuating instrumentation into the timeless abandonment of spirituality which is stitched together by vocals passages that haul as much influence from ecclesiastical choirs as it does from English Folk traditions. Yet, underpinning all of this is a bittersweet, shadowy duskiness that is, in part, projected seemingly from an array of field recordings, instrument experimentations, and tape manipulations—all of which form an evocative background that together with their primary music gives the overall sound a wonderfully diverse individuality about itself, whilst throwing cursory glances towards the likes of certain ‘industrial’ artists traveling along, occasionally intertwining paths, which is where perhaps this initial labeling arises from.
The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus’s music is ‘industrial’, but it is not; it’s religious, but it’s not. Apocalyptic folk? Experimental? Heavenly? Somehow, it’s all of these whilst simultaneously being none of them. It’s the soundtrack for the end-times, radiating a beatific path that stretches far into the future. It’s music of contradictions, of warmth and solitude, of enlightenment and constraints. It’s challenging yet bewitchingly simplistic. What it does do, however, which is extremely evident throughout, is engage the listener with a sublimeness that radiates of the very essence. To try and pin a journalist tag on what RAIJ are or to pigeonhole what they produce musically is fully redundant as it needs to be experienced in its full grandeur to be fully appreciated and understood, even in part.
Vanishing from the pubic gaze following the release of their 1995 EP, Paradis, for close to a decade did nothing to elevate this air of anonymity that surrounds the band. In 2013, an extremely limited three-disc collection entitled After the End appeared. Drawing together their three previous releases into one lavish collection, it proved to be a complete feast of the senses with their stunning artwork perfectly accompanying the music held on the CDs. However, the third CD, ‘A Rumour of Angels’, offered an addition that most weren’t expecting in the form of two brand new recordings. A flurry of excitement and optimism ensued amongst the legions of fans that had been built up by the band’s sublime compositions. Was this a hint of something more? 2015 revealed the answer in a defining ‘yes’ with the release of the band’s third full-length opus, the remarkable Beauty Will Save the World. It was everything that the RAIJ had previously been, yet it was much more. The sound was more plush whilst maintaining the air of extreme fragility about it. To merely say the album was beautiful did it a huge injustice; ‘magnificently heavenly’ seems more apt. To fully appreciate every facet the album had to offer, it needed to be experienced; only then was the listener partly able to offer their own interpretations of the ten tracks it presented.
The album received an extremely worthy number of exemplary reviews from a startling array of publications, yet it still remained under the radar for many who would quite simple be seduced by it. Hopefully, over time this will change, and with the current reissue of their outstanding second album Mirror, this can’t fail to be the case. Only released on CD, until now, Mirror witnessed a natural progression in sound to their music by increasing its diverse nature and the intricate structure of it. Boundaries were expanded and a wider range of instrumentation formed the main core of the album in which the vocal interplay and precisely interjected sounds were all pulled together by a wider-reaching religious presence.
Mirror has been unavailable to a wider audience for a good number of years which has elevated the cult nature of the album. 2017 saw a full reissue with re-imagined artwork, which has been lovingly brought into being by the UK-based record label Occultation. This time, however, the album has been lovingly realised on vinyl for the very first time, as well as CD.
Following discussions with Occultation Records—who have also released the band’s third full-length oeuvre, Beauty Will Save the World, as well as the new edition of Mirror—I was able to secure an interview with the band; an extremely rare opportunity for which I’m forever indebted to Nick Halliwell for helping facilitate.
The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus are rigorously democratic and as such the answers were derived following consideration and discussion involving the band’s three main members.
Heathen Harvest: The embryonic years of The RAIJ have rarely been documented and are still shroud in mystery. How did the band come to form and what brought you all together?
Revolutionary Army: We felt constrained by the limitations of music and wanted to create performances or environments that were more immersive and more emotionally powerful. This was not just about using different media, but also about adopting a radically different disposition and artistic objective. If there was any single motivation for the creation of the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, it was to create encounters with the sacred, or moments of transcendence.
HH: How did the idea of the band’s name come about? Were you looking for a title with somewhat of a religious connotation, or was it a eureka moment whist recalling the name from Luis Buñuel’s 1977 film, That Obscure Object of Desire? Were there any reservations in initially using the name, or was it an instantly unanimous decision?
RA: We had an affinity with Buñuel and the Surrealists, and their project to rediscover and reassert the marvellous and the miraculous. Maybe we have a different perspective and vocabulary, but we share a similar sense of alienation from a culture that denies beauty and wants to strip life of all mystery and poetry.
