welcome, ghosts.

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…

Graduate school.

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.

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.

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another music update.

They Will Know Another – Thy Art Is Murder

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!

born & raised.

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…

Thank you.

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].”

 

 

 

tragedy will find us.

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.

christmas tunes.

I’m currently on a mini vacation, away from the bitter cold, and staring at the base of the Catalina Mountain range south of Tucson from my dad’s back porch. In between the couple days off of spending time with family, I’ve taken time up in the air en route to soak in some Christmas music a little late into the season, but with the intent of doing a short review of some old and newer favorite tunes to play this week (or into the new year if that’s your preference).

 

Someday At Christmas – Jack Johnson

The acoustic plumes of Jack Johnson drip with nostalgia in high school when In Between Dreams was a sleeper indie sensation that sweetly rocked my closet romantic Mr. Hyde to an otherwise aggressive Jekyll that was getting into bands like The Black Dahlia Murder and Whitechapel. I’ve always enjoyed Johnson’s hushed vocal delivery painted in similar brushstrokes like Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Sufjan Stevens. But more than that, I like the instrumental gamut ran between unplugged and subdued ballads like Angel to swingers like Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology that remind me of John Mayer’s Robert Johnson cover on Battle Studies. Though I have not listened to much beyond 2010’s To the Sea, I can confidently say that I still like Jack Johnson if not for that same aforementioned nostalgic factor. On the opening kickoff to an indie Christmas compilation from 2008, Jack Johnson returns his track Someday at Christmas with a satisfyingly nimble presentation that captures the insouciance of earlier work that earned him mainstream success. A simple chord progression carries Johnson through a brief lyrical sojourn wishing for a literal peace on Earth between nations, races, and even gender. It feels timely in our political climate, but surprisingly doesn’t fall to its own clichés on such subject matter. I like the catchiness of Johnson’s vocal melodies and the warmth in its tone. Compared to others on this list, Someday at Christmas is a nice change in pace that puts my feet up in front of a fire on a cold winter’s night.

 

Good King Wenceslas – Westminster Chorale

Shifting gears to a more traditional drivetrain, I’ve always had a thing for older hymns and gospel songs penned by forefathers of my faith in Europe during the reformation of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Their lyrical complexity, theological depth, and thought put in by the writers makes songs like Come Thou Fount (spoiler alert to later down the list). And, that is especially the case with Christmas songs like Good King Wenceslas. Originally written by an English hymnist in the mid 1800’s, this song dives into old Czech folklore about a king who rescues a peasant outside his castle during a winter storm during the Christmas holiday. With this peasant unable to return to his home through the storm, the king braves the weather and provides him with food and shelter. There’s something about the humanity demonstrated and symbolism in this song that makes it appealing to me. If you look into teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, this song draws parallels in the snow with stanzas such as this… Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing (James 2:14-17). Perhaps my favorite thing about this song is how my family used to play it as part of a compilation on an old 45 record that showcased a traditional choir in Westminster Abbey. Hearing such rich, diverse, and impeccable tone from a large choir gives this song an even more timeless feel and brings me back to decorating the house in my formative years.

 

Hosanna – Josh Garrels

I grew up liturgically rooted in those same hymns like the ones aforementioned in the previous song. My upbringing in the Episcopal church meant we were well versed in red leather hymnals and having a long-established service structure in corporate worship. Though my faith has evolved since and serve in a different denomination, I can still remember many of those old hymns when played anywhere, and that’s how Josh Garrels’ cover of Hosanna made it on this list. Garrels vocal style listens like an amalgam of Chad Gardner’s (King’s Kaleidoscope) soul, a dash of Bear Rinehart’s (Needtobreathe) grit, and the intricate restraint of Michael Gungor. It makes for a heartfelt listen with enough passion coming through to keep your attention yet with enough gentleness to cradle you through the experience. Though I haven’t successfully traversed a whole listen of his new Christmas album, The Light Came Down, I’ve been hooked on songs like The Boar’s Head and Hosanna. Before taking communion, the presiding reverend would walk us through the story of the last supper from one of the Gospels, bless the bread and wine, and would lead us in a chorus of Hosanna. The orchestral flourishes and subtle percussion behind Josh’s acoustic guitar gives this song a lot of character. As the song progresses, it builds in a way that preserves its mellowness but still has enough flavor to keep on the tip of your tongue. In fact, I think the profound lyrical content of celebration contrasted against such a comparatively tempered instrumental delivery makes the song even more spiritually powerful. It’s not a “Christmas” song, but it belongs on his Christmas album and it’s good, so I’m still counting it.

