Album Review: Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp

Released in 2015, the album Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp features twelve original indie-folk songs for Holy Week that tell the story of Christ’s passion, from the thundering voice of the Father affirming the Son but also presaging judgment, to the glorification of Christ in the Resurrection. One of its major draws is its quiet, understated conveyance of the week’s drama through several different voices: Jesus, of course, but also Mary, Peter, Judas, and other unnamed disciples who reflect on the events they witness, especially in light of their past histories with Christ.

Last Days album cover

Approaching Jesus’s last days primarily through the lens of story—plot, character, mood, etc.—rather than the lens of doctrine makes the listening experience more immersive. That’s not to say theology is absent from the album; it’s very much there. But it is not heavy-handed or abstruse, and neither is it reduced to clichés.

The songs are written and sung by Joe Kurtz (pseudonym: Abriem Harp) and Josh Compton (Josh Harp), with Matt Kurtz (Matthew Harp) on percussion and John Finley (Hezekiah Harp) playing many of the other instruments. On the band’s Facebook page they describe themselves as “Gospel-shoutin’ melody makers from the Rust Belt,” and among their musical influences are field recordings, the Sacred Harp tradition, and mountain music.

In the video below, the Brothers have set the entire album to altered footage from Vie et Passion du Christ (Life and Passion of the Christ), a forty-four-minute silent film released in France in 1903. The album is also available for streaming and purchase at https://harpfamilyrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/last-days.

Here’s a rundown of the songs.

1. “Glorify”

 

A voice arose, a voice arose
A voice arose, a voice
It sounded like thunder, pounded like thunder (×4)

It said, “I’ve glorified it, and again I’ll glorify it”
Yeah, “I’ve glorified it, and again I’ll glorify it” (×3)

This is an unconventional starting point for the passion narrative, which typically begins with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Instead, the Brothers have chosen a lesser-known episode from John’s Gospel, which occurs just after the triumphal entry—and what a beautiful passage to highlight. (I actually was not familiar with the references in the song and had to look them up—a great example of how the arts can stimulate renewed engagement with the Bible!)

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. . . .

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

John 12:23–24, 27–33

“It’s time.” That’s essentially what Jesus is saying. And then in the middle of this discourse with the disciples, Jesus gets real with the Father. “I’m scared! But what can I do? This is my destiny; I can’t avoid it.” And then, his words of acceptance, of surrender: “Father, glorify your name.” It’s unclear whether this prayer was audible to the disciples or was expressed merely internally. Whatever the case, the Father’s response was heard by all—though some attributed it to natural phenomena, or to an angel.

As this passage clarifies, the “it” in the song is the Father’s name: God says that he has glorified it in the past, and he will glorify it again, when Christ is lifted up for the salvation of the world.

John uses the words glory and glorified a lot in his Gospel, especially in relation to Christ’s passion. In John 13:31, after the Last Supper, where Jesus has just identified Judas as his future betrayer, Jesus says, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” Later that night, in Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1, 4–5).

The opening song on Last Days, therefore, though just three allusive lines, repeated, is packed with meaning, much of it concentrated in that dense word glorify, a word that orients the whole album. Much like the opening sequence of a movie sets the movie’s tone and hints at what you’re in for, so do opening songs on albums, and this one is somewhat portentous, leaving us wondering, “How will God’s name be glorified?”; it also gives the Father a speaking role and thus situates him as a main character in the story.  

2. “Celebration Song”

 

The second song is set the Sunday before Christ’s death—Palm Sunday. Appropriately, it switches back and forth between the celebration of the Jewish crowds as Jesus enters Jerusalem and Jesus’s lament for these very people (see Matthew 23:37–39; Luke 19:41–44). The celebrants have a vivid idea of what salvation will look like, and their expectancy is palpable in the lyrics: “Is this the one my father spoke of? / The one that comes to save us all?” But the refrain, an internal monologue of Jesus’s, announces a different path to triumph: “Jerusalem, I must die for you.”

3. “Land of Upheaval”

 

This song is the most lyrically beautiful one on the album, and probably my favorite. It’s written from the perspective of someone who has witnessed many of Jesus’s miracles, having followed him around a bit out of curiosity, maybe hanging out on the crowds’ margins, and who is now coming to a staggering conclusion: that the revolution Jesus has been stirring up is as much internal as external; the change that’s needed first and foremost is not a new political system but a new spirit, his spirit, by which to live.

I’ve seen crowds in need of healing
Leave their lives to follow you
Travel hills and down through ceilings
Just to grasp or ask of you

I’ve seen demons, wracked and reeling,
Fall away to hide from you
Withered limbs, inert, unfeeling,
Bend and move because of you

There’s a fire slowly growing
From the Father’s hand to you
There’s a holy wind that’s blowing
There’s a kingdom breaking through

Bartimaeus, on the roadside,
Opened his eyes to look at you
Oh, Zacchaeus, in the tree line,
Hit the ground to sit with you

(Chorus)

I think the revolution’s you (×6)

The song describes God’s kingdom as coming with wind and with fire—prefigurations of the Spirit’s manifestation at Pentecost. By casting out demons, healing people with disabilities, reintegrating outcasts into society, reconciling enemies, and preaching radical grace, Jesus upheaved many of the structures of the kingdom of this world, where status and worth are based on things like health, wealth, education, and/or impeccable moral records or ritualistic purity. And Jesus’s death and resurrection would shake the world even more radically.