The name is both provocative and ambiguous, but it is also an assertion and a commitment to what our culture views as the most radical and subversive of all ideas—the sacred.
HH: During the time of your inception and for many years to follow, you were often grouped together with the flourishing apocalyptic folk/post-industrial movement that was spearheaded by Current 93, et al. I believe at the time you were also occupying the more esoteric spectrum of the Christian music scene. Were these two scenes paradoxically conflicting, and how did you find the movement between the two? How do/did you feel about your music at the time falling under the post-industrial umbrella?
RA: We never really felt connected to any movement or anything that was happening in contemporary music. We’re not hostile to that movement, we just weren’t really aware of it. Listening to some of the neofolk music, it’s possible to recognise some references, sources, and inspirations, but the sensibility seems different, maybe more post-modern or sometimes oppressive, claustrophobic, and dark.
We have often alluded to parallels with icon painting or writing. You start with the darker tones and shades, only gradually revealing and exposing the transfigurative light which is applied at the very end of the creative process.
In this sense, our approach and methodology is closer to the Christian understanding of the sacramental function of art, although this is an idea which is closer to Eastern Orthodoxy than it is to modern-day Evangelical theology. It’s interesting to appeal to people with radically different outlooks and values, but it’s not something that we can necessarily explain.
HH: Your music was, and still is, extremely complex and intricately structured; pulling together a plethora of ideas and sounds to create a unique and heavenly output. Was the band’s sound deliberately structured in this manner, or was the development of style and substance a very organic one?
RA: Oddly, we see our work as essentially simple, and maybe even naïve, or at least unsophisticated. The melodic structures often feature repetition, simple modal tonality, and probably reflect the fact that we were not interested in technical complexity or virtuosity for its own sake. If there is an ideal that we are trying to realise, it is probably purity, or finding the essential fulfilment of the initial inspiration.
We don’t believe that the essence of a piece is necessarily based on its melodic structure or arrangement. It’s about the space it occupies—how it reveals itself and is experienced within its context. In this way, our approach is more about mapping and exploring these spaces than it is about composing and recording. Pieces aren’t created—they are found. We think of our albums as being places, albeit only partially discovered.
HH: Your debut album, The Gift of Tears, which was released in 1987, still has a wonderful timelessness and fragility to it. How do you feel about the album looking back on it?
RA: The fragility was something that the label was nervous about. The pieces—and the album as a whole—are a kind of celebration of imperfection and impermanence. We worked with a limited set of instruments and in a recording environment that was quite primitive but completely right for this project. We don’t look back on our work in order to subject it to judgement. We don’t have any perspective from which it can be re-evaluated or improved.
HH: Your second album, Mirror, was released in 1990 and saw the band’s sound diversified and expanded somewhat in the adoption of more ethnically orientated rhythms and more complex structures. These were set against varying sound sculptures consisting of film samples, field-recordings, and classical and religiously themed instrumentation that complemented one another whilst still managing to portray a level of starkness. Was the writing process and structure different on this album to the first? I also believe the band had increased in members at this point. Is that correct?
RA: In some ways, the ‘musical’ influences or references on Mirror are more eclectic, but the album also has a deeper coherence and unifying aesthetic. There is a nostalgic, evocative undercurrent to Mirror. Someone referred to the album as being an invocation of a parallel or imaginary Europe. It’s a miscellany of unconnected but strangely resonant fragments slowly submerging into a future of homogenised global consumerism. In that spirit, we were trying to create a very specific feel or sound—something that sounded less like music and more like the memory of music.
HH: Could you tell us a little about the elusive Liturgie pour la fin du temps EP: a non-release that has intrigued me for some time? Was there any specific reasoning for the EP not to be released in its own?
RA: The title refers to the collection of additional pieces that were added to the CD re-release. They had quite a separate identity in our minds, but some labels (not Occultation) just want to merge product together. Probe Plus was not an entirely happy arrangement for us. I don’t think there was a great deal of respect or understanding for our work and this was just one of many compromises.
HH: In 1994/95, you released an EP entitled Paradis as well as a double-CD collection of your recordings to date on the German Apocalyptic Vision. How did this move to the German label come about? At the time, I remember both being marketed as precursors to the previously mentioned apocalyptic folk (later neofolk) genre that was gaining popularity across mainland Europe at the time. Were there any reservations about this genre-centric pigeonholing? Again, comparisons to Current 93 and, at this time, Dead Can Dance, were utilised. Do you feel these offer an accurate evaluation/summary of your sound then?