 

I Had A Heart – Real Friends

Pop punk has never been accused of taking itself seriously. Part of the culture in this subgenre is characterized by preserving a sense of wonder and rebellion that’s pined after through heartbreak and fumbling through adulthood. And, judging from Real Friends’ contribution to Punk Goes Christmas from 2013, that same attitude still sits at the Christmas table of dysfunctional family dynamics with enough angst to go around. I Had a Heart is the musical equivalent of watching a Hallmark Christmas movie that revolves around a hopelessly romantic young adult, alone during the holidays, and with a turbulent family dynamic. It’s emotionally bombastic and a bit cheesy, but the thing about those movies and this song…

I like them both.

This song comically captures a cynical side to the holiday season where people can become annoyed by extended family and wallow in singleness. I think it’s actually a clever cultural critique about what we place as important during the Christmas season and jokingly offers an opposite perspective to tidings of comfort and joy. Acoustic, punk instrumentals and a vocally austere performance from lead singer, Dan Lambton, fit this song’s message of teenage angst that is undeniable. I Had a Heart is not one to take as seriously or with as much conviction than the predecessors on this list, but I still think it’s fun and shakes up my Christmas playlist in the best way possible.

 

 

Honorable mentions:

Carol of the Bells – I Declare War.

If you’ve seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase, you’ll understand half the jokes littered between death metal vocals and aggressively rendered instrumentals.

Come Thou Fount (Synonym) – Penny & Sparrow

Come Thou Fount is one of my favorite worship songs on account of the narrative behind its writer Robert Robinson. It’s a tragic, yet beautiful story and there’s a modern reenactment of it on Youtube. Acoustic duo Penny & Sparrow capture this song with effortless charm, great vocal performances, and really hazy production.

of dust & nations.

I was at a best friend’s wedding this weekend, sitting down at the head table with three other guys in identical grey tuxedos, black Vans, and beards feasting on a sirloin and mashed potato entrée. Even better? It was in the aquarium at the Minnesota Zoo – there was a seal, whom we affectionately named, Kevin Paul, acrobatically spinning behind us as one of my buddies from back home asked us our favorite cover songs. My answer… a rendition of Of Dust and Nations by Thrice as performed by British modern metal vanguards, Architects. The recent death of their lead guitar player and cofounder, Tom Searle, gives their newest release, All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us, the tone of a funeral dirge by nailing insane guitar work, apocalyptic production, shredding vocals from Sam Carter, and politically supercharged lyricism into their band mate’s coffin (Also, if you want the nastiest riff-age you’ve EVER heard in your life, go listen to Gravedigger and thank me later). As I began to go through earlier records of theirs, I stumbled upon this Thrice cover on their re-release of Daybreaker. I was totally taken aback by how an already awesome song was given a post hardcore facelift. It’s a lyrically powerful track penned by Dustin Kensrue with vulgar imagery taken straight out of Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew 6 where He says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” The song is a reminder that our earthly possessions, ambitions, ans personal empires are footnotes from an eternal perspective. In other words, we have to look at life from a different lens. Listening to that song on the heels of being in a season waiting for what God has on the other end of my internship, and breathing in the ashes from incendiary political/cultural conversations, made me think of something…

Perspective is a lovely hand to hold (Side note, there’s a band by this name I found on Spotify. I wonder if they’re as big of fans of Relient K’s Forget and Not Slow Down as I am, because if so, and their name references that record, they’re now my favorite).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been traveling back and forth to Minneapolis for a seminar put on by Come&Live! ministries and my buddy’s wedding, both of which are somehow connected through my home church in the Twin Cities. I met my now married best friend at its Eden Prairie campus and their new plant in Minneapolis housed the seminar I went to. So, in the time that I’ve sojourned back to Bloomington, I decided to check out this new Minneapolis satellite campus piqued with a curiosity about the racial/income/cultural melting pot it’s serving. The lessons learned on those two Sunday mornings retread territory charted throughout this year in a journey through recovery and yes… this election cycle. The rotation of campus pastors began a new teaching series, Bad Times, Good God – an expositional survey of the Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk.

