For most of my music-loving life I have existed in two worlds.
I adore a lot of music that everyone else knows about, music that can be heard on the radio or that racks up tons of listens on Spotify. I get and give recommendations all the time for new bands that exist in the relative mainstream. My favorite records of this year – Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, Jukebox the Ghost’s Off to the Races, Darlingside’s Extralife – are all part of this mainstream, and I feel like I can talk to anyone about any of these records and we’ll all have similar experiences with them.
But ever since I was a child, I’ve also lived in that bizarre corner of the music world labeled Christian. As I’ve mentioned here before, my whole life changed when I picked up the Choir’s Circle Slide in 1990, based solely on the gorgeous cover art. Circle Slide was my gateway drug to a whole new world of fantastic music hidden away from the mainstream, shoved into a box marked “religious” and ignored. Unlike with most music, it’s hard to find people who have had the same experience of this stuff, so I treasure those connections when they come.
For the past few years I have been a member of a Facebook group that brings those of us who came of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s listening to Christian music together. It’s a delightfully diverse place, making room for those whose faith has never faltered, those who love the music but don’t subscribe to the beliefs, and those who no longer enjoy either the music or the faith, but want that hit of nostalgia. This music has informed my life so completely over the last 30 years or so that it’s such a joy to have people to share it with.
Not that I don’t try to mix the worlds. I’ve made it my mission to bring more attention to the bands I love from that forgotten realm, especially the Choir, Daniel Amos, the 77s and Adam Again. Next week I’m going to review the new Tourniquet album, and I’m just going to treat it like another metal record, despite the fact that I never would have heard of Tourniquet without people like Chris Callaway sharing Christian metal with me. This week I thought I would introduce you to several pretty great new records from bands and artists that have at least one foot in that world, and hopefully show that the music I’m talking about is a far, far cry from the soulless stuff on K-LOVE.
We can start with the most well-known of the bunch. Even people who aren’t familiar with Christian music have heard of DC Talk, who made a mainstream impact in the ‘90s with Jesus Freak and its major-label follow-up, Supernatural. DC Talk broke up shortly after that, with TobyMac and Michael Tait going on to have increasingly depressing careers in radio-ready “encouraging” Christian pop. But the third member of the trio, Kevin Max, has forged an altogether more fascinating solo path. He’s made more than a dozen albums in a variety of styles, each one with his signature sense of poetry and weirdness.
Max gifted us with two albums this year, both of them outside the realm of anything he’s done before. The first of them, AWOL, is a rich and textured ‘80s alternative album that features some of the best songs he’s ever written. If you’re judged by the company you keep, then the fact that Andy Rourke of the Smiths plays bass on this thing should be an indication of how good it is. The chiming guitars and lush synths scream Echo and the Bunnymen, or the Church, and Max’s singular voice sounds awesome in this setting – he’s able to go full Simon Le Bon here, and it works.
But it’s the songs that make this record. They’re unfailingly melodic, dark and atmospheric. “Prodigal (Run to You)” is a classic pop tune with some delightful guitar flourishes, “Glory Boys” is a perfect Duran Duran tribute, “Half of the Better One” jangles with the best of them, “Brand New Hit” swaggers on a bold, punky bass line and the title track feels like something the Alarm might turn out. It’s solid all the way through, and played with verve. If you miss the days of “Girls on Film” and “The Killing Moon,” this is the album for you.
Max refers to his second album of 2018 as a side project, but it’s hard for me to consider it as such. Romeo Drive is a natural evolution from AWOL, taking the plunge into full synthwave. It’s a conceptual piece that brings Blade Runner to mind more than once, particularly on the opening spoken word piece “2079.” This record pulses and throbs with vintage synthesizer sounds, and once again, Max’s voice sounds great in this context. I’m a big fan of “Arms of Orion” and “Pretend to Dance,” with its eerie oscillating keyboard sounds. This is a full-bore dive into a style Max has never tried before, and he tops it off with great covers of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and, strikingly, the 77s’ “Ba Ba Ba Ba.”
You can pick up these records and more at www.kevinmax.com
Of course, while church kids were listening to DC Talk, I was in search of more obscure and interesting music from the Christian ghetto. One of the earliest bands I found myself drawn to was the Altar Boys, who were among the first Christian punk artists. Yes, this sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t – there’s a definite theme of rebelling from the demands of the world to Christianity, and that can easily be repurposed into punk music. The Altar Boys were great, too – they were straightforward and simple at times, but they rocked.
