Wade In The Dark Water

Going to Church with Sabbath Assembly

By Tony Sylvester, Jennifer Tzar

WORDS BY TONY SYLVESTER
PHOTOS BY JENNIFER TZAR



Sabbath Assembly are an apocalyptic acid-gospel group formed by a guy called Christian (he doesn’t do surnames) and lady singer Jex Thoth. The New York band’s specific purpose is to pay homage to and play the unrecorded hymns of the mysterious Process Church of the Final Judgment.

The Process, as it was originally known, was started in London in 1965 by Robert and Mary DeGrimston, two disaffected refugees from the Church of Scientology. Using similar techniques to L. Ron Hubbard, they set about gathering like-minded Age of Aquarians around them, forming a pseudo-spiritual psychoanalytical millennial cult who lived together in Mayfair. From there they soon expanded into Europe, Mexico and America, setting up a network of coffee shops and communal houses. The acolytes wore their hair and beards long, appearing in public in austere dark robes emblazoned with crucifixes, goat heads, and quasi-swastikas. They were often accompanied by German Shepherds, and sold bizarre and luridly psychedelic literature on the streets, including glossy magazines with titles such as Fear, Death, Love and Exit.

But it was a contentious chapter in Ed Sander’s seminal book on Charles Manson, The Family, linking them to the shenanigans at Spahn Ranch, which forever sealed their place in the hearts and minds of occult fetishists. Despite the removal of the chapter after a costly court case, rumour and myth continued to follow the Process as they made insinuated cameos as the nameless London Crowleyites in Robert Irwin’s novel Satan Wants Me, and as the renamed centrepiece of William Sims Bainbridge’s 1978 classic Satan’s Power.

Last year saw the publication of Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment by former initiate and founder member Timothy Wyllie, which chronicled the intensity, paranoia, and ultimate betrayal of cult life. It sidestepped or debunked a lot of the more outlandish claims of life within the Church that its notoriety had spawned.

Hidden in the appendices of this book was sheet music for several hymns, unpublished and unheard until now. These hymns galvanised Jex and Christian, as Sabbath Assembly, into being. Teaming up with publisher Feral House and the author, they learnt the songs to help promote the book and found something powerful in their presence.

The arrangements of the songs are astonishing, effortlessly catching the zeitgeist in tone and sound, mixing the West Coast Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test feel of Jefferson Airplane, the lotus-eating ecleticism of Jodorowsky’s soundtracks, and the Christ-psych blowout of Electric Prunes’ “Mass in F Minor”. We spoke to Jex and Christian about the cult and the hymns.

Vice: The hymns you’ve chosen to play contain some pretty heady stuff. Were you concerned that the baggage of the cult might overshadow the album?
Jex Thoth (vocals):
While we definitely don’t agree with all the teachings across the board, we are convinced that these songs were clearly written from a place of pure intention with a lot of conviction and devotion. The teachings are definitiely worth taking a look at today.
Christian (vocals, guitar, keyboards): The communal living, the worship, the practicing of high spiritual ideas—these songs obviously meant a lot to a lot of different people—but they also mean a lot to me. It resonated with me so much and my philosophical take on the world. It’s like a Western Taoism, in a way. I mean, Christ and Satan, Jehova and Lucifer: that’s fucking radical! These lyrics were written by people who so passionately believed in what they were being taught and the lifestyle they were living that we realised we had to cherish this music. It’s very rare to find this authenticity.




The cult has divided survivors over the honesty and morality of its founders. How did it feel singing songs that they’d created?
Christian:
The guitarist who played on the record quit after recording the album. He felt we were doing a disservice to the people who got burnt, but that is not my intention. This was an axial period of opening up in the wake of LSD, and a lot of these groups were social experiments. There’s always the question: After we’ve opened up, what do we do next? That’s where you have to watch out because some people always like to control.

How did you find the book compared to the woolly rumours about the cult that had existed prior to it being published?
Christian:
I came to the Process Church via Ed Sanders’ book on Charles Manson and the Church was couched in this diabolical, hyper-mysterious shroud. I still thought of the Church as being closer to the baby-eating satanists of myth, and the story of that one man’s time in the Church made it feel like a more sacred, intensely personal and almost tender book to me. That said, it is only one person’s take and the more I met other people who had been a part of the Process, the more I was hearing different sides to the story, so it doesn’t exactly set the record straight. It just sets one man’s experiences straight.

How did the hymns go from being written on bits of paper to being performed?
Jex:
There were obviously no recordings to reference and in the process of shaping them into an authentic mould they changed a lot. We don’t know what they changed from as there is no reference, but they definitely feel like they changed. When we performed the songs as part of a ritual in both New York and LA, several original Process Church members showed up, and when we talked to them they said that they sounded very different. When they were originally performed they were uplifting and sung by many, many people chanting together. Our versions were darker and more complex. We wanted to pay respect to where they came from and we were both convinced that these songs were written from a place of very true and pure intention with a lot of conviction and devotion.
Christian: As soon as I saw the hymns and read the lyrics, they immediately resonated with my own theological take on the world between the dark and the light.

And how did you actually perform the hymns?
Jex:
We performed a full liturgy mass direct from the original Process sources. We incorporated some of the hymns that were listed within and some from the appendices.

With the discovery of a hymn book containing no less than 60 songs, you obviously have no intention of hanging up your cloaks anytime soon.
Christian:
There are 60 hymns and we have only recorded nine so there is certainly a lot of work to be done. But in the meantime a lot of the teachings are certainly relevant today so can and should be revisited.

Is there any chance of a full-blown cult revival?
Jex:
There’s nothing going on like that that we’re involved in.
Christian: I am not entirely sure that is relevant anymore. There was probably a 15-year period when it was, but now people don’t hear “Come follow me” and just follow. That said, though, I could be totally wrong because when we play shows people come up to us afterwards and are like, “Sign us up.” So maybe there is still scope for it.

Sabbath Assembly’s Restored to One album is out now on Anja Offensive.
 

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