Throwback Thursday – “Cosmos” by The Send

Cosmos by The Send

Slacks and a button-down shirt.  That was the required attire every day during my 2007 summer internship.  While I am thankful for all that the learning that opportunity afforded, it was an extremely difficult season of my life.  I realized that a career in the corporate world would likely suck all life out of me, but it seemed the only way forward.  This was my last summer.  This was all I had before real life was over, and what awaited seemed to be gray drudgery until the end.  “This is what I have to look forward to / Work until death – a slow descent through / Carbon copy years smeared together,” to quote  a Hilltops and Coffeeshops song we wrote during that season.

But music is often a panacea, soothing so many aches that nothing else can.  Cosmos by The Send arrived at exactly the right time and did just that.  This Throwback Thursday begins like so many others, hearing a single on Radio U.  When my ears first took in “An Epiphany,” the lead single on the album, I almost felt guilty liking it.  There wasn’t any screaming.  There wasn’t anything hardcore about it at all.  There was a piano.  But it was deep.  I loved it.  It’s hard to explain how someone so entrenched in heavy music feels upon discovering soft, somewhat traditional music they appreciate, or at least it is for me.  It felt like it was too “safe” for me to enjoy it.  The album wouldn’t be released until the end of July.

As the long, hot days passed outside, I sat in my frigid cubicle, coding away and listening to new tracks as they were posted on MySpace.  After only one or two more songs, I pre-ordered and waited.  I won’t say that I expected the album to redeem my summer, but I most definitely looked forward to exploring the complex songwriting and production which took on such deep and personal topics.  Nothing in my life seemed to make sense, and there were few glimmers of hope for the years ahead.  I thought Joseph Kisselburgh just might express some of these things I was feeling.  Occasionally on warm June and July nights, I would go to “the secret spot” (an office building construction site) and just pour my fears and hopeless heart out to God.

When the record finally arrived, it was all I had hoped for and more.  Everything was meticulously crafted, both musically and lyrically.  Acoustic guitar would often lead into subtle verses with tasteful electric leads.  Choruses would fill with piano, remarkable drumming, and moving bass lines.  Each song had a distinct depth and feel without crossing over into lightheartedness.  Impressively, Kisselburgh had composed the entire album by himself, which additionally inspired me as a musician.  But most importantly, it spoke to my heart.  I had songs such as “Drown” to capture this dark and despairing time in my life.

I’m tired of this
Do I exist
I’m a ghost and
I’ve been pacing the halls
I’m tired of it

You remind me how
I begin to drown
You’re the only thing
That can save me now
Life has pushed me down
And it let me drown
You’re the only thing
That can save me now

Other tracks such as “Blocking the Sun,” “Begin,” and “Fire Colors” bear equal significance, though only a single song in the entire collection doesn’t address a weighty subject.  In some ways, it has a similar feel as one of my favorite books in the Bible, Ecclesiastes.  The human condition is explored from many angles, ultimately settling on a foundation of faith in a cause much greater.  Time and again I forget about this record only to rediscover it and remember how wonderful it is in every way.  It most certainly has a spot in my top ten list, though sadly it was the sole effort released by the artist before he faded into obscurity.

In conclusion, this album is a timeless masterpiece which probes the depths of man’s heart.  (Yes, I hold it in that high of esteem.)  I think that any fan of profound lyrics paired with complex, rock-tinged music will love this album.  Do yourself a favor and listen to it on a warm summer night under the stars, letting its beauty soak into you completely.

You can find the immaculately crafted songs of Cosmos on Spotify or Amazon.

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Throwback Thursday – “O God, The Aftermath” by Norma Jean

O God, The Aftermath by Norma Jean

If previous posts about heavy music have been off-putting, this one may be better skipped. Norma Jean’s 2005 release, O God, The Aftermath is the epitome of chaotic hardcore music.  The average person may hear nothing but noise, but one with appreciation for the genre will hear mathematically-executed riffs, incredible cohesion, and unbridled passion pouring through the eleven tracks (or twelve on the special edition).

At first, I couldn’t understand what the big deal was about Norma Jean.  I wanted to like them because so many others in “the scene” did, and I figured there was a depth to their art that I was missing.  Finally, something clicked, and I was able to see the beauty where I couldn’t before.  In the incredible complexity, I saw musicianship that was far beyond traditional, predictable songwriting.  That spring of 2005, I spun this album repeatedly, memorizing the surprise twists of each song and reveling in the sudden shifts, odd timings, and dissonant riffs.  It inspired me because I knew I could never create or perform anything like it no matter how hard I tried.