If I could choose a painting to pair with this song, it would be Jyoti Sahi’s Healer. (Click on the image to read the artist’s commentary.)

Healer by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Healer, 1980. Oil on board. Ecumenical Centre, Whitefield, Bangalore.

4. “Mary”

 

“Mary” lets us in on a tender moment, as Jesus beckons Mary to his side to soothe her worry and receive her gift of perfume and tears. “Let your heart beat with mine,” he says, addressing her lovingly as “my dear.” The violin on this track, sweet and sensual (and played by Halle Gingerich), helps shape the mood.

Jesus gives an injunction: “Overflow, overflow.” It’s unclear whether he’s referring to the tears, the perfume, or Mary herself, and this vagueness is deliberate. Because the breaking of the alabaster box is also a breaking of her hard shell, her defenses, and the pouring out of its contents a pouring out of her very self. The physical act represents a spiritual posture of surrender and love—a fragrance that beautifies where it lingers.

In the last line, Jesus extends his invitation to everyone: “Let the earth overflow with love divine.” May all our hearts beat with God’s as we pour ourselves out for him and for others.

5. “A Brother Falls”

 

I really like the tune and style of “A Brother Falls,” but it’s not what you would expect for a dramatic monologue voiced by Judas. It’s not menacing, doesn’t reflect the darkness of his decision to betray. “I’m gonna take what I can get,” Judas vows. “Takin’ you down for thirty pieces of silver.” The fiddles make the tone lighthearted, but maybe that’s because Judas doesn’t feel the direness of the situation. (Perhaps the choice of instrumentation is also a reference to the famous story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned?)

6. “Revolutionary Heart”

 

“Revolutionary Heart” is a duet between Peter and Jesus, reflecting the interaction recorded in John 13:33–38. Ever the impulsive one, Peter swears his undying loyalty to Jesus—he’ll follow him anywhere, he resolves, and will fight and even die for him. “Little stone,” Jesus tells him gently, with a play on his name, “your heart can’t hold the things I know . . .” Strength in weakness is Jesus’s way, but Peter does not yet understand.

7. “Days to Come”

 

This song describes the disciples’ last supper with Jesus, with an emphasis on their ignorance of the events to come—with the exception of Judas. He and Jesus momentarily lock the eyes, a searing, wordless exchange, and outside the house, a “dying sun” descends, reddening the sky.

8. “Vale of Sorrow”

 

Now the moon is out, casting shadows on the “vale of sorrow”—Gethsemane—where Jesus faces the agony of loneliness and his impending death.

9. “Soldiers”

 

Then the soldiers interrupt his prayer, approaching with weapons to take him away. The first chorus cleverly describes Christ’s visage upon having received Judas’s kiss: his “face betrayed the truth that he was afraid.”

The mood is tense throughout. The whole second half of the song contains a cacophony of sound—screeching and clangor and such—which is disorienting.

Still the disciples struggle to make sense of what’s happening, even as they cycle through their teacher’s most recent sayings: “They did not understand it / The tree, the sea, the branches / The hill to come, the mansions / The sacrifice, the bitter seed to sow.”

10. “When We Came to Town”

 

In “When We Came to Town,” the disciples reflect on the times they spent with Jesus—all the laughs, the meals, the surprises. “We were all just boys when we left our homes / To make some noise and roam,” they remember wistfully. But then their cynicism rears its head: “Tell me what did it matter, the sowers and seeds, / When your kingdom is scattered like leaves?” They didn’t know that when they came to Jerusalem for Passover, all the dreams they had been building would be crushed. Or so they perceived.

11. “O Thou Eternal Victim Slain”

 

The narrator of this Crucifixion song marvels that the man who always had the right words for every situation is now silent, and notes sadly that “where the perfume ran through his hair / And where the light of the transfiguration glowed / A crown of ridicule would soon sit . . .”

12. “How Love Did Win”

 

This last song returns full circle to the beginning, fulfilling the promise God spoke there: “I will glorify my name.” The second verse, based on J. M. C. Crum’s hymn “Now the Green Blade Riseth,” references the allegory of the fallen grain we encountered (through consultation with the source text) in “Glorify,” only now that grain has risen from the earth. A string quartet, accentuating each beat, expresses victory.

In the chorus, the Father speaks again, exclaiming, “Rise!” He cheers the Son on to glory.

The song ends with Christ’s exaltation at the right hand of the Father, but also with a reminder of the road of suffering that led there. In the two-line coda, the tempo slows and the other instruments drop out, leaving just the guitar, and the final phrase is “my sin you bore alone.” The Resurrection does not negate the work of the cross but completes it, so holding both events together in unity at the album’s conclusion is fitting, and the quieter tone promotes reflection back on the Love who not only conquered death but bore its sting, for our sakes.

+++

Update, 4/1: The Brothers of Abriem Harp just released fourteen demos, outtakes, and alternative recordings from the Last Days sessions on their Bandcamp page. Five original songs that had to be cut from the album are now available, featuring figures like John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Zacchaeus and moving even further forward from the Resurrection to Jesus’s ascension and Peter’s beautifully phrased admonition to “take heed . . . until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19)—that is, stay faithful and alert until Christ comes again.

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