Metal is going through an interesting revival where industrial soundscapes and death metal from the 1990’s and the metalcore renaissance of the early to mid 2000’s are soldering into abrasive sonic murals that bands like Code Orange, Turnstiles, and Knocked Loose are simultaneously resurrecting and reanimating into (even mainstream) popularity. The latter of those styles are worn on Counterparts’ sleeve like a badge of honor that tips hats to the Trustkill and Ferret Records roster that includes Terror, Poison the Well, and Misery Signals. Cultivating turn of the millenia melodic hardcore roots, Private Room is another bullet in the chamber that Counterparts have locked and loaded as some of their best work to date.
It’s kind of funny to see the hyperbole in YouTube comments that read things like, “Lol, these throw away songs are other band’s best ones!” Lead singer, Brendan Murphy, foreshadowed this EP in a podcast with Tim Cayem, saying that at the time of You’re Not You Anymore’s release, they were negotiating a 7-inch release of these songs with Pure Noise Records (their current California based label) because he said these songs were good, but still warranted being benched from the final track listing on YNYA. This under seven minute affair packs enough punches that would hit as hard as an EP near double in length with melodically technical riffs, thickset bass tones, relentless percussion, and Brendan Murphy’s unforgiving vocal performance. Also, they wrote a song in a major key… that’s pretty neat.
Bon Iver / Blood Bank
If you’ve ever seen House M.D. you know that Hugh Laurie fits like a glove playing a narcissistic genius and that the show touts a high caliber soundtrack. On it, is re:stacks, one of Bon Iver’s most emotionally devastating and beautiful songs that ends his debut, For Emma Forever Ago in a melancholic lullaby about loss. Upon discovering this album, I was immediately hooked on its rainy day couch cushion vibes and organic production. To this day, I herald Bon Ever as one of my favorite folk acts for the way that Vernon’s deft song writing skills have an unparalleled ability to sing you to happiness in one breath and then tears in the next. One year later upon For Emma’s release came, Blood Bank. A step forward from its predecessor, Blood bank simultaneously finds Justin Vernon in rare form and sonically surveys new territory that would foreshadow his second record, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Electronic and auto-tune flourishes on Woods, Vernon’s hushed falsetto and the dobro parts on Beach Baby, the multilayered vocal and instrumental catharsis on the title track, and lush piano parts on Babys all coalesce into a musical kaleidoscope that wraps around you like a warm blanket in the middle of winter.
I remember the ominous droning interlude fading into a blaring siren that signaled impending chaos as the house lights shifted and the floor around us all circled in fury. As I jumped in the pit, I was realizing the excitement of getting to see Fit For a King open for August Burns Red a few years back. While I slipped on spilled beer over the hardwood floors of the venue and accidentally crashed into a kid in front of me, the band’s live performance of Slave to Nothing was otherwise ferocious.
Since then (2014), I’ve gotten to see FFAK live a few times, each show representing significant mile markers in sobriety, celebrations of friendship, and opportunities where I’ve seen the love of Jesus show up and be expressed through prayers lifted in the pit between sets. With the band’s new album released on Solid State Records, my excitement is spilling over in type form, hoping this review serves as a sampler for what the band represents, has become, and how they occupy an all -time favorite in my arsenal of metal.
As previously inferred, I hopped on board the FFAK train on Slave to Nothing. The record’s thematic ode to sobriety resonated with me at a time in life where I needed that encouragement, but it also helped that the songwriting was sharp and that it boasted so many banging riffs. Even though the production felt tame and the clean vocals were a bit underdeveloped, these were easily compensated by the band’s burgeoning strengths. When I was living in Winona, those same roommates brought me backwards in the timeline to the band’s genesis, Creation/Destruction – showcasing bone crushing guitar tones and every bit of promise. But, as they progressed to Slave to Nothing, it was by no means a step backwards, but that forward motion lacked a full measure of confidence when heel hit the pavement.
Their response was Deathgrip. The singles, Dead Memory and Cold Room, were high watermarks as they brought a musical palate that harkened back to their origins, showcased Will Putney’s signature tones, and even stepped into new territories of style, but if I’m honest, I had some reservations. Despite the impel of moments like Cold Room’s lead riff and the last breakdown in Pissed Off, I felt like Deathgrip was a compositional regression that traded the power of the whole for the curation of well executed parts put together in a 36-minute runaway freight train. Despite the critique, this album does have its well executed moments that are worth highlighting. These songs were enveloped well with gross sounding guitar and bass tones, the integration of electronic soundscapes and glitch editing in the breakdowns accented the sonic drubbing that these songs deliver, and the clean vocals sounded the best they ever have. All the aforementioned were glimmers and flashes in the pan that proved FFAK still had gusto. Deathgrip was like a favorite student unexpectedly underperforming to their natural abilities, so if it sounds like I am hard on this record, it’s because FFAK were and are capable of A list material.
Seeing this band live a few times during the touring cycle of Deathgrip still left me sore and winded every time as they crawled across the continent in between studio sessions. I had a lot of hope, because as they continued getting on stage they were only getting tighter, heavier, better balanced, and more confident, so I was excited to see how the effort in their off season would translate to their next record. Their first sampling was Tower of Pain. The rumbling tone and pacing of this song, the technical death metal influenced songwriting, infectious chorus, and even greater vocal improvement made this feel like a rabid beast foaming at the mouth waiting for its break off the chain. I had this thought that perhaps this record would be the tour de force I have been waiting for, because not only did their musicianship demonstrate maturity, but the proof in the pudding showed behind the scenes in the shrewd tactics in promotion of this album. Rather than letting a couple singles on a ten-track album do the manpower in the deep breath in before the record release, Solid State progressively released half this album in singles, letting streams on platforms like Spotify, bandcamp, and Apple Music generate the excitement amongst the fan base, and give a stylistic sampler of what would be FFAK’s fifth album, Dark Skies. In a world where traditional release cycles have been trojan horsed by the evolving landscape of music streaming and unfiltered accessibility of the internet, FFAK’s strategy worked to their advantage. Tower of Pain was one cog in a wheel that proved to be well oiled and juiced up in a lineup with other singles, The Price of Agony, Backbreaker, When Everything Means Nothing, and Oblivion.
