Just Like A Prayer
Sabbath Assembly and the power of Satan

“We live in a world that’s dying,” intones a transgender occultist in a three-packs-a-day English accent. She's surrounded by fake fog, her words punctuated with pre-recorded wolf howls. It's the perfect setting for Sabbath Assembly's release party—the group’s new album, Restored To One, is out this week—after all, its music started off as the hymns of a mostly-defunct cult that tied together Charles Manson, L. Ron Hubbard, Satan and Jesus Christ.

Sabbath Assembly is the project of Dave Nuss (No Neck Blues Band), Jex Thoth (Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice) and producer Randall Dunn (Sun O)))). Its songs began as the liturgical works of a short-lived psychological and religious movement, The Process Church of The Final Judgment. Nuss discovered the songs, or rather their lyrics, while reading a copy of Love Sex Fear Death, a work on the group by former member Timothy Wylie. He shared them with Thoth and the two were hooked.

“The theological content of the lyrics was immediately striking,” says Nuss, “because one of their whole trips was the unification of opposites. Instead of doing what a traditional religious group would do, which is to praise one part of the self—for example the good, or other groups might praise the more depraved side—the Process was working on unifying those ideas. So it comes out in this bizarrely shocking way in the content, which is that the lyrics praise Christ and Jehovah, as well as Satan and Lucifer. The point is that the practitioner of the church is praising and acknowledging all those different aspects of him or herself.”

At first, Nuss thought he could re-release vintage versions of the hymns on his own label. When a meeting with Wylie revealed there weren't any recordings to re-release, the band set to work breathing life into these 40-year-old texts. There wasn’t much to go on.

“The sheet music, it's very minimal,” explains Thoth. “It's just the chord symbols and the melody line. So there was a lot of room to move around, and kind of feel out an interpretation. But we were very careful not to hijack the songs and do them in our own personal styles, because we didn't really feel that was appropriate.”

What the group has come up with is certainly compelling. The songs take the drugged-out start-stop rhythms and Eastern guitars of the most trippy, otherworldly ’60s psyche bands and combine them with sweet vocal harmonies. The music writhes, intertwining and abruptly separating, as Thoth works herself into a frenzy, begging Satan and Jesus for deliverance. It's enough to lull you into a trance—not bad stuff for a cult.

In fact, the band has been recruiting new members to the Process everywhere it went. A recent Bard College gig garnered Nuss and Thoth the most enthusiastic reception of their careers. Nuss says eager recruits cornered the band after the performance. “People were like, ‘Where do we sign up? Where's the literature?’” Nothing appeals to college kids like Satanism, apparently.

However, not everyone is unreservedly enthusiastic. At performances where the band has re-enacted some Process rituals, aspiring Goths have been disappointed. “Even though it’s a church where we’re singing about Satan and Lucifer in addition to Christ and Jehovah,” explains Nuss, “it’s still church. A lot of people were like, ‘OK, man, where’s the beef? We want something evil.’ And that’s not really what the process was about.”

What the Process was actually about is a bit elusive, even to long time members. Wylie, who spent 15 years in the group and was one of its original converts, describes it as “a psychological thing to start with,” when it was conceived in the early ’60s by Robert DeGrimson and his wife Mary Ann MacLean. The pair had “done a stint in Scientology and thought they could do a lot better than poor old Hubbard.” As the group grew and continued probing the nature of existence, it “moved very naturally from a psychological understanding to a deeper spiritual understanding.” Members were intentionally mysterious, moving around the world, communing with spirits and even wearing flowing black robes in public. The group eventually fell apart in the late 1970s, weakened by accusations of links to serial killers like Charles Manson and the Son of Sam. Wylie maintains that the real crushing blow was the breakup of DeGrimson and MacLean’s marriage. Whatever the cause, the Process has spent the last 30 years radically and frequently changing its mission and rituals; it’s now primarily an animal-rights organization.

As Nuss puts it, the history of the Process is “beguiling.” Sabbath Assembly tries hard to respect, but not be consumed by, the past. “We’re in the present moment, in 2010, and we are clear about what our intentions are.” And just what are those intentions? Aside from the theology, Thoth says the project is “a chance to express how I feel about music in general, and that’s that music doesn’t have to be loud drums and power chords to be heavy. This music is really heavy at times, even though at times it’s quite delicate.” The theology is, however a major part of the project’s appeal for the band. Thoth again: “It’s about restoring yourself to one, making peace with all sides of oneself… We really do believe in the power of these hymns.”