Gurus is a big multimedia project based in Brooklyn, NY, with street percussion, saxophone, voices, visuals, and printed material, singing about a cult and at times resembling one. “Believers” is their first revelation and Unconditional Surrender is their full statement.
The seed of the cult is sown deep in the American soil. Since the country’s settlement on fringy spiritual grounds, cultic groups have captured our curiosity and fueled our defiant self-regard. These days, they continue to challenge the primacy of the state and, more importantly, offer community and redemption to untold multitudes in an unstable world.
In 2013, group leader Michael Friedrich unexpectedly got sober and formed Gurus as he reflected on the experience. He began thinking about cults as he ventured tentatively into close-knit recovery groups. “They helped me – and each other,” he says. “They had their own special language and ‘strong suggestions.’ It was all so far outside the norm, but it was familiar. It wasn’t a cult, of course, but sometimes it felt like one, not entirely unlike the communities of musicians I’ve played with over the years. I wondered what would be left over if the promise were just as attractive, but somehow perverse.”
In short order, Friedrich went from addictive isolation to immersion in the new communities Gurus and sobriety offered. Composed of a rotating cast of close collaborators (including Chris Bordeaux, Brian Davis, Allison Gray, Ben Haberland, Tim McCoy, Destiny Montague, Steve Nolan, and Jon Pastir), Gurus has become its own haven, and it’s no accident that their music courses with the quiet electricity of the church basement, the psychiatrist’s couch, the warehouse compound, a smile between strangers at the grocery store – sites where today’s cliches take on tomorrow’s meaning and peace becomes possible through personal and spiritual surrender.
Taking this sense of community to its extreme, Unconditional Surrender, recorded by Gary Atturio of Studio G and mastered by Josh Bonati, creates the world of a cult, the Gnostic Urban Reformation of Unconditional Surrender (GURUS) – and offers first-person perspectives from figures living inside the compound, as well as the forces that oppose it. Like all the best known cults, Gurus touches the promise of redemption with a current of menace. The cult’s hodgepodge manifesto and haunting visuals are pieced together from glimpses of a charismatic leader, bits of New Age wisdom, the language of addiction recovery, and reactions to the explosion of digital platforms. A forthcoming 7” release of the album’s first single, “Believers,” on New York label Heavy Dunes, will include a vibrant 10-page version of the manifesto and accompanying images, a literary artifact of the cult’s subversive project.
Deeply felt and thoroughly convincing, the album harnesses a range of tonal and textural reference points: the rhythmic thump of Can, the uncanny familiarity of Eno and Byrne, the frenetic experimentation of DC’s post-hardcore, the eerie howl of Liars. The band’s focus on street percussion evokes one of the few spaces of spontaneous solidarity in modern urban life. Employing buckets, trash can lids, and metal scraps, Gurus’ performance scavenges from the New York City street, creating a cacophonous, connected clan. Simple, repetitive figures bring the listener powerfully and physically into the present. “I am near freedom from fear,” Friedrich sings on “Channel,” one of the album’s slow meditations, and many of the songs ache with this longing for a faith almost within reach, but not quite.
It turns out what’s left over when cult and calamity are stripped away is human connection, growing day by day, and this is the album’s lasting impression. “I had always thought it would take an enormous act of will to transform and build something honest,” says Friedrich. “But it’s just the opposite – it has taken enormous surrender. I suppose that’s the point. We’re never better prepared to build something bigger than when we’ve walked through fresh crisis, a little at a time.” Gurus debut single, “Believers,” is out digitally on February 5. Unconditional Surrender is due on May 6.