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When David Axelrod's Rock Interpretation of Handel's Messiah was originally released in 1971, there was something of a trend in the meeting of hippie subcultures and religious themes. The enormous popularity of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell had opened the gates for legions of groovy Christians and flower children of the Lord, and an underground of psychedelic Christian folk artists was building to an apex around this time. Axelrod's intentions with Messiah were removed from these trends, as the record was more a continuation of the strange work he had begun with the Electric Prunes a few years earlier on concept records Mass in F Minor and Release of an Oath. As with these records, Messiah was Axelrod's attempt at psychedelicizing a mode of music he was obsessed with and, in his words, "making Handel more accessible." The album was initially met with poor reviews and unremarkable sales, perceived by many reviewers as an overwrought cheese-fest. Axelrod's enduring legacy and the passing of time have both shed a brighter light on Messiah. The album is indeed an ambitious production. Axelrod's signature dark-funk arrangements and foreboding strings are applied to a 38-piece orchestra conducted by jazzhead Cannonball Adderley and joined by a chorus of gospel singers. The album shifts between relatively faithful interpretations of the classical themes and way-out takes. The rocket ship fuzz guitar that introduces "And the Glory of the Lord" sets the scene for subdued funk bass, strutting drums, and triumphantly wandering string and horn arrangements all in Axelrod's classic voicings. Breakbeats and slick but tasteful wah-wah guitar noodling abound on parts of the grooved-up "Overture" and the album-closing chorus "Worthy Is the Lamb." The straight string arrangement of "Pastoral Symphony" doesn't stray very far from Handel's original score or implement any newfangled jamming. It's the more ubiquitous sections of Messiah that come off cloying. "Glory to God" is just a little too modernized for its own good, trying to smash a heavenly hymn into the framework of what sounds like an Exile on Main St. outtake. The omnipresent familiarity of the "Hallelujah" chorus makes it impossible to sound anything except corny when played in a similar vein. This is when the Jesus Christ Superstar comparisons become more understandable. Taken lightly, however, even the moments that fall a little flat are part of a bigger overall success. Axelrod was hitting a stride of epic productions that would go on to inform his style entirely. Messiah becomes another part of Axelrod's legacy when held up with what came afterwards. While not his finest work, it transcends its time period in a way similar to Handel's compositions that inspired it. At the same time, it exists also as a crate-digger's dream, full of wild sounds that shouldn't work together but do, the calling card of Axelrod's productions.
|Label:||Real Gone Music|