If this reads like a long-winded exposition of background before the actual review, it’s because there’s a lot of landscape to survey before exploring this new territory. So, with that said, I’m stoked to write that Dark Skies is the calling card for this band’s collective ability across the board. They’ve truly captured the distinct personalities of their previous records and pulled them inwards, anchoring their identity as a band. Dark Skies boasts the best sound/production to date; their sharpest, most avant-garde songwriting; the most improved and compelling vocal performances; and their most thematically compelling record since, Slave to Nothing. In addition, the unreleased tracks that made their reveal upon release make the experience of Dark Skies, a rout of all killer, no filler.
I want to begin examining the details, by emphasizing the aforementioned point of songwriting on Dark Skies. As I said earlier, Tower of Pain harnesses an energy that feels like an echo of Deathgrip’s finer moments with Slave to Nothing’s composition and the flourishes of more technical minded influences (The Black Dahlia Murder meets Fit For an Autopsy). The Price of Agony has probably one of the catchiest riffs that is described by the band as the most mainstream they’ve stylistically ventured; Youth|Division takes a creative bend with interesting vocal editing in the introduction and then drifting left in a key change at the bridge; Shattered Glass is a crowbar, touting some of the heaviest stop/start rhythms, blast beats, and Ryan Kirby’s nastiest sounding vocals to date; The Debts of Life is a callback to Skin and Bones on Creation/Destruction that pedestals some of the best executed melody the band has offered and coalesces it into Oblivion. Oblivion is wholesale one of the most important moments for the band. The curtain closes with a song that lyrically chronicles the most honest reflections of their Christianity, ballasting the melodic and aggressive into an emotional portrait.
According to the band’s studio updates, the construction of Deathgrip’s structure was penultimate to aesthetic. During this recording cycle, choruses and song structures were autopsied, studied, and reanimated as a group, laying concrete foundations that give Dark Skies solid ground to build these songs on. Producer, Drew Fulk, has an impressive catalog of recently done records for bands that are catching second winds in their sails that include new records released from Emmure, Chelsea Grin, The Plot in You, and As I Lay Dying. The same energy harnessed through those bands latest albums translates to Dark Skies in the best way possible, as Fulk has played a heavy hand in realizing and bringing out Fit For a King’s aptitude.
Towards the beginning of this review, I touched on Slave to Nothing’s lyrical prowess. The thematic underpinnings of that record deeply resonated as a soundtrack to sobriety and they continue to be. Every time they play Slave to Nothing live, it feels like every bit of a war cry that it was three years ago when I scream along. The rest of FFAK’s discography has their moments of cogent lyricism, particularly on songs like Skin and Bones, Deathgrip’s title track, and Dead Memory, but even the band says Dark Skies pulls from the deepest inwards parts that personify the intimacy of their struggles, like on Tower of Pain… I hear the whisper of death in my ear, hell awaits for those who still fear, twenty six years, being told I’m a slave, trading desire away. But, I think the most compelling moments belong to lines on Backbreaker that narrate Ryan Kirby’s struggle with anxiety… I can’t find the strength within myself, The weight of life has pushed me to a living hell,Endless misery, lack of sympathy, I don’t trust the voice inside of me (inside of me),I always put myself out there, But it always ends the same. Oblivion takes on some of the most spiritually vulnerable lyrics that narrate the forgiveness of God, centered around a fan story, and is the best way to close this record – with an abundance of heavy and heart…
I look into the sky, I’m crying out your name, I’ve made my mistakes and I’m the only one to blame, Help me, I need to feel your grace, And I’ve been, waiting, waiting in the darkest place!
I look into the sky, I’m crying out your name, I made my mistakes but you forgave me! You forgave me!
Bringing this to conclusion, FFAK is already a prominent band that are sizeable, influential, and Dark Skies has all the sparks that can make them torchbearers and a flagship collective for this scene going forward. Regardless of the band’s trajectory, the college kid in me will always feel that simultaneous spike in my pulse and heartstrings pulled when I play their records. Furthermore, I will always remember that Fit For A King are a band that propels me to be a participant in the scene as an ambassador of the Gospel.
Spring settled in a bit late, but the dew of late May mugginess and colors budding in the vegetation breathed some overdue vitality here. You’re beginning to take image of who I knew you to be when I first touched down on Kansas Street, five years ago. Before that, you met me as a transitioning young adult and I’ll admit, you didn’t leave me with the best first impression. Rumors of your dank, industrial ambiance deterred me, but your people met me with gracious hospitality and an invitation into a divinely appointed experience. By the time I came down here, I was excited to see you again. Moreover, I anticipated spending the next couple years of my life here in your company.
I got to know you very well over five years. I learned the cadences of your streets – how they buzzed with adrenaline and teenage spirit every fall on the eve of a new school year, how parking near Mugby was sparse, that east side of the big lake is indeed not a driveway, and to always look another time at the uncontrolled residential intersections. The air you breathed out felt piercingly colder and scorchingly hotter, yet those spring breezes felt even more tranquil than I ever experienced before. The trains were an admitted nuisance, but in return, it meant longer conversations with dearly beloved people in the front and back seats of my car. It meant more cymbal crashes when the breakdown hit, and long ways around. The abundance of mom and pop eat ins, industrial prowess, academic residence, and historical character coalesce into a truly unique landscape. And I saw God truly exist in all of them, in very special, very unique ways.
