Father Murphy is dead – long live Father Murphy.
Hailing from Turin, Italy, Father Murphy are an avant-folk, experimental band who write songs about faith, decaying flesh, and the horrors of existence. Releasing one heavy and adventurous album after another since 2003, they’ve put out an impressive body of work. And they’re about to lay that body to rest: Father Murphy’s current tour is the Italian band waving goodbye.
Initially a trio composed of Federico “Freddie” Zanatta, Chiara Lee, and Vittorio Demarin, the band eventually turned into a duo after Demarin left the group. Weaving together elements of chamber music, drone, choral vocals, and pummeling percussion, they came across as spiritual descendants of Swans. Like Michael Gira’s seminal noise band, they know how to gracefully switch gears from brute force to ecstatic hymnals. The relationship between the two bands was so apparent that ex-Swans chanteuse Jarboe contributed her dark, haunting vocals to a collaborative EP with Father Murphy in 2017.
Each of their records advances the story of their titular character, the doomed Father Murphy. The band’s body of work is the narrative of a life: It begins with Murphy’s embrace of faith to cope with the emptiness of existence, delves into his growing doubts and wavering beliefs, sees him choosing heresy over orthodoxy, and after going from a life of isolation to reintegrating into a society who rejects him, Murphy finally dies on the cross.
The band’s latest album, Rising: A Requiem For Father Murphy, is their last release. Moments of beauty pierce the funerary atmosphere, like the heavenly guest vocals of ARIADNE on “Communion” (the U.S.-based electronic duo ARIADNE are also obsessed with religion: They’ve built entire songs around the writings of female Christian mystics like Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen). But the album never lets you forget the grave its subject is moldering in: We hear field recordings of gravel crunching under boots and mournful voices ebbing and flowing in the gloom. Most disturbing of all is the contributions by composer Luca Garino, who uses field recordings of maggot larvae to add a skin-crawling texture to Rising.
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The band’s obsession with religion and dark subject matter stems in part with their involvement in a scene that journalist Antonio Ciarletta dubbed “Italian Occult Psychedelia.” IOP bands like Heroin in Tahiti, Satan Is My Brother, and Fabio Orsi have formed a tight-knit community over the last decade (the IOP even has its own annual music festival called Thalassa). What unifies these disparate bands is their interest in Catholicism and older Italian cinema and music: Morricone scores, giallo soundtracks, spaghetti Westerns, and the grotesque and ecstatic imagery in Fellini and Pasolini films.
A musical movement rooted in cultural nostalgia is nothing new — it’s part of a trend that culture critics like Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds call “Hauntology.” In the U.K., hauntological artists like Boards of Canada and Broadcast drew inspiration from English cultural touchstones like the lo-fi electronic crackle and hiss of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and pastoral folk music. A similar current ran through the American underground with “hypnagogic pop” and chillwave music. Artists like Neon Indian and Ariel Pink raided their childhood closets, creating music that evoked their youth spent watching crummy VHS tapes and getting a sugar high at the local arcade.
Father Murphy embodies how IOP differs from its English and American counterparts. The music is dark, ritualistic, and shot through with harshness. The nostalgic vein IOP is tapping into runs red with midnight movie blood and pilfered Communion wine. It’s what makes Father Murphy’s work so exhilarating and intense: They’re making music to soundtrack your bones bleaching in the desert.