RA: We were approached by Alex at the label and he seemed like a breath of fresh air. This was much more like collaboration. We were able to design the artwork for this release—as we did for Mirror. It did pitch us deeper into the neofolk universe, and that has been a problem in some respects. I think it conditions how people listen to our work and probably puts up barriers to other audiences. We were never especially aware of what people like Current 93 or Dead Can Dance were doing. This is not about hostility or diffidence—we just weren’t part of that genre or listening to that type of music. Through the association with the German label, we began to get invitations to appear at European neofolk/Goth type gatherings, but that was okay. The audiences sensed we weren’t quite on their page, but that wasn’t a problem. We were never sure that there was anybody out there on our page, so temporarily occupying someone else’s was a necessity.
HH: There was a silence for nigh on eight years following Paradis before the lavish three-disc boxset, After the End, was released. The boxset was stunningly presented but also offered a tantalising introduction to two brand new recordings, which created a flurry of excitement for fans and ensured the release rapidly sold out. How did this compilation come about? What was the band’s input on the design and presentation of the artwork?
RA: Again, we were approached by the label and it seemed like an interesting opportunity. It also felt like the time was right to think about a new project. If we were going to re-release the back catalogue, there had to be some kind of postscript, and impetus for something else. We worked with Mike March, a long-time collaborator on the artwork. We wanted to create something beautiful and not just functional for the collection. Somehow when we put all the work together it became more than the sum of its parts; it became something in its own right with its own integrity and value.
HH: Shortly before the release of your seminal Beauty Will Save the World album, the American label Feral Sounds reissued the vinyl edition of The Gift of Tears. How did this come about, especially as the label was based in the United States?
RA: It was out of the blue, but there was obviously a demand for the album given the prices it was fetching on eBay and Amazon. By and large, if people approach us with reasonable proposals and they show good faith, we say yes.
HH: 2015 saw the release of your third opus, the majestic and hypnotically fluid Beauty Will Save the World, which has an extremely evocative title. Where did the title come from? How did it feel to be writing and recording again? How do you feel your sound had progressed from your earlier work? The album was released on the British label Occultation. How was this relationship founded?
The impulse to get back together was extremely powerful and compulsive. We didn’t rationalise it or subject it to analysis. It felt very positive and energising, and it was particularly inspiring to have a new generation of collaborators who made such a huge contribution to the project.
We had been silent for a long time, but silence is part of the creative process. Beauty Will Save the World was not just the product of the ten months it took to record. It is rooted in that period of silence and apparent inactivity. In a previous interview, we talked about how Beauty in places delineates the contours of silence. Silence is an essential part of its identity.
We had interest from a couple of labels, but the connection to Occultation came via Paul Simpson from the Wild Swans, whom we have known for very many years. Paul put us in touch with Nick Halliwell, and we knew instantly this was the right relationship. We liked the other artists on the label including Nick’s band, the Granite Shore, and he offered us an enormous amount of support, generosity, and creative freedom.
HH: Beauty Will Save the World gained a respectable amount of very positive press coverage around the globe, including a superb feature in the Church Times (a magazine for the clergy in the United Kingdom). How did it feel to gain such praise for the album, especially as previous to this there was very little coverage of the band? How did the article come about in the Church Times?
RA: Serendipity. The author had been living in Liverpool when we were performing but was also involved with Greenbelt. There were a succession of coincidences revolving around the R.S. Thomas poem ‘Bright Field’ which was the title of the festival and a track on the album. It all resulted in the invitation to perform and the interview. Of course, it was rewarding to see evidence that some people understood and appreciated what we were trying to express through our work. It’s not about critical acclaim; it’s about human connection. There is no other motivation or justification for artistic creation.
HH: Early live performances were accompanied with an air of elusiveness as the band often performed behind a screen. Was this more to draw the audience’s attention to the symbolism and atmosphere of the music as opposed to focusing on the band members on the stage? In 2015, you played live at the Christian festival Greenbelt. How was it getting back to the live environment? Why was the festival chosen as a platform for the bands reintroduction to the live arena?
RA: We didn’t see it as being elusive; it seemed to be the appropriate position for us to take within the kind of performances that we wanted to create. They weren’t musical recitals. They weren’t about musicianship or us as individuals. As performers, we were part of an experience, but by no means its focus or meaning. The screen was not a barrier, it was a space for projection and drama and maybe an insurance against distraction and delusion.
Performance was and remains hugely important to us. It’s how we began and it’s where we can utilise different media and create immediate interaction and shared experience with an audience. It’s extremely frustrating that it is so difficult for us to find appropriate and sympathetic stages. In addition to Greenbelt, we did Tallinn Music Week last year, which was really fulfilling too. We delivered a much smaller-scale collaboration with the artist Paul Mellor, who created the artwork for the Mirror re-release, at the Liverpool Light Night Festival. We are keen to perform again this year, but at this stage, there’s nothing definite.
