Talk about oldies: Right now, there's music on the pop chart that dates back 1,400 years. We're talking, of course, about austere and otherworldly Gregorian chants, which haven't changed since somewhere around a.d. 600. Now they're the unlikeliest smash hits in pop-music history, thanks to monks from the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. Their two-disc Gregorian chant set went to No. 1 in their native Spain, and-tightened into a single disc with the snappy title Chant-has risen all the way to an astonishing No. 5 in the U.S.
Now these improbable pop stars (enthusiastically reviewed in EW) have, of all things, competition. Gregorian Chants, Eternal Chants (Milan) comes to us from an abbey in Ganagobie, France; Heavenly Peace (Milan) is a monks' compilation, consisting of excerpts from the Ganagobie release, along with devotional music from other French sites; Gregorian Chant (Sony Classical) is sung by the Choralschola of the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, a professional choir that-or so Sony insists-sings monks' music better than the monks.
What's happening here? Sure, we've heard Gregorian chants in pop before, sampled on Enigma's still-charting 1991 album MCMXC a.D. But they weren't pure, since Enigma added a haunting dance beat. Now, on albums like Chant, we're hearing the music entirely unadorned, gently rising and falling without even a hint of any regular rhythm. To say they sound spiritual would be an understatement; properly performed, they're nothing but spiritual.
And maybe spirituality is what the new chant audience is looking for. Lots of people, it seems, are wearied by AIDS, feudal wars, and other social problems that don't seem to have any solution. Gregorian chants offer deeper, longer-lasting values-and, in fact, labels think they sell for precisely that reason. Angel Records markets Chant with a line that could almost have come from a psychic prophet like Edgar Cayce: ''Prepare for the millennium.''
If chants can ease your spiritual load, which record should you buy? Not the French Gregorian Chants, Eternal Chants; it's passably sung, but, as its liner notes nowhere inform us, offers 18th- and 20th-century organ music alternating with monks. The effect is jarring: We're brought down from realms of contemplative spirituality into an all-too-solid pew in somebody's church. Heavenly Peace is even less monkish; much of it (as its even more shoddy booklet fails to explain) isn't chant at all, but full-blooded choral music, often so weakly performed that it sounds like a muddle. Gregorian Chant provides the skillful singing its pedigree would lead you to expect, but no meditative uplift. We might as well be listening to a performance as uninvolving as Huey Lewis singing blues.
Which leaves the original Santo Domingo monks, who say they're not just making music when they chant-they're praying, which is how they sound on their album. In the end, their musical triumphs spring directly from their faith. Like deep Zen meditators, they manage to be alert and, at the same time, profoundly calm. That's a rare, even humbling, combination, and any record company that reacts by trying to compete with it is surely missing the point. Eternal Chants: B- Heavenly Peace: C- Gregorian Chant: B