The guitar work is inventive and unpredictable.  I don’t know how many times I can use that word to describe this album, but it is one of the few labels that fits perfectly.  The songs still have defined structure, and the band plays as one tight unit, despite the seeming chaos.  Yet the dueling guitar work will not be held to simple time signatures, rhythms, or scales.  From jarring dissonance to frantic noodling, the duo of Scottie Henry and Chris Day delivers track after track of mathcore goodness.  From my current perspective, I respect the creative drumming of Daniel Davison all the more.  I can’t comprehend how he came up with parts to compliment the oddly-timed riffs and still throw dashes of original fills and syncopation into the mix.  To this day, I consider the drums on this album to be among the most original I’ve ever heard.

Lyrically, the album deals with many metaphors which I interpret to be spiritual.  My favorite lines come from the incredible ten-minute epic entitled “Disconnecktie:  The Faithful Vampire.”

It’s taken me 50,000 separate wrecks to get here
And I’ve learned absolutely nothing
As I’m standing here alone,
Upright and motionless
I’m drowning in her sea.
The rising and sinking of every
Consciousness I’ve ever known
Now detached and disconnected
The endless cycle of idea and action
Endless invention
Endless experiment
Endless hopes
And endless disappointments

Most of the lyrics and titles are equally cryptic, but I enjoy that.  It gives the listener something to think about and ponder in the art.

The few downsides to this album would be the vocal performance and production, as well as the mastering.  Unfortunately, I am mostly at a loss to comprehend the lyrics Cory Brandan is so fervently delivering.  This is due to both somewhat unclear enunciation, as well as the production techniques use for vocals which lead to a fuzzy, muffled sound most of the time. It’s unfortunate, as the figurative and cryptic yet deep lines are worth hearing amid the chaos.  As for the mastering, the sound is largely pushed beyond the limit, resulting in over-driven and even crackly sound in some places.  I enjoy a loud, consistent mix as much as anyone, but not when the sound quality is compromised.  It could be worse, but it’s noticeable.  Still, neither of these things are enough to mar the huge footprint of this album.

Overall, O God, The Aftermath stands as a testament to complex, unpredictable, passionate music, the likes of which I had never heard before.  For anyone with a penchant for heavy music, it is a landmark album demonstrating what can happen when all the rules of music are broken at once.  With its enigmatic composite titles and fascinating artwork, there is nothing not to love.

You can find the utterly hardcore music of O God, The Aftermath on Spotify or Amazon.

Thoughts on “Just Do Something” by Kevin DeYoung

Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung

Everyone wants to know what we’re supposed to do with our lives.  We all want direction.  For the Christian, it may be particularly important to know “God’s will” for his life.  This excellent analysis by Kevin DeYoung points out that we may look at that question the wrong way, especially in light of scripture.

After a brief foreword by Joshua Harris (which I found ironic due to his rather passive approach to dating), Just Do Something begins by exploring the different things believers mean when they speak about God’s will.  The author explains that there are actually three different aspect to the will of God as we describe it:  His will of decree, His will of desire, and His will of direction.  It’s not as technical as it sounds.  The will of decree describes the truth that nothing will happen unless God allows it to, therefore it is His will.  The will of desire describes His will for all people as revealed in the instruction of the scripture.  Lastly, when someone is referring to God’s will of direction, they infer that He desires a particular path or set of events for their life.  DeYoung leans heavily on the first two but is skeptical of the third.  Most believers would agree that God’s ultimate will for history will be accomplished, and that He has clearly shown us His over-arching will for man, but there is less scriptural evidence to support the idea that God has one particular path for each individual’s life.  This quickly turns into a much deeper discussion about free will and God’s sovereignty, but I tend to agree with the author.  If there truly is just one exact outline God wants for each person, then anyone can irreparably foil their own destiny and that of others.  Kevin gives the example of marriage.  If “the one” exists for every person, what happens if I use my free will and take someone else’s soul mate?  The whole house of cards comes down.  Yet if we are given the freedom to choose whom we marry, and there are several with whom we can form a godly household, the stress of choosing the singular “right” person evaporates.  From this perspective, God retains His sovereignty in that his will of decree still cannot be violated, but humanity also retains free will.  I believe this best describes reality.