Habakkuk is written in a turbulent time during Israel’s monarchy. With the transitioning of kings that take its own people down a road of pagan worship and neglect of the law handed down by Moses centuries before, God’s chosen people and their prosperity have become truncated by neighboring pagan rival, Babylon, and their military prowess. So, in penance for Israel sinning against each other and to God over the course of generations, He allows Babylon to capture, enslave, and divide the kingdom (as foretold in 1st Samuel when the monarchy is established) before restoring them.

In layman’s terms… Israel is screwed.

Habakkuk then tries to make sense of it all. Throughout its 3 chapters, you see Habakkuk beg God to spare the kingdom from its impending doom and give an answer to a bigger question that percolates thousands of years later…

Why does an all-powerful God allow suffering to continue?

(Pastor Dale’s sermon is below for reference)

I know this is opening a can of worms, but I’m choosing to answer this in the context of Habakkuk’s predicament. I don’t want to try and ubiquitously answer that for things like natural disasters, family members with cancer, and dying children in the Syrian civil war. Pastor Dale proceeded to give an anecdote about being a teenager and hating his parents at points of disagreement or when he was punished for something wrong. He said most of us probably knew what it was like to be that age and bristle at being disciplined. Yet, our parents didn’t kick us out, they still fed us, and loved us. The difference is that they, as parents, understand the big picture. Our parents discipline us, because they know what lies in the peripheries of our decision-making. Their maturity allows them to see consequences of our actions that we can’t in the moment. It translates well to God’s reply to Habakkuk in Chapter 1, verses 5 through 11 which is echoed by Paul in Hebrews 12:7. Pastor Kyle picked up the baton this week by talking about Habakkuk “watching from the ramparts” (Chapter 2, verse 1) as God replies, And the LORD answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” Basically, God says he will reveal that to us in His timing and with the right sentiment that will make perfect sense in its revelation. But, it’s hard when we have tunnel vision and can’t see beyond the current circumstances. Pastor Kyle concluded that we need a broader view “from the ramparts.” We need perspective to understand that bigger picture alluded to by Pastor Dale’s application of this scripture.

The recovery process reveals the ugliness of sin in Technicolor. The twelve steps give this kaleidoscopic portrait of how corrupted our character is, yet provides a glimpse of all our good qualities these issues steal from us. Through that, I had to come to an arresting conclusion that my tendency to be selfish was beyond control. It drove everything. I took what paid dividends in relationships, work, and with God, neglecting the rest as if it was expendable. Jesus had to perform surgery as The Great Physician (John 5), taking a scalpel to a heart of stone that is now flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), but that process didn’t come easy. It still isn’t. It took days, upon weeks, and now years of daily, conscious decisions to crucify my desires in exchange for trying to understand the person sitting across from me in Celebrate Recovery, small group, leadership meetings, game nights, and dinner outtings with friends.

James uses strong language in his letter when he says, God opposes the proud (James 4:6). The first line in Of Dust and Nations reads, “The towers that shoulder your pride, the words you’ve written in stone… sand will cover them, sand will cover you.” Both serve as sobering reminders that pride and selfishness are tenants of our innate, human fragility. They’re symptoms of a soul virus that can be remedied by humility, which is prescribed through God’s handiwork in Ephesians 2. James ends his stanza in chapter 4 with… “but He gives grace to the humble.” It begins with taking perspective – and perspective is only won in a battle with self, where war must be raged on our own selfishness. It’s a radical shift in mindset to look to the interest of others above our own (Philippians 2:4), but I find that each conversation I have with someone about what makes them laugh, what gets them up every morning, keeps them up late at night, and their journeys in faith produce brick and mortar that builds bridges closer to Jesus. Those bridges create safe passage for the gospel to be discussed in rivers that rage over politics, religion, race, and cultural values (though those conversations are undoubtedly messy).