After five records (culminating in my favorite, the more mature Forever Mercy), the Boys broke up in 1991, but not before writing and demoing their sixth, No Substitute. That album has languished unreleased since, while leader Mike Stand has gone on to a solo career and an ongoing stint with his rockabilly band, the Altar Billies. Now, thanks to the always-wonderful Lo-Fidelity Records, No Substitute has been finished and released. And it’s really neat.
I can easily imagine this record coming out in 1991, just as it is. Substitute rocks harder than Forever Mercy, but it follows the same, more mature path, with mid-tempo songs that split the difference between Springsteen and Social Distortion. It’s a rousing collection of shout-alongs with simple spiritual messages of hope. I’m a fan of “History Comes Back to Haunt This World” and the title track, but it’s all good. More than that, though, it’s a piece of history that I never knew I needed. If you know the Altar Boys, your collection is incomplete without this. If you don’t, it’s a good way to learn what they were all about. Check it out here: https://thealtarboys.bandcamp.com.
History is great and all, but what about what’s happening now? Glad you asked. I’ve found no better way of keeping up with the cutting edge of spiritual rock music than going to the AudioFeed Festival in Champaign each year. This fest has introduced me to some of my favorite new bands, and opened my eyes to several acts toiling in obscurity out of my sight. I’ve talked about many of them here, from Von Strantz to Ravenhill to Hushpad to The Soil and the Sun.
Last year’s big discovery for me was the Gray Havens, a husband and wife duo reminiscent of Gungor, but certainly doing their own thing. David and Licia Radford began their collaboration in a folksy vein, but have added more electronic instrumentation as they’ve evolved. Now with their third full-length, She Waits, they’ve fully transformed into something fascinating. Instead of acoustic folk with some electronic splashes, this album is almost fully synth-driven, with almost no guitars at all.
It’s also the most cohesive thing they’ve done. Three of its 11 songs are interludes, taking you by the hand and guiding you to the next thought, and though the songs are diverse – this record leaps from the contemplative title track to the joyous death song “See You Again” to the trippy and wonderful “High Enough” without allowing you to catch your breath – it flows beautifully. The production is layered and interesting, mixing in violins and sound effects and all manner of other things, and their choices are unfailingly surprising. “High Enough” is one left turn after another, gliding from piano to a big beat to a verse by rapper Propaganda to a refrain by Licia that will get stuck in your head. It’s a little masterpiece.
She Waits is a tidy 34 minutes, but it covers a huge amount of ground in a short time. A song like “Three Birds in Babylon” is deceptively simple – pianos, big beats – but there’s so much to it, and it’s so well written. It slides effortlessly into the comparatively straightforward soulful worship song “Storehouse,” on which David Radford really shows what he can do vocally. When “Forever” segues into the final interlude, “Morning Light,” it really feels like you’ve been somewhere, guided by expert hands.
I highly recommend this album. Previous Gray Havens records have been good, but this one is excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to put it in front of anyone. You can check it out here: https://www.thegrayhavensmusic.com.
None of the above is what most people would consider church music. British band Rivers and Robots isn’t quite in line with the accepted idea of liturgical music either, but they’re the closest we’re going to get to this week, and I did discover them in church. I’ve come to think of Rivers and Robots as a strange and kind of beautiful experiment – they marry obvious and straightforward worship lyrics with tricky and subtle music that is far too complicated for most church worship bands to play. I’m not sure what they’re trying to prove with this experiment, but I enjoy it.
I have always been far more about the music than the words anyway, which is good, since Rivers and Robots (their name is the juxtaposition of organic and electronic that you hear in their sound) don’t put a huge amount of thought into theirs. Listen to CCM radio for half an hour and you’ll get just about all the phrases this band uses. But the music! I can’t get enough of their music. Their new album Discovery is their most synth-driven, and it contains some of their most complex work.
I can’t get enough of “Overflow,” for instance, which is really three movements strung together over six minutes. Yeah, the words are all “your love flows like a river to my soul,” but the melody is just amazing. By the time it gets to the insistent synth bass part that announces the third movement, I’m so in. That kind of thing is all over this album, and even at my most resistant to standard worship music, Rivers and Robots capture me. This is the closest I think I will ever come to enjoying straight-up worship songs, and if that kind of thing doesn’t give you gives, try this band out: https://riversandrobots.com/music.
There’s more. There’s always more. I am probably always going to live half my life in this world, sending little missives back. It’s a little lonely sometimes, but it’s so worth it. There’s so much astonishingly good music that I never would have heard otherwise, and I wouldn’t trade that music for anything. My life is so much richer for it.
Next week, metal. Metal! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.