In turn, you’ve gotten to know me and watch me grow up here. And, I sometimes wonder if it was at all hard for you to watch me those first two years, especially. Did you ever weep when the incandescent glow from a second story window told you I was addicted to pornography? Were you hurt when I silently cursed your ground and people when times were turbulent? If so, I’m sorry. On this other end I realize those rash emotions were expressed out of immaturity, I was a jaded young leader, and brand new Christian trying to reconcile an addiction that haunted me. I never meant to make your people feel hurt by my callowness. Did you ever feel my anxiety in the cracks of your gravel when papers were due, conversations needed to be had, and life decisions needed to be made? Did you ever feel like scolding me when I reacted out of anger, displaced my emotions, and burned bridges? If so, thank you for your patience and I’m grateful for your forbearance. I can probably catalog many times when I probably deserved more severe chastisement for it.
Matthew 7 and Hebrews 12 describe God as a Father who gives good gifts to his children and is a disciplinarian that delivers righteous justice with a merciful undertone. Winona, you were the fertile ground for those things to happen in your wards. The metamorphasis I underwent at 20 years old, meeting Jesus and transforming as a roommate, friend, brother, son, and leader were necessary, hard at times, but ultimately gratifying as I look back on those lessons reserved for this time of life on this side of now, 25 years old. The vessels for those changes at Pleasant Valley Church, Celebrate Recovery, full time manufacturing, coffee shops, mentorship, and platonic brother/sisterhood were grown in your soil and the people I met through all those avenues kept that soil well tilled by their hospitality, forbearance, encouragement, support, and love of Christ. I became and still realizing the vision of the man that I aspire to be. I will never be able to adequately articulate how formational this was and is for me. Those people will forever carry a place in my heart with warm affection and friendship into the following stages of life.
At this point, our relationship has changed. In a way, I’ve been reborn and raised in the cradle of this valley, maturing as a young man and therefore acknowledging my forthcoming transition. It’s not easy, I’m sure there’s a part of us both that would want to continue the way we are. I’ve grown to love the familiarity. But, in the spirit of honesty, things began to change over this last year. When I step outside my apartment into the bedlam of Friday night transit in the intersections outside my front steps, sit down for a cup of Pickwick at Mugby on a Saturday morning, or inhabit familiar outdoor spots by the lake, I think to myself… maybe you’re not you anymore. The buzz of tweenage rebellion isn’t electrifying anymore, even as a spectator from my second floor window. Kickapoo Coffee still tastes like peace down my throat with every hot sip, but the faces I used to know there have faded into ambiguity as time slowly absconds them to new chapters and beginnings. The lakes have become this beautiful reminder of how life can find ways to stand still when things change above, below, and beside me. Though things dramatically shift, sunsets burn orange and burgundy with beauty behind the bluffs. But, as I’ve thought of it, I think it’s more of I’m not quite me, anymore. With no condemnation, I say it as an assent of we’re growing apart. It’s natural. And I think we’re better for it.
Before I can comment on anything further on the matter, it’s necessary to say that one of the greatest gifts I was given is the woman I will very soon marry. The beauty in your landscape was a canvas that we painted our relationship on. Every brushstroke of long walks, drives around town, game nights with friends, plenty of good food, drink, discipleship, support, love, and encouragement from wonderful people culminate in a masterpiece we will fondly admire like a portrait on the wall that will age beautifully with time. For that, I am eternally grateful.
So with that, my time here is ending. Though my zip code will change, you will always be home in a way. If there’s anything left for me to say, it would be the echoes a letter written with a familiar sentiment as I amicably leave you…
Looking in the rear-view mirror at everything that I’m leaving behind.
I know this is right, I know it’s my time.
Now is my time to escape this weathered town and what this place is all about…
…And I don’t know, I don’t know if you’ll ever understand. You can say that it’s not worth it.
And you can say, you can say it’s a wasted life.
But the memories, I’ll take with me. These memories, they’ll stay with me.
Holding onto the past each day leaves me empty, wanting everything to be the way it was
There are better days to come, I just have to, I have to let go of the things that I have done and the ones who have moved on.
I’ve gotta get out of here, but the memories I’ll take with me. Everywhere I go, to everyone I know. These memories will stay with me. I’ll escape this weathered town and what this place is all about.
The memories, they’ll stay with me.
With me. You’ll stay with me, Winona. Until we see each other again.
At my desk chair, moving the baffle a few more inches down the fabric in my machine, I see purposeful footsteps arrive at my cubicle. My coworker and good buddy gave me the news of Chester Bennington’s death. In the weeks that would follow in tribute covers of Crawling, Numb, and Points of Authority by esteemed musical counterparts, and even by Coldplay, the world seemingly devolved further into chaos with Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean swallowed in the literal undertows of record breaking hurricanes. Between those events, lions at the gate in the current political coliseum foamed at the mouth over the events of Charlottesville, and my old high school experienced an explosion that caused two deaths and multiple injuries. Culminating in the events of last weekend, a close family member of mine tragically passed in an accident. As I’ve had the time, particularly in the intentional silence of that same cubicle, to process it all, I can’t help but feel the heaviness of these events.
I don’t write this touting a bulleted list of resolutions that rest the aforementioned events and circumstances peacefully, it’s more of a memorial, observing the antinome between good, evil, joy, peace, good times, and bad times.
When I was in high school, my confirmation classmates and I were given Bibles with our names stamped in gold on the bottom left corner of its imitation blue leather with a date penned on the inside of receiving. Ephesians was accidentally ripped out, is stained with root beer and has seen a lot of wear and tear. Between the inroads of its aesthetic imperfections lies all my notes scribbled within one of the most celebrated yet confusing books of the Old Testament…
This (seemingly) despondent epistle is a collection of grievances that air out Solomon’s tension between a world where we can simultaneously enjoy the ingots of meals, friends, laughter (3:22; 8:15) and the malfeasance of unexplained suffering and inevitability of death (2:22; 7:15-18). By the time its 11 chapter run time takes a bow, Solomon never arrives at a triumphant conclusion on the matter. Instead, he’s okay with understanding that trying to reach such conclusions is, “vanity.” As if he’s saying that holding the tension is healthier than trying to dissect meanings beyond our human intellect and heart capacity. Similarly, his exhortation reminds me that my finite consciousness and understanding of God is unable to adequately explain why Linkin Park’s lead singer left behind a wife, six kids, and his band at the hands of his own suicide. It cannot rationalize natural disasters or demonstrations of racism. It cannot anymore undo my high school’s tragedy or bring back my Uncle Morgan’s jovial personality, laughter, and his Forrest Gump impression.
