MC Holy See? Papal words are set to rock music on album

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Pope Francis is getting a rock star reception during his historic visit to the United States. But will he soon add “actual rock star” to his papal résumé?

On Friday, the independent European label Believe Digital announced that it would release Pope Francis’s rock debut, “Wake Up!” It is an album featuring the pontiff’s prayers and inspirational words set to the wailing guitars of progressive rock. The Vatican-endorsed record will be released Nov. 27, Rolling Stone reported. Orders, at $9.99 a pop for the 11-track album, were being taken Friday on iTunes.

The album’s title track, “Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward,” was posted online Friday in the midst of the pope’s U.S. visit for the World Meeting of Families.

A quick spin of the track reveals a sound that spans easily a half-dozen musical genres, zipping from soaring guitar rock to ecstatic, horn-driven pop, often with no discernable transition – a hallmark of progressive rock.

Two minutes into the five-minute song, Francis chimes in. “Wake up, wake up,” he says in English, “the Lord speaks of a responsibility, which the Lord gives you. It is the duty to be vigilant, not to allow the pressures, the temptations and the sins of ourselves or others to dull our sensitivity to the beauty of holiness, to the joy of the Gospel.”

The track’s vocals were not recorded in a studio but taken from a speech that the pontiff delivered in August 2014 to thousands of young people gathered to celebrate Mass at South Korea’s Haemi Castle.

As strange as it sounds – the news and the song – the Vatican’s decision to endorse a rock album may not be all that surprising. In 2010, L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, gave a holy thumbs up to a list of top albums including the Beatles’ “Revolver,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

So we know that the Holy See has a taste for rock.

For the album’s proggy bent, however, credit Tony Pagliuca, a member of the 1970s progressive rock group Le Orme, who collaborated on the album with Don Giulio Neroni, a priest and producer who had previously worked on Vatican-backed albums featuring popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

None of Neroni’s previous papal releases had a rock score – for John Paul II, he once used a classical-meets-world music approach, and for the latter, he created a slightly New Agey album – but for “Wake Up!,” Neroni told Rolling Stone, the music seemed to fit with the pope’s personality.

Believe Digital is a wide-ranging independent distributor, perhaps better known for albums by hipster acts such as Björk, Chet Faker and Peaches than it is for the work of pontiffs.

It also happens to distribute the Catholic Church’s music in Italy. That was the key in making the album, wrote Luca Sante, the managing director of Believe’s Italian arm, in an email to The Washington Post.

Neroni approached Sante with the idea for a Francis album in 2013. He sent Sante extracts of speeches he had selected, and then Sante, who describes himself as a devout Catholic and a Francis fan, suggested setting the sermons to young, modern music that hopped between genres. And prog rock fit, he wrote, “because the Pope rocks!”

The label recently sent the album to the Vatican for its blessing – or something like it.

“We sent the lyrics of the songs, the speeches’ extracts and the audio itself,” Sante recalled. “And they approved it without any change.”

Despite all the guitars, the album’s target market isn’t Rush fans. It’s still the Christian faithful, Sante wrote.

But if it were to become a commercial success, it wouldn’t be the first time a pope’s music has entered the pop-culture sphere. In 1990, German electronic act Enigma’s “Sadeness Part I,” turned Gregorian chants into a pulsing dance track and a worldwide phenomenon.

The plainchant of the medieval Roman Catholic Church was named for another pope: Gregory I.

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