After defining terms, the book goes on to examine how various figures in scripture viewed the will of God and sought direction for their lives.  The audible voice of God is incredibly rare in the scope of human history if one stops to think about it.  Though it is relatively common in the Bible, it is still infrequent, even within the focused story of God’s people.  Most importantly, DeYoung points out that the voice of God always appears without being sought; He speaks when He wants to speak.  This gave me pause as I evaluated times in my life when I begged God to just tell me what to do, asking Him to speak clearly into my life, whatever that looks like.  There doesn’t seem to be a scriptural precedent to support this.  Yes, we are admonished to seek wisdom (James 1), but we should not expect to have God’s explicit, personalized instruction at our beck and call.  The author resolves this tension by stating that God has given us rational minds capable of wisdom and understanding, and He expects us to use them.  He will still instruct and give counsel through the Spirit, but to ask for signs may actually signify a lack of faith in God’s will and goodness.  For example, the quintessential illustration of Gideon’s fleece takes place in the book of Judges, a time of marked disobedience in Israel’s history.  It can be seen more as a second-guessing of the message delivered to Gideon than an act of faith.  This can be a tough pill to swallow, but with the biblical references cited, again I believe this to be the view most consistent with scriptural truth and my experiences.

A section of Just Do Something which particularly struck me was when DeYoung notes that the idea of “seeking God’s will for one’s life” is utterly rare in the scope of humanity.  Wealthy Westerners are really the first people to have the luxury of asking this profound question.  The thousands of generations before (and most in the world today) don’t have the paralysis caused by an over-abundance of choice as we do.  Even the author’s grandparents didn’t wrestle with this most important question; it’s a development of roughly the last half century, fifty years in the scope of tens of thousands of human history.  With that in mind, perhaps what my generation needs most is simplicity.  Rather than agonizing about whether to go to med school or marry a certain person, we should follow our inclinations, use our God-given minds, make a decision, and stick with it, all along pursuing God’s will of desire revealed in the Word.  This worked for the countless people who came before us, and indeed almost every person in the Bible.  For me, this is a very liberating revelation.  If I can’t violate God’s will of decree, there are few wrong paths as long as I foremost obey His will of desire.  Seek first the Kingdom of God.

I recognize this can sound somewhat like a Deist worldview, that God doesn’t actively intervene.  The author does not espouse such a viewpoint.  He is quick to say that the Lord can do whatever He pleases, and He does answer prayer.  Indeed, it is Jesus himself who prays “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Yet, we are not to sit around waiting for God to speak to us as our short lives tick away.  Instead, we should actively and passionately pursue His will for creation as so many before us have, not passively wait for the right circumstances or the answer we want.  It is challenging to shoulder such responsibility, but as image bearers equipped with the revelation of God’s goodness, I believe it is our calling.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book for anyone who questions what they are supposed to do with their lives.  It lends a wonderfully broad perspective of that question, leaning on scripture all along the way.  Even if one does not end up agreeing with the author as I have, it poses great questions to think about in regards to God’s will.  For its clarity, accuracy, scope, and brevity, I give it four out of five stars.

You can find Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung on Amazon.

Review – “Seasons” by Nate Hale

Seasons by Nate Hale

Last year, local Nashville artist and acquaintance Nate Hale posted a Kickstarter to record a new full-length.  Because I enjoyed some of his former work, and I know him to be a talented, humble musician, I contributed to get the digital download when the album was complete.  Seasons was released on April 10th, and I promptly got my copy via Bandcamp.

I’ll be the first to admit that the music on Seasons isn’t quite my normal fare, at least stylistically.  The instrumentation ranges from acoustic guitar to ukulele and beyond, and the tracks span several genres, all while remaining distinctly Hale.  There are even some acapella-inspired vocal harmonies.  Perhaps because of the genres I frequent, I wasn’t used to hearing such a diversity of instrumentation and styles all in one place, but it works well.  The best way I can describe the music is this:  imagine if Jon Foreman and Jack Johnson had a baby, or at least collaborated on an album.  The folk sensibilities and deeper perspective of Foreman would meld with the laid-back feel and subtle vocals of Johnson to create something like Seasons.

Thematically, the album takes on a few topics, though it largely focuses on relationships.  Don’t let that description fool you; this is far from a collection of emo tunes or sappy love songs.  The thing I most enjoy about Nate is that he manages to put a more profound twist into songs which the typical songwriter may leave at surface level.  In many cases, he begins exploring familiar topics, for example drawing the listener in with poetic lines about love, before turning to ponder the true meaning of the word.  Most of the songs stay relatively upbeat and happy, meaning there is ample opportunity to gain listeners who enjoy accessible music, but also want something deeper.  At the same time, tracks like “Dear Alcohol” and “Lullaby” take a more down-tempo approach.