My mind asks a question that Chester Bennington sang near the end of his life… “Why is everything so heavy?” On an album that polarized long time fans of their previous work, Heavy, takes a sharp musical departure from its nu metal roots, but with Bennington’s passing, it has the ambiance of a funeral dirge when you listen to his musings about a life down-turned. Much like Solomon, Bennington never reaches a peaceful close in this song, giving it the smack of a personal lamentation.
I’m sure we’ve all cogitated a similar thought of why is everything so heavy when our worlds begin to show signs of buckling (as tragedy has its tendency to do) when reason arrives nowhere near our desired destinations. I have in the last week and especially when I hear the chorus echo those thoughts like a call and return. Yet, when I think back on how Uncle Morgan’s lively personality made family gatherings that much more vibrant, how Minnehaha Academy is moving forward with confidence into this school year, the humanitarian response to the said natural disasters, and the legacy of Bennington’s art on a generation of musicians, I remember once again that my explanations will ultimately draw blanks when I try to put a punctuation at the end of it…
And that’s ok with me.
My conclusion that I can confidently draw is that God’s ways and thoughts are higher, perfectly developed, and good in contrast to mine (Isaiah 55:8-9). Putting those verses through the parallax of my family’s recent turn of events, I am resolute that I could spend time bargaining somehow to hear Uncle Morgan talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers or help polish the heads on his Alfa Romeo one last time, but Solomon would tell me that time is better spent acknowledging that life is what the original Hebrew word for vanity, hebel, translates as “vapor.” It’s short enough, but life can be truncated by tragedy. I will carry the memories with me in suitcases, through photographs, and stories shared with family as the best of ways to celebrate a life lived passionately. In the mean time, Solomon does give us counsel to relish the tokens of joy we can tangibly experience through fellowship with other people… I feel like things such as a good meal with friends around the table, laughter, sunsets, early morning coffee, and a good walk are places to start to honor his life and honor the God who loves. If there is any conclusion I can draw in all of this, it’s knowing that when tossed and fro by the waves that James paints in his New Testament letter, I have that same resolve and confidence that his brother Jesus is in the hull of the ship calming the swells (Mark 4:35-41), ferrying me through to the peace that transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
This morning, I handed in my keys to the administrative assistant’s office, humorously nodding my head to our high school pastor, but knowing that this transaction symbolizes the passing of an era in my life. My internship is over. The last two years of transformation as a young man looks into a mirror adorned with a couple of cracks around the edges and even a few small pieces missing (given that I am still a work in progress), but ultimately when I meditate on the reflection I see, that person is unrecognizable in the best way possible. It reminds me of how Jesus’ brother, James, cogitates a similar yet opposite thought when he says that a man whose faith doesn’t follow with action is like someone who looks in the mirror and forgets what he looks like when he returns to it (James 1:23). I’d like to think after all this time, the last two years have shown me the art of living that exhortation, because the word of God truly transforms its reader upon further investigation (2nd Timothy 3:16) and the people I’ve encountered have given me God-ordained moments to practically apply those truths – never with every opportunity taken or followed through, but always with conviction and always greater grace. I could not have thought of a better landscape than Celebrate Recovery to let God grow gardens where we all blossomed as a whole. For two years I saw beauty and tragedy come together in the same room, reconcile, divide, bring together, split, and ultimately live under God’s control. For two years, I saw and felt victory, defeat, joy, grief, and the whole spectrum of human emotion. I truly lived and led in a place where we let ourselves air out on the line for the world to see, warts and all. And I would never trade any of the experiences this internship provided for any salary that a corporate position could have otherwise afforded me, never done differently. Everything in between emotional poles allowed for God to grow my character and something of a call in my life.
The malaise of transition feels very real in a way I wasn’t expecting. As one chapter is closing, another one is beginning with God, the architect, author, and perfecter of my faith (Hebrews 12:2) putting pen to paper in a language of sovereignty I don’t understand. Commenting on Pastor Mark Driscoll’s truncated pastoral leadership at Mars Hill Church, theologian John Piper, made a point to recognize that above and beyond circumstance is, YHWH – the kind of general who is not taken aback or shaken by changing landscapes on the battlefield, and the king who is still on the throne. The power of such analogy translates well in this phase of my life where the blueprints of my future feel like an outline. As an analytic, critical thinker, the shadowy open ended-ness of the next year and a half makes me bristle, because I find security in the details. Starving this hunger for knowledge and loosening a death grip on this life that’s in transition (as appropriately observed by Relient K’s, Matt Thiessen) is admittedly not easy for someone like me to do. But if traversing Proverbs has taught me anything, the counsel of many like my parents, mentor figures, roommates, and close friends are all channels that the Lord communicates through in the foray of static like a shepherd whispering to its sheep amidst the world orbiting into tomorrow. Jesus had choice words in Matthew 6 about what tomorrow holds and how no one can add a single hour to their lives by worrying about the ephemeral (Matthew 6:27) – clothing, food, other basic provisions, or best laid plans that aren’t a guarantee in the arena of God’s ultimate plan. Many of my decisions about finances, employment, and even what I decide to do in my spare time are all adjuvant to and influence what comes next for me…
I tentatively begin Bethel Seminary’s Marriage and Family Therapy program in Minneapolis in September 2018 in the pursuit of licensure and wanting to counsel young men, couples, and families through the throes of reverberating sexual addiction issues in a family system. I am excited to turnover a new page, absorb God’s word, theory, practice, and let Jesus usher in a new phase of life in the world of tomorrow.
