Prayers – “Baptism of Thieves” (2017)

Hip hop has long provided us with powerful social commentary, a view of the world from the standpoint of the marginalized, whether their marginalization be due to race, gender, or socio-economic status. Stories of hard lives and daily tragedies, of gangs and drugs and violence, both systemic and within communities. At its most poignant it’s every bit as relevant as the verbose tracts that come out of academia, with the added benefit that it generates an emotional connection to the reality of the situation.

San Diego’s Prayers continues in this tradition, though with some twists. Certainly the Latino perspective has been represented in hip hop by groups like Cypress Hill and Kid Frost, and Rafael Reyes references to gang life and the dangers of the hood are nothing new per se. However, Reyes and electro-maestro Dave Parley put their own twist on things, resulting in a style they refer to as “Cholo Goth”. From the outside looking in Reyes may seem an unconventional member of his community, with his black-painted fingernails, eyeliner, and leather, an aesthetic is that is more The Cure and Depeche Mode than it is anything you might stereotypically expect (and one that he addresses on “One 9 One 3”). The darkwave component courses through the musical veins of Prayers’ songs thanks to Parley’s snappy and at times retro beats, while lyrically we’re taken in a more goth direction with Reyes discoursing on religious themes as well as passion and betrayal. Prayers is not what you’d expect at first glance, and that’s part of what makes them special.

Baptism of Thieves was released in November 2017. Depending on how you define things, it’s probably best thought of as Prayers’ third full-length album – their prior releases, SD Killwave (2013) and Young Gods (2015) were only eight and seven songs long respectively, which probably qualifies, while Gothic Summer (2014) is more clearly an EP with only five tracks. With a dozen songs Baptism of Thieves is clearly a full-length and I for one am glad. While some may have wondered if the short lengths of the prior releases were due to a lack of quality material, I always sensed that Prayers had a lot more to give us, and the new album proves that to be true.

Life is a journey
Leading to death,
And death is the place
Where freedom is kept.
— “Baptism of Thieves”

“Death Is In Bloom” captures the inner turmoil of a man who has to choose, who feels his heart turning to stone because of his situation but who fears what it will mean to him if that happens, who has to decide between his set and his mother – his two families. And there’s no resolution here – all we have is pure tension. On the other side there are songs like “Tears In The Rain” with its more uptempo beats and more uplifting message, one that sees some hope for the future while recognizing that there will be more struggle necessary to get there (I’m a nightmare walking / Who’s living the dream). There are also a pair of interesting collaborations, with Pictureplane (who’s 2011 album Thee Physical I have, but for some reason have never blogged about) contributing to “Trust Issues” and tattoo artist Kat Von D appearing on “Black Leather”.

Overall there’s a clear evolution to Prayers’ sound over the last few years, with broader sonic and lyrical palettes. But Baptism of Thieves still gives us some old school numbers like “Edge of the Blade” (blades being a common lyrical theme in Reyes’ vocals), a clear reflection on gang life and the dangers it entails, and these are the numbers that first turned me on to the band. So long-time fans, have no fear – there’s still some classic Prayers on this album. Regardless if you’re new to the band or have been with them for a while, though, there’s something on Baptism of Thieves for you.

Prayers – “Gothic Summer” (2014)

IMG_1338A few months back I wrote about the cholo goth stylings of San Diego’s Prayers, a group we came across via an appearance they made on Eddie Huang’s TV show “Huang’s World”. I picked up a couple of their albums from my buddy Mark at FeeLit Records, including the previously reviewed vinyl of 2013’s SD Killwave and their subsequent five-song CD Gothic Summer.

After three months of listening to Prayers, one thing is clear: I’m addicted to Gothic Summer. In fact, “Blood on the Blade” is the very best new-to-me song I’ve heard in 2016 so far.

Dave Parley does more with simple and basic beats than just about anyone out there today, layering them with dark keyboards to build the perfect framework for Rafael Reyes to build his lyrics around. And man, what great lyrics.

Do you know who I am?
Do you know who I am?
Do you know who I am?
I am your brother.
I am your lover.
I am,
The dragon.
I am,
The truth.
I am,
The serpent.
I am,
I was,
In His image,
In His image,
I was,
— “Blood on the Blade”

With songs about loss and betrayal, served with an undercurrent of the potential for violence, Prayers have taken darkwave in a different direction, one that is more street than dance club. Their style shares some of the loneliness, alienation, and self-loathing of the goth scene (I don’t need your guilt trips / I’m my own worst enemy – “Only Death Can Set Me Free”), but infuses it with a desperate confidence at times bordering on arrogance – things you need to survive in an environment with strong ties to gang culture. There’s some resemblance to hip hop, though this is mostly topical as the vocal delivery is primary sung, not rapped.

God and the devil are both on Gothic Summer, with Reyes and Parley balancing between the forces of good and evil and making you question how much of a gap there truly is between the two. Maybe they’re not as different as we all think they are. As Reyes sings, Only death can set me free from my sorrows.

Prayers and Gothic Summer will definitely be making be making appearances on my year-end lists.