In 1972, the old-school rock critic Lester Bangs said Black Sabbath was the world’s first Catholic rock band. So much for Christian rock. Sorry, Larry Norman. Apparently Sabbath had you beat by a decade.

Joking aside, Bangs claimed in the same essay (terrifically titled “Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber”) that Black Sabbath were really just moralists in the vein of Bob Dylan or beat poet William Burroughs. Wait. Aren’t rock and roll and bizarro beat poetry more about nihilistic hedonism? Well, maybe. But then there’s music that has that sort of prophetic edge—protest music that points out blatant hypocrisy in culture and cries for justice. Bangs contends that music (or other art forms) of that sort is about morals. To me, the logic makes sense. 

So with this theme in mind, I’ll take Bangs’ idea a step further by saying most good rock, metal, and punk flows from the low water mark of this Black Sabbath legacy (if you could call it that). A whole lot of heavy music carries Bangs’ theme of “moralism,” and much of punk rock embodies the hallmark of this prophetic edge. Thematically, this includes one of my top five favorite bands right now, Shellac, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

But by “punk,” I don’t exactly mean the cartoonishness of, say, the Sex Pistols, but a sort of punk “ethos” (if that’s a thing) of general anti-authoritarian non-conformity. This means groups of different time periods and genres fit this bill. This would include groups as dissimilar as MC5, the Stooges, and the Dead Kennedys, as well as what came later, with the Sonic Youths, the Nirvanas, and yes, the Shellacs of the world.

The point is, I’ve long felt that for all its sloppiness and thematic ugliness, punk rock has an important prophetic voice. Especially in times like these.

So when I went out on a Sunday night recently to see Shellac, I didn’t expect to feel like I’d—kind of—been to church. And of all the least likely pagan priests, I didn’t expect spiritual nourishment from the likes of Shellac’s Steve Albini. But had Albini been creating music at the time of Lester Bangs’ great aforementioned essay, I can see how his discography would fit right in to Bangs’ “moral” framework.

For those not clued in to the dorky liner note trivia of 90s rock, Steve Albini may be best known as the engineer behind the console of Nirvana’s In Utero. He’s also engineered on Pixies records as well as a whole slew of undergroundish acts. To see how Albini intersects with the mainstream and the undeniable influence he’s had, take a look at Dave Grohl’s (Nirvana / Foo Fighters) HBO series, Sonic Highways (episode 1).

In the 80s, Albini fronted the grinding, throbbing punk act Big Black. From the mid-90s to the present he’s fronted the minimalist, percussive, punk-infused three-piece rock act, Shellac. Albini is know both for his acerbic wit and his disturbing third-person perspective lyrics that give snapshots of domestic violence, sexual aggression, misanthropy, and general human slobbery. So I was surprised how Albini seemingly tapped into the crowd’s collective despair and gave us—I don’t know—cleansing. Something moral in the midst of the godlessness we all had been subject to in our political newsfeeds that week.

Shellac delivered just as I imagined. They were razor-precise, smart-assed, and fun in their between-song banter. Toward the last third of their set Albini addressed the crowd by saying something like, “It’s been an awful time for women lately. On behalf of all men, I’d like to apologize.” Then they played “Prayer to God,” a song about a jilted lover who is asking God to kill his former beloved and the (presumed) new man who is in her life. The refrain throughout the song is “kill him, fucking kill him, kill him already, kill him.” The lyric is disturbing but refreshingly honest, morbidly funny, and classic Albini.

But the song took on a whole new meaning in the context of how he set it up. As a whole, the lyric didn’t exactly square up with his pre-song commentary and apology on behalf of “all men,” but the refrain of the chorus was clear enough. Before the band broke into “Prayer to God,” I’m presuming that Albini was commenting on the circus of the news cycle that week—the collective outpouring of rage over the hypocrisy of dishonest men who are allowed to continually side-step justice and remain in positions of power.

It wasn’t until a day later when I reflected on the feeling in that room that I realized Albini had basically led a roomful of a couple hundred people into an appropriate, biblical sort of lament. Albini had made a prophetic, moral statement and his song connected with the awful history everyone was experiencing. It reminded me of the starkness of those awkward imprecatory psalms pastors never quite know what to do with. You know—the ones that are an appeal for God to bring violent judgment down upon the enemy.

If it’s true that at one time the Psalms were intended to be the song book for the people of God, the affluent contemporary church is missing a key component of her worship—that God would bring about justice in the world and not let evil people off the hook.

Of course, the imprecatory psalms tend to include a sort of eschatological resolve to them that trusts God for a just outcome that isn’t present in a song like this. Albini’s brief commentary and the lyrical content of “Prayer to God” is pure law and judgment. But as moral a moment as the performance of “Prayer to God” was, there were comic aspects to Shellac’s show that brought its own form of relief through a secular sort of liturgy. Albini tapped into the crowd’s collective anger, gave us a voice publicly, and then delivered his own sort of absolution through onstage jestering.

We need the Steve Albinis of the world to call bullshit and poke fun at the absurdity and injustice of it all. It may be a stretch, but maybe Bangs was right. Maybe Black Sabbath and their progeny (Shellac et al.) have a sort of moral, prophetic vocation to call a thing what it is. And in the process of all the kvetching, we’re all given a way to continue carrying on.