As I’m experiencing, “tomorrow” can feel like an unwelcome ghost when it overstays its welcome in our daily schedules, reprioritized responsibilities, the shifting cadence of social rhythms, and eclipses the demands of today. In writing this, I revisited through Explosions In the Sky’s 2007 release, All of A Sudden I Miss Everyone – a nod to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, rich with post rock bravado on a more cinematic scale than its predecessor – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. By contrast to the latter, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone instrumentally belabors at drawing out a different set of emotions that feel more urgent by virtue of how the music sky rockets into catharsis, slows down, and (for lack of a better term) explodes into those same twinkled tremolos. I hear songs like Welcome Ghosts and feel the parallels of emotions that swell as I think of what is around the corner in my life and calm when I remember to be content and at peace with my identity in Jesus.
Much like the music and much like the book of Psalms (a timely an primary source of scripture in recent months), our emotions can swell and crash on the shores in these flush, orchestral-like narratives that are ultimately under the control of our ultimate conductor and Heavenly Father. He keeps count of our tossings (Psalm 56:8), and keeps us in the shadow of His wings as we navigate the unknown (Psalm 17:8). When I remember those truths, I can remember to welcome the ghost of tomorrow’s challenges as I meditate and live in the today.
I’m learning to take in the ordinary, understanding that though my life is coming about on a turn at a break in the wood, there is still life to be lived within this next year and a half in the here and now. So much of it is to be celebrated: Putting my shoulder into my faith all the more, transitioning leadership, keeping my feet planted in my current community, working full time, financially investing well (adulting), pouring into the lives of cherished friends, and vice versa being poured into. Allowing myself as Gandalf the White commented, a deep breath before the plunge. The challenge is keeping hands open to the changes, feet planted in the security of my identity, and my head looking up towards my Creator in what Tom Eccleshall of Kings Cross Worship calls, the state of flux.
A previous post I wrote in observance of the calendar year still reminds me to sing into the storm when skies blacken and tides shift. Clouds aren’t foreboding on the horizon, but the tides are shifting and the winds ahead are signaling change, so my prayer is that my simple song will remain and sustain with a more maturing tone as I exist in this pocket for the time being.
I used to work at a fifties restaurant back home in junior college. As I worked my way into the kitchen as a short order cook in my last several months, one of my coworkers offered up a blood caked musical platter of black metal bands by way of Immolation and Dark Funeral to plug into our small jam box. He would crank this stuff in the kitchen during long weekend shifts to keep the energy running when orders poured in by the time the clock struck 5 pm on Friday nights. Keep in mind that black metal has never been a palettable genre on account of its overt Satanic cloitering, so even if the music is well written, it still doesn’t strike anything with me by association of the message it generally promotes. Given Paul’s exhortation that while we were sinners, Christ died for us, this is not meant to be a critique of its people or my coworker for that matter. Even corpse paint and anti Christian imagery doesn’t take away from its forerunners being image bearers of God when the amps turn off.
Having said that, Thy Art Is Murder have come the closest that any other band has (and probably ever will) to tipping a hand at this genre in a manner that made my ears pique and it’s not via meta messaging in its lyrics. It has everything to do with how guitarists Andy Marsh and Sean Price took a style of metal they already excelled at and then injected a shot of blackened tremolo minor chords synthesized from core influences like, Behemoth, forging their contribution to a three way split between Fit For An Autopsy and The Acacia Strain into a true ripper of a song.
The band’s subtle changes in style and uncharacteristically slowed pace gives They Will Know Another an apocalyptic ambiance with a full charge of blast beats, menacing vocals from CJ McMahon, and impressive production, hitting you with blunt force trauma when you crank it on a good sound system. Lyrically, They Will Know Another, traps the listener in an echo chamber with the social, economic, and environmental shockwaves captured in the music video’s lowlight reel shows between studio clips of the band with FFAA’s lead guitarist Will Putney at the controls (which is not for the faint-hearted, either). Far from hopeful, aggressively bemoaning, and altogether intoxicating. This is one of the most standout, uncompromising tracks I’ve heard in a while, especially since it’s had such high replay value since its release last July and it’s a promising direction for Thy Art Is Murder if this is what they choose to march on with on their next full length.
Of Dirt and Grace – Hillsong United
When I bought Relient K’s alt rock opus, Forget and Not Slow Down, five years ago in my hometown’s record shop, I immediately gravitated towards one single, excessively playing I Don’t Need A Soul until all the other tracks became muted against the canvas of Thiessen’s proclamation of contentment all-la Foo Fighter Counting Crows 90’s rock instrumentals (the good kind). Eventually, I moved onto other songs as a way to take a break between that song, repeating the process of being hooked on one track until I sojourned the whole record from cover to cover. It remains one of my favorites to this day as a result of the journey.
This is my parallel experience with Hillsong United’s Of Dirt and Grace.
Coalescing the on site significance behind these songs and well executed performances (with little rehearsal), these acoustic renditions of Empires and Zion showcased on Of Dirt and Grace breathe a different spectrum of life that is palpable. Though their original recordings primed record sales and waves of congregations to pick up these spirit charged bridges on Sunday mornings, there’s something special about hearing Scandal of Grace recorded outside the empty tomb or Prince of Peace sung overlooking the dome of the rock outside the old city walls and on the side of a destroyed Abrams tank from the 6 day Israeli-Palestinian war. The visual accompaniments let already well-crafted songs take flight. I can picture myself stopping dead center in reflection on the Via Dolorosa and taking in the rich, melodic reverb of Street Called Mercy as I ponder Jesus carrying a Roman cross bar up a half mile through congested city streets to Golgotha. I can almost feel the soft breeze between my fingertips and cattails brushing on my skin on the mount where Jesus delivered the beatitudes when I hear the acoustic plumes in, Say the Word. Much like Explosions In the Sky did with specific visual correspondence in each song, I think Hillsong brilliantly does with Of Dirt and Grace, because it showcases a depth of care and detail put into the theology behind the tapestry and that matters, a lot!
