Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Prayer Book meets psychedelic rock

Rev Tim McKenzie reviews a new psychedelic rock version of Night Prayer and Midday Prayer from A Zealand Prayer Book - He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa.

Tim McKenzie  |  04 Jun 2024  |

In 2021, a major liturgical innovation arising from these shores went largely unheralded.

The Fuzzy Robes, a musical collective largely from Christchurch, released Night Prayers.  It was a short, eight-track album, in which a sampling of our Anglican Night Prayer liturgy was set to barnstorming, psychedelic rock.  For such an adventurous and well-crafted work, it received surprisingly little recognition in the church.

Now, The Fuzzy Robes are back. At Easter, they released Midday Prayers, a conscious sequel to the earlier album, with deliberate echoes in tone and some of the melodies. Early signs suggest that this sequel is getting more the attention it deserves.

Like its predecessor, Midday Prayers follows the sequence of the prayer book service closely but not slavishly.  It opens with the Invocation and Psalm for Monday from pages 147 & 148 of A New Zealand Prayer Book.  The daily reading and canticle are then skipped, replaced by a dreamy, vaguely Hawaiian instrumental evoking midday prayer in summer (rather than the wintry darkness that characterizes Night Prayers).  The Prayer Book sequence is then resumed with the Kyrie and Prayer No. 3 from pages 161 & 162, the Collect for Midday, and the Lord’s Prayer. Things conclude with a grand, uplifting setting of the final blessing, leading the listener on to face the rest of the day.

It’s hard to discover who’s produced either album, as The Fuzzy Robes have shrouded their identities in intentional mystique, but I reckon that mystery producer deserves plenty of plaudits. Midday Prayers is beautifully crafted, with layers of sonic experimentation built up over prominent basslines and stabs of exhilarating guitar (a friend of mine said it helped him imagine what the Phoenix Foundation would sound like if they discovered Jesus). There is more tonal variation than on Night Prayers, with Jethro Tullesque flute hints in ‘Collect for Midday’, sitars and full orchestral sounds in ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. And somehow, in all the lush psychedelia, I find that the liturgical texts are never drowned out, but woven as a distinctive and memorable strand into the arrangement. Some tracks preserve the texts’ antiphonal character, with stereo effects used to mimic the versicle and response.  Elsewhere, the lengthy opening prayer in ‘Lead Me from Death to Life’ is spoken by a synthesized, robotic voice, reminiscent of ‘Fitter Happier’ from Radiohead’s OK Computer (and indeed ‘I Will Lie Down’ from Night Prayers), before a human voice bursts in to sing the response, the Universal Prayer for Peace (“lead me from death to life”). It’s a beautifully warm moment, where the grand petitions of the earlier prayer are made intensely personal in the human response.

As with the earlier album, there’s a deliberately nostalgic feeling to Midday Prayers. Both albums wear their 60s and 70s psychedelic influences on their sleeves. On Spotify, The Fuzzy Robes provide a playlist as background to their work, featuring tracks from The Yardbirds, Roy Orbison, Blerta and others, as well as more contemporary artists.  (In rare interviews, The Fuzzy Robes also credit The Electric Prunes’ 1968 album, Mass in F Minor as a major influence.  I’d never heard of it, but I’m grateful for the recommendation. It reminds me also of other liturgical experiments from those decades, where liturgy was set to contemporary or world music: think Missa Luba, or Godspell.  Overall, the grandeur of this rich musical palette provides a strangely appropriate style for the big themes addressed in the liturgy for midday.

As you can probably tell, I’m a fan. The 39 Articles famously decrees that public prayer must be conducted in language “understanded of the people”.  It’s a Reformation principle that never loses its relevance. I don’t for a moment believe that Midday Prayers will bring “the young” flocking back to Anglican worship. But it’s a good thing that our Prayer Book remains a living work of liturgy, and I’m thrilled that there are gifted musicians finding new ways to unearth its riches. And among those who listen, there will be some for whom the lights go on, who find the truths contained in these prayers suddenly alive, who find scripture spoken for the first time in a language understanded of them.  Thanks be to God.

You can find Fuzzy Robes on Spotify, Apple music and Bandcamp, and the Fuzzy Robes Youtube channel is here.

A former lecturer in English Literature and University Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Tim McKenzie is Vicar of St Michael’s Anglican Church in Kelburn, Wellington.