HH: 2017 will finally see the vinyl issue of your second album Mirror, again on Occultation. How does it feel to finally see the album realised on vinyl? Is there any reason this format never materialised when the album was originally released?
RA: It was released at the very beginning of the post-vinyl age and the label (Probe) were convinced that it was a redundant medium. It’s great that it is now being released on vinyl. We have a very incarnational approach to art, and an innate preference for the tangible and the tactile. Objects have their own special integrity and beauty, and vinyl sounds better as well. It really does seem to be the optimum medium for this particular project.
HH: I believe that there is a flurry of creativity within the RAIJ camp with two projects in the offing. Could you tell us a little about these please?
RA: We have started to work on a new, and, as yet untitled, musical album and have also begun to plan a DVD release which will have live performance and film content. There is no release date for either, but hopefully it won’t be another twenty years.
HH: I know that you’ve mentioned that you’ve never felt a particular bond to any one music scene, but there is a small but growing wealth of artists today touching on the idea of sacred music who also appear to be in their own miniature artistic ‘bubble’, as it were, from Ariadne to Phurpa and beyond. Now that you’re once again actively creating art of your own, is there any interest in reaching out to this younger generation of artists, or at least attempting to connect with like-minds on a global scale?
RA: For us, making music is about reaching out, but there will be something tentative and uncertain in that process. It’s all we feel qualified and inspired to do. We have never been part of any movement. Of course, we can admire and respect other people’s work, but going beyond that requires a special kind of evangelical purpose or motivation.
HH: Famous Estonian sacral composer Arvo Pärt is often chosen as the primary influence of many artists in this sacred tradition. Has Pärt had any kind of meaningful influence on the music of RAIJ?
RA: He is one of the contemporary composers who we admire. The influence is probably like oblique. There is no obvious stylistic influence, but in terms of his aesthetic sensibility and his faith in the power of simplicity, there is a definite affinity. It would be massively presumptuous for us to over-stress comparisons with artists of Pärt’s stature. He is a huge cultural figure who has made a profound connection with millions of people.
HH: Does the idea of ‘ritual’ have any place in RAIJ? If so, how does it translate to your live performances? Is there anything in particular that you try to translate to your audience through body motion and stage setup? This idea of a ‘revolutionary army’ appears to hint at particular action.
RA: Yes. Our starting point was a conscious turning away from the idea of traditional musical performances and recordings. We wanted to create something much more immersive and emotionally powerful. We wanted to make a connection with people by breaking down barriers that separate audiences and treat them as mere cultural consumers. It was about subverting all the reference points that traditionally define a performance and delineate the roles of performer and audience. In many ways, this did involve creating experiences and spaces that were ritualistic or even liturgical.
HH: The silent period between when you were last active in the nineties and the recent flurry of activity beginning with the After the End collection in 2013 is an extremely long period for people to find growth. How would you say you’ve grown during that silent period, both spiritually and as artists? Do you feel any closer to the divine through your art than you were in the early nineties?
RA: That’s too big a question for us to answer in a definitive way. Beauty… is a very different-sounding piece of work. We have said elsewhere that the silence—its long gestation—is an essential and audible quality of the album. Whether this represents progress or greater proximity to a destination is too hard for us to judge.
HH: We hope you’ll humor us in answering a single social question: The ‘civilized world’ in general appears to be moving further and further away from God, whichever God or gods represent(s) any given culture. How do you feel about the state of the world in this sense, and does this commentary have any place in the music of RAIJ?
RA: That’s another big question. Firstly, we assume there is some irony in your use of the term civilised world. A society that fosters international conflict, creates and disseminates weapons of mass destruction, despoils the global environment, and presides over an economic system that is predicated on dehumanising exploitation has questionable claims to be civilised.
Our work has been concerned with the loss of the sacred, and for us, it has been a personal journey to reconnect with traditions, ideas, and places that restore a perspective of depth and humility before mystery. Thomas Merton described modern society as living contrary to the truth of the human condition. Beauty Will Save the World is an attempt to uncover and explore that truth. We cannot be any more explicit—the title is not a metaphor or a mere poetic expression. It is our deepest conviction.
HH: Thank you so much for your generosity in accepting this interview. We are aware of how rare this opportunity is, so we want to express our most sincere gratitude to you. Please, if there is anything left unsaid, feel free to say it here. This last space is yours.
RA: Thank you for the opportunity.