Returning to my allegory about FANSD, Touch the Sky was the only song I really liked for a while, because I first enjoyed its original studio recording. As I traversed through other songs like Here Now and Empires, I really began to chip away at Dirt and Grace, binging on every minute detail of these songs until I made my way through a full listen of this album and as a result, I have a newfound appreciation for it! Though these are acoustic versions of their original songs, they are still dense with layers of reverb, keys, and acoustic subtleties. In addition, and probably most importantly, the vocal performances on this record are astounding! Everyone in United is bountifully talented and delivers passionate performances, bringing encouraging lyrics with just as much depth as their aesthetic to full bloom. This is up there will We Will Not Be Shaken as one of my favorite worship records and I have found a lot of spiritual resonance in these songs!
Neurotic – Hundredth
Do you remember this polarizing phenomenon when Linkin Park dropped Minutes to Midnight in 2009? Long time fans of the band’s cornerstone nu-metal records unhinged at the sound of singles like Shadow of the Day. When you put their entire catalog on a timeline and take in Chester Peddington’s commentary on the matter, Minutes to Midnight was Linkin Park’s reaction to their disdain of the looking glass self they felt like fans and the record label were wanting to see in the mirror. At this point, they weren’t all the way there in a full turn around, but Minutes was a shocking 90 that culminated in the 180 that was, A Thousand Suns.
Much like Slipknot, Linkin Park, is a fascinating case study of musical evolution for my generation. Autobiographical programs like VH1’s Behind the Music (#nostalgia #bringbacktrl) chronicle bands with long careers proving a certain acumen and then shifting their musical tectonics in another direction to parallel their maturity as human beings and artists. Just like James Hetfield of Metallica is no longer a teenaged mullet rocker committed to sleeping on UHaul blankets in the pursuit of pure thrash and Chester Peddington/crew didn’t want to write another three carbon copies of Meteora, front man Chadwick Johnson has expressed in multiple interviews that Hundredth is a far cry from the 18 year old Carolinians who wrote When Will We Surrender in 2010. Evidence shows through their new single, Neurotic, teased from the band’s forthcoming record, Rare. The band has commented that through their double EP and their last full length, Hundredth wanted to stylistically reach in new directions while still keeping their core sound rooted in a comfortable niche that didn’t alienate the original fan base which heralds When Will We Surrender and Let Go. If the former releases didn’t at least challenge that notion, then Rare definitely will, if Neurotic is any indication of their new direction.
Abandoning all traces of their melodic hardcore grit, Neurotic trades in driving, up-beat rhythms and breakdowns for a shoegaze/punk vibe that puts Chad Johnson on guitar for the first time in the band’s history and trading in anthemic yells for filtered clean singing that compliments the distorted, electronic undertow. Speaking as someone who compliments Let Go as one of the first real hardcore records that ever captivated me, I anticipate the potential for this band charting new musical territory, because Neurotic is a convincing listen that showcases Hundredth’s aptitude. Don’t get me wrong though, this song is aggressive (though its lyrics don’t speak for that much), but it’s expressed in a more subtle way that gets you bit by bit when you study the subtleties of this song after multiple listens. To be honest, the aforementioned is my favorite quality about Neurotic. Rather than letting you take it full force on impact like much of their discography, Neurotic calculates it into a more intelligent delivery that still has an edge to it. Bottom line is that I’m stoked for Rare if this is what I’m in for!
I came to this sobering realization as I sat on my mattress after a full day of working at the coffee house last Thursday night – I feel a little bit older. My Spotify account accompanied my thoughts as I laid down reminiscing on the last year of life and now soaking in the gift of the last five days between family and friends coming down to celebrate my birthday with me.
I’ve been a John Mayer fan since early high school when my siblings turned me onto his seminal record, Continuum. I know some people pass off later albums like Born and Raised as a wrinkle in time compared to older material from his prime and youth, but I think this record’s polar departure from the contemporary suave of Battle Studies parallels Mayer’s personal fall from grace or as he, himself coined it in an interview with Ellen Degeneres, “a violent crash into adulthood.”
Mayer coming to terms with his own charlatan persona printed in the ink of Rollingstone and Playboy shines through in Born and Raised, because I hear him singing about something more esoteric in contrast to drunken one night stands. Instead, I hear him reflecting on the areas of his life that actually matter – longing for something more intimate like slowing down, rethinking his goals, wanting to be closer to family, and heal. In my opinion, the newly introduced Americana flourishes and his nod to classic singer songwriters of the 1970’s provide the perfect soundtrack to Mayer’s lamenting of his youth. It’s honest. Real. It’s a pool of resonance that allows me to wade in similar waters when I reach this milestone of my mid twenties and look in the rear view. Not to say that I’m pining or lamenting the past – quite the opposite.
According to many I’ve conversed over this with in recovery, birthdays can be painful mile markers that remind us of how the soles of our feet still burn from walking through our own personal hell. It can leave us with wounds that ache in the third degree, but as I learned at 23, God can’t show through our blistering skin without those burns. At this age, this is how I look at the blemishes and acne scarring on my face, the slight crook in my front teeth, and the cuts on my hands from working in the restaurant industry through college. They have stories to tell from certain epochs of my formative years that remind me of what wilderness God led me through. In fact, I’ve grown to like how they feel and fit within my own skin. The same goes for everything I experienced in 22 years previous that I once thought should be left to slowly rot in my memory bank. 23 was the first year where I didn’t see February 17th (or the other 364 days) as a day to pine for a clean spiritual/emotional rap sheet.