The production is nothing short of professional, and as one who funded the Kickstarter, it’s very satisfying to hear how well it turned out.  Hale and co-producer Cheyenne Medders definitely took their time with these songs, paying attention to the smallest detail to get everything just right.  I’m sure Nate is very proud of what he was able to release, and it surely captures the visions he had for these songs.

Overall, this is a great album for summertime with a mix of upbeat and reflective songs.  Fans of Jon Foreman, Jack Johnson, and the like will find lots of things to love in these eleven tracks.

You can find the meticulously-crafted independent songs of Seasons on Bandcamp or Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “Cities” by Anberlin

Cities by Anberlin

I always appreciate an album that has an “epic” feel to it.  That word is so over-used that it may not describe much anymore, but you know it when you feel it.  You understand when music is taking you somewhere, has a destination, and bears profound importance.  Anberlin’s 2007 release Cities fits the bill.

This is my favorite Anberlin album to this day, over six years later.  I still remember being home on spring break, having my wisdom teeth taken out, and going to pick up this album at Best Buy the next day.  I lay on the brown carpet in the upstairs “band room,” taking in the lyrics from the liner notes as I listened for the first time.  From the eerie, noise-laden opening track, the listener can tell this effort will be serious.  As the journey progresses, there are some pop-accessible tracks such as “Adelaide” which balance the weightiness of “Hello, Alone” and “Unwinding Cable Car,” for better or worse. Of course, it is the more sober songs which drew me in.

Throughout the album, the drums stand out much more than in Anberlin’s previous releases.  In addition to a more prominent place in the mix, the licks of Nathan Young require a dose of technicality.  The guitar parts aren’t incredibly complicated, but the tones and effects used add greatly to the feel of each song.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the album to me is the dynamic range.  I don’t mean that songs start out quiet and build to a loud finish, but that the band wrote a collection of songs which covers the whole gamut.  Commonly, a band will throw an acoustic ballad in amid a collection of rock tracks, but Anberlin takes it much further.  They go from full-force anthems to mid-tempo synth-rock to delicate acoustic strumming and beyond.  As opposed to feeling disjointed, the songs actually meld wonderfully.  They stand relatively well on their own, too.  All along, Stephen Christian’s strong tenor delivers, even as he dips into falsetto in the more intricate passages.

The other thing I love is how the simplicity of the title gives a cohesive context to the songs.  The word “cities” conjures notions of traveling, listlessness, and disconnection, being far from home.  Many of the lyrics deal in exactly these avenues.  Some of my favorite lines are from “Dismantle.  Repair.”

One last glance from a taxi cab
Images scar my mind
Four weeks felt like years
Since your full attention was all mine
The night was young and so were we
We talked about life, God, death, and your family
Didn’t want any promises
Just my undivided honesty

Many lines speak of lost relationships or the internal struggle of not being anchored, floating from city to city.  While the band may not have intended this interpretation exactly, it’s what pulls everything into focus for me.  Disconnection.  Drifting.  Cities.

Lastly, the closing track, “Fin,” is the definition of epic.  Clocking in at just under nine minutes, it wanders through simple acoustic verses, wall-of-sound choruses, sparse interludes, and choral refrains.  Anticipation builds and bursts into heavy torrents of rock no less than twice as Christian wails melodically, singing of the “patron saint of lost causes.”  Best of all, Young pushes himself to the limits as he thrashes on the drums, hardly repeating a fill or stroke.  The song closes with spacey vocals, interesting percussion, and a huge power chord ringing out, leaving the listener standing at the edge.

Overall, this is an album worth listening to from beginning to end, journeying with the band through highs and lows, light and dark, before finally resolving on a hopeful note.  It inspired me through the latter part of my college years, and it stands as a monument in Anberlin’s career.

You can find the epic rock of Anberlin’s Cities on Spotify or Amazon.

Thoughts on the arrest of Tim Lambesis

As I Lay Dying

It’s been a weird day.  The front-man of my favorite band, who by all accounts has penned some of the most meaningful lyrics I’ve ever read, was arrested.  When I first saw the headline, I assumed he was taken in for protesting an unjust cause, or violating a noise ordinance at the worst.  (Such was his esteem in my eyes.)  No.  He has been charged with trying to hire someone to murder his estranged wife.  And the evidence seems quite damning.  What do we do with this?  What do I do with this?