Now, 24 has set in and feels a bit different in its own light, but in the best way. I’m applying for grad school, gratefully taking on responsibility in this internship, looking forward to continue investing in my friendships both new and old, family, and faith… plus I’m filing my own taxes this year. Never have I ever felt more like an adult. This new reality replays lines from the title track of Born and Raised where Mayer sings, ‘Cause one of these days, you’ll be born and raised and it all comes on without warning. Between that and reflecting on the memories made in a year marked by God’s gracious gift of sobriety, I can say that never have I ever felt more like and adult, more content with where life is right now, or where God is leading it at 24.
My heart is full.
Through the Holy Spirit using the best friends, family, and support as vessels to challenge and encourage me in my walk through navigating the mechanics of my faith in young adulthood, I can say that 23 was the best. To anyone who ever came over for PlayStation battles, threw down in board games, went out for late night T-Bell runs, prayed, did Bible study, wept, laughed, hiked, went to shows, road tripped, attended conferences, seminars, and spent time in the margins or monotony with me…
At this point I do honestly feel a bit older in navigating the intricacies of the real world, but when I take a step back and remember those tangible silhouettes of God’s grace and provision from this last year, I remember the world is not a cold, dead place. Whether you’re celebrating a birthday or a slow Tuesday, cherish the little things in the moment and keep perspective when the waves of hectic schedules, classes, and work crash on the shores of our intimacy with our Heavenly Father. After all, Jesus said in His sermon on the mount, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own [Matthew 6:34].”
I remember rising early last Saturday – eyes bloodshot, rocking serious bed-head, bags above sunken cheek lines, all encased in an exhausted expression. Emblazoned in a blurred shade of red, the clock across the room read just after 7am and everyone was still asleep after a late night of worship, small groups, snowboarding (for me at least), and being spiritually awoken by a series of messages calling us to rise above discontent faith that drowns our identity in our work. I was there with our church’s college ministry to retreat and rest for the first time in a long while, and to be honest, it took a bit to unwind. So much was happening and there was a lot for the Lord to air out in my head space as I took a break from the frontlines of leadership. It was an encouraging, rejuvenating weekend that connected spiritual waypoints God had pinpointed throughout the last couple of months. They culminated into a constellation painted on a bigger canvas and it truly brought peace. In between drinking from a spiritual fire hose and wiping out on the black diamond of the snowboarding hill, I felt something unexpected as I woke up from that early morning slumber and then traveled home…
I encountered multiple people who openly discussed their struggle with food. Their testimonies brought me back to an experience I had last December, but I’ll kick on fourth down and return to that later. Something about their stories enveloped me in a wet blanket that made my heart heavy for them. I didn’t know them well, had no other explicable reason to feel this way, and yet I found myself mourning with those two and rejoicing in their victory for every day they embrace an identity that lies in what scripture tells them rather than the lies of a nutrition facts label that doesn’t know their inmost parts, who formed them in their mothers womb, or keeps their tears in a bottle [Psalm 56]. Absorbing information about the neurochemistry and epidemiology (the patterns and causes of diseases in populations) of addiction in the last year has shown parallels about my struggles with pornography and others’ struggles with food. Between the bulimic patterns of binging/purging and/or anorexic characteristics, guilt and shame associated, and even the root causes of such struggles, there is a battery of commonalities between the two. Perhaps the most revealing commonality is best described through the lead singer of Silent Planet, Garrett Russell, in this interview below. [Here are the first few yards of that kick return]. This video is part of a series that breaks down Silent Planet’s second album, Everything Was Sound. Well esteemed by fans and critics alike, Everything Was Sound, is an aggressive tapestry that navigates the spectrum of mental illness through the eyes of a Christian, sharp, progressive songwriting, and absolute genius lyricism.
Much like the externalized manifestation of anorexia or, Anna, as it is described, sexual addictions are haunted by a similar ghost. I don’t have name for it, but this pixelated vixen comforts us in our insecurity and loves us when we feel unlovable. Yet, it hates everything we are and mimics the thief that comes seeks to steal, kill, and destroy in John 10… but, we worship it. Culture asks us to pay into this system of bartering that teaches men and women to give themselves away to a backwards system of relationships in the same way we can count calories to the cadence of our culture’s death march towards a synthetic and unattainable standard of beauty. We try to please it, we try to bargain, reason, sometimes physically pay into it and we squander friendships, marriages, and jobs as currency. As we sink further and become consumed by it, we look in the mirror and increasingly stare through the hollow shells of our silence and secrecy, only to reflect on how easy it breaks. Much like Garrett’s belief about anorexia and eating disorders being a theological issue, so is porn, but that’s another series of posts. #endrant
All of us have issues that casts a shadow and feels phantom-like, but it doesn’t need to have the teeth of an addiction. The jealousy we carry towards the person sitting next to us in class or in the cubicle across the way that lives where the grass is supposedly greener; bitterness we hold towards someone close to us; pride (one I know all too well)… For me, it can be work. My job in recovery ministry means I play it close to the chest. I can easily conflate my work and identity when I don’t keep myself accountable, or as I’ve learned… to embrace a child-like faith that doesn’t sacrifice spiritual maturity. As John Piper said echoing Mark 10, “Trust like a child, think like a man.”
Here’s the rest of the yardage on that kick return… This previous December, I saw For Today play up in Minneapolis on their farewell tour – hanging the hat on their sixth and final record, Wake. With them were “The almighty” Norma Jean, My Epic, and Silent Planet. Through several chance interactions both inside and outside the venue, my group of friends and I got to meet Garrett – the ultimate fan moment for a few of us! But understanding the nuances of songs like Nervosa made them even more powerful to hear, live, and furthermore, a good friend of mine found some semblance of healing in their struggle with similar issues upon discovery of songs like this. Words carry power and Jesus’ brother, James, could tell you all about that one in his letter. Getting to hear my friend from that show and those from last weekend say they’re walking in the light through their own struggles proved how powerful of a caliber words can pack. It broke me in ways that I’m convinced Jesus broke for those who were sick, imprisoned, outcasted, and deemed as unlovable.