I could have told you immediately how mainstream culture would deal with it.  They would revel in the chance to call another Christian a phony, a hypocrite.  And they have.  Main-stream outlets would go out of their way to make sure readers knew he identified himself as a follower of Jesus.  Indeed, some would take the chance to tout the message that all of that heavy metal is “scary” and evil, that it’s no surprise he would do something like this.  But how can I  react when a brother I held in such high esteem has instantly fallen so far?  How should I?

The truth is that the fall wasn’t instant.  Nothing of this magnitude is.  My initial reaction is to want details.  Maybe the police are wrong.  Maybe someone set him up.  Give me details.  But why do we ever want details when it comes to someone else’s wrongdoing?  It’s because we want to judge.  We want to assess whether we would be capable of such an act, and often the more information we have, the more we are able to convince ourselves we aren’t.  The news stories cite that his wife had filed for divorce last September.  We want more details to see who was at fault, to judge who is right and who is wrong.  Details.  They distance us from the heinous acts of others.  But we’ve all done things we didn’t think we were capable of, things we hope no one ever finds out about.  It’s just that the earthly consequences are sometimes heavier, both legally and culturally.

In this particular case, Lambesis had long been a shining light in a genre of music notorious for darkness.  While others wrote songs centered on violence and hatred, he poetically expressed of the plight of the poor, of dying to one’s self for the betterment of others, and of struggling against sin.  For years he had been meek and humble in interviews, even as the popularity of the band exploded.  How much this magnifies his downfall.  I probably have more material from Tim than any other lyricist in my music collection.  Does this negate the impact of those albums full of inspirational words?  Can I ever listen to those songs the same way again?  Some, like “Whispering Silence,” almost seem too close to home.  These words from “Upside Down Kingdom” ring with such truth and profundity, but such hollowness at the same time:

For a kingdom is offered
Beyond that of golden streets
We can represent now
What will one day be complete

More than just writing deep and thought-provoking lines, Tim also seemed to walk the walk.  He and his wife had adopted three children from Ethiopia.  He often used his platform to champion charities and humanitarian efforts.  But this…  It stands in such stark contrast to everything I thought I knew about him.

Someone in a comment thread over at Indie Vision Music put things into perspective for me, at least partially.  “The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures.  He restores my soul.”  Stop and think about who wrote that.  The man who composed those verses did have another man killed.  After he slept with his wife.  King David, the man after God’s own heart, who did things that make our skin crawl, wrote the majority of the Psalms.  We study them in quiet time.  We craft prayers and worship songs from them, the words of an adulterous murderer.  God used someone who broke the biggest commandments to create art that turns our hearts toward Him – not just before, but after his downfall and the consequences that came with it.

It will take me a while to process all of this.  But I have to believe that if God can redeem the life of David, he can redeem Tim’s too.

Throwback Thursday – “Relient K” by Relient K

Relient K

Sometimes you don’t know you’re looking for something until you find it.  This was what happened to me when I first heart the Relient K single “My Girlfriend.”  As I was coming of age in 1999, I wanted and needed some music of my own.  I wasn’t interested in the bland offerings the mainstream served up, and most of Christian radio wasn’t up my alley, either.  Enter Relient K.  Their upbeat, youthful sound connected with me, as did their tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

It may be said that this was the band that inspired me to pick up the electric guitar.  They definitely influenced my very first songwriting efforts, to say the least – ironic songs about girls with a few references to spiritual things thrown in.  By the time I was halfway through high school, they had become my favorite band.  It didn’t hurt that they were only a few years older than I was and also Ohio natives, hailing from Canton.

The songs on the album almost all feature their signature pop-punk sound with lots of power chords, straight-forward beats, and a little lead guitar here and there.  The couple of exceptions would be “Softer to Me,” the only song on the album in a minor key, and “Wake Up Call,” which features a little bit of acoustic guitar.  Looking back, the songwriting isn’t really anything I would call impressive now, but it was exactly what a budding teen like myself needed to call his own.  I can safely say that, had Relient K not opened the door to pop-punk for me, I would never have gone down the road of alternative music which led me to where I am today.  And for that, I thank them greatly.

You can find the fun, upbeat sounds of Relient K on Spotify or Amazon.