LOOK STRAIGHT THROUGH ME : LOOK AT THE NIGHTMARE – the bristling opening line in Nervosa that proceeds an eerie instrumental introduction. Garrett follows this up with a hauntingly articulate three and a half minute diary entry from the point of view of someone in the foray of struggle with Anorexia, so this first line sounds like a funeral procession in contrast. But, after those interactions over the last couple months and the power in that declaration of victory gained so far it sounds like something else to me. I think that line fits the mold of Psalm 139 :
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. 3 You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Whether it’s food, porn, work, or fill in the blank, everyone’s story discussed in this post began with this prologue of taking the posture of those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven [Matthew 5:3]. Our continuing story is written by the author and perfecter of our faith [Hebrews 12:2] one moment, day, season, victory, and chapter at a time. Without that foundation, there isn’t a program, counseling regimen, or even a small group that will ever hold up as second, third, and forth floors of a house we’re trying to restore. I feel like I’m reaching in a thousand different directions with all of this, but I will conclude by challenging ourselves to hold fast to the courage to look at our reflections and dare to say…
I got together for a conversation yesterday afternoon with my buddy, singer-songwriter, Zach Zurn about his roots, songwriting inspirations, faith, and politics. We enjoyed good, organic talk at his home studio in Rochester with a couple sparkling waters and dreary mid winter overcast conditions.
After a couple good naps, lunch breaks with coworkers, and plenty of Settlers of Catan throwdowns, the first couples of days of a new year are over. I’ve been one for resolutions before, but not in a triumphant way. Many of them were epithets about “this being the year” I would shed the skin of my addiction for good but doing so by avoiding the pain of putting my life under the surgical knife of the Great Physician in John 5. I made few unsubstantial goals since then to preserve the guilt of not following through on them, but as I have been blessed by God’s grace to be in a time of my life where I have enjoyed the fruits of sobriety, recovery, and transformation, the new year shines in different shades, now. Small, measurable goals seem to be the most logical of any resolutions I’ve seen people be successful with, but even those are still subject to some kind of failure in a calendar year. As a result, I figured it’s meaningless to even try. But, this is where grace is key.
I hear a lot of commentary about God’s grace, but I’m going to pull at this string and say we don’t understand the depth of its definition on a cultural level. It’s not like we can fully comprehend it to begin with (hence, the scandal of grace), but there’s always two sides to every coin. I think it’s easy and moving to lift our hands in praise to God for the incomprehensible mystery of His unending grace, but how often do we understand that it’s built on something to be given grace from? I get caught in this current time and time again. Without acknowledging the inevitability of personal suffering down the corridor of a week, a month, or when we pen new year’s resolutions, grace is devalued and cheapened. The apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 6 – What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? New years resolutions are made to be broken. It’s not a matter of if we will break a resolution, but when. It’s not a matter if there will be difficulty, but how. It’s not a matter of if we will unintentionally hurt someone relationally, but whom. The difference is how we respond to it when our faith is tossed and fro by the winds as said by Jesus’ brother James (1:1-6). Grace is anti venom for hurting hearts, wounded emotions, frail spiritual devotions, and those broken resolutions. But, should we stop making resolutions to preserve ourselves from feeling bad about it? By no means!
In 2015, Canadian hardcore vanguards, Counterparts, released their most commercially successful and emotionally revealing body of work yet, Tragedy Will Find Us. Soldering the melodic veracity of post-hardcore from the early 2000’s, modern metal, and a dash of punk grit, Counterparts have a handful of powerful albums that prove themselves to have gusto in a scene that lead singer, Brendan Murphy, himself coins as a “congregation of outcasts” – the amalgam of a socially conscious, dissatisfied vector of young people, searching for something bigger and outside of themselves. I have power stomped and screamed my way through the bridge of songs like, Outlier, probably half a million times when my roommates have been gone. I have air drummed my way through supercharged passages on songs like Withdrawal and have head banged through the melodic haze of Tragedy countless times as well. I’ve reviewed them on this blog before, but they’ve ascended the ranks in my favorites list after a couple years of taking in their last two records. Tragedy Will Find Us is a half hour burn book that illustrates a crestfallen period of the lead singer’s life coming off tour between their previous record, The Difference Between Hell and Home. Murphy’s lyrical content has always been kind of standoff-ish, but this new record is way more uncompromising. The underlying themes of despair and brokenness have silver linings of some sort. Because, according to Murphy, the ten songs on Tragedy Will Find Us is a collective recognition that difficulty is unavoidable and we have to find some kind of strength to move learn and move past such circumstances. On this album, Murphy muses the existence of God and His role in suffering. Going back to the idea of grace, I believe God works in suffering to produce something that we cannot see with the tunnel vision we often have in trials as further reflected through Paul – Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4). Pastor John Piper says it well…
Not only is your affliction momentary, not only is your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there, but all if it is totally meaningful. Every millisecond of your pain from the fallen nature or fallen man, every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that. I don’t care if it was cancer or criticism… slander or sickness. It wasn’t meaningless. It’s doing something… of course you can’t see what it’s doing.
This new-year, I have a new resolution echoed by Switchfoot’s lead singer, Jon Foreman…
Sing into the storm.
Face trials as they come along and see them as learning opportunities that sharpen me like iron on iron in Proverbs 27:17.
Though, this sounds morbid and fatalistic, we should remember that in darkness, light pierces through with even more power and luminescence. I look forward to future plans unfolding prepared by God’s work in the previous year, the gift of continuing to invest in friendships both here and far, growing in sobriety, leadership, and even to the storm clouds on horizons I can’t see right now. By intentionally sailing into and not spiritually circumventing them in my cocoon, the Holy Spirit will never put wind in our sails to serve others, to invest in others, to sacrificially love others.
Though tragedy will find us, Jesus will meet us there to pick us up, put wind back in our sails, and inspire us to keep loving and serving when storm clouds blacken.