Furthermore, in this season of waiting on God to sketch in the blueprints of what happens after my internship next June, I’ve been looking from the ramparts having to remember that even if it feels like I’m staring into nothing or waiting on him for an answer, God has a view from 30,000 feet that I don’t from this vantage point. He is slowly placing brushstrokes in the right places that will eventually translate in my life’s canvas and I’m content in knowing that what exists in the here and now makes perfect sense in His perfect will. I’m going to take such a time as opportunity to see what God is teaching me about Him through the hands and feet of His people that are in my life right now – making the perspectives of my (our) friends with different family dynamics, theological convictions, diametric political views, and even the ones who don’t even believe in God all the more valuable (to us all). Pastor Kyle said this comes from, “Praying to get God’s ear and reading to gain God’s heart” as coined by theologian, Charles Spurgeon. Through all those things, Jesus does what Dustin Kensrue and Sam Carter sang about.. “pulling the fangs from my heel“… putting my “faith in more than steel.”

take a listen.

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

I was sitting at Culver’s with my roommate one night and I told him that I have this habit of hopping on the bandwagon of good music, late. As a result, I kick myself for a moment, thinking, “What have I been missing out on??” I say this, because I am catching onto The Lumineers kind of late… what have I been missing out on??! They’ve been a functioning band for the better part of a decade, using personal tragedy to write affectionate vingiettes that culminate in their debut self-titled album. Though I didn’t get too much into it aside form songs like Slow It Down, I appreciated The Lumineers knack for artful folk music. I heard a lot of buzz about their forthcoming sophomore LP, Cleopatra, so after hearing singles like Ophelia and the title track at my favorite coffee shop in Winona played on repeat, I intentionally sought this one out upon release.

Cleopatra is an effluent indie affair, buoyed by a sort of timeless soul that brings you back to smoky bars and rootsy Americana imagery strapped to leather boots, rumbling piano registers, and Wesley Schultz’ throaty vocals. This is a fun record and its accessibility gives a lot of replay value. I can’t stop nodding my head or wanting to belt out the chorus to Angela, bounce along to the dizzying piano arpeggio in Ophelia, and clap along to the stomp of the title track.12654337_10153292167941332_5061469366406380348_n Other songs like Gale Song, My Eyes, and Long Way From Home express a more musically stoic side to the band, settling for hollowed out lo-fi guitar tones that draw you into an intimate experience. Patience gently closes the record with a piano instrumental that fades into soft keys. I can best describe The Lumineers as an emotional storm in a teacup. Though, their songs have a lot of musical build up and strong lyrical imagery, it never reaches the point of being melodramatic. Overall, I feel this album is more subdued in its presentation than its predecessor and therefore makes it a more convincing and enjoyable listen for me. All of this is bolstered by effective production that captures the heart and soul of a sound that the band is aiming for. The echo chamber sounding vocals, subtle string accompaniments, and organic guitar tones make this record shine.

Though Cleopatra retreads recycled lyrical themes of young love, women, and relationships, the band finds a refreshingly innocent twist to such subject matter. They weave really dark narratives in between them, like on the title track. It’s almost like I’m watching film noir at the Sundance Film Festival.

Bottom line, go listen to this album if you need to feed the softer side to our musical soul. It’s an easy listen that I’m still sinking my teeth into.

 

Invent Animate – Stillworld

Modern, progressive metal is running out of original ideas. I hate saying it, but evidence of this is quantified by the new wave of records released from this subgenre this year. Though many of those albums are enjoyable and I actually like a lot of them, I’ve come to this conclusion that most of it is beginning to live in a shadow cast by its forerunners from the late 2000’s. But, if there is any sort of dying artistic breath from this renegade platoon of metal bands (other than Architects or Shokran), Invent, Animate does not go gentle into that goodnight.

I reviewed their debut album from Tragic Hero Records, Everchanger, last year. I especially liked how that album soldered ambient overtures from the likes of Helios with a Singularity era Northlane vibe and I still enjoy that album a lot. The good news is that their anticipated and well-received sophomore record, Stillworld, expands on a familiar formula from Everchanger that is further honed and perfected.13240590_1291634440857984_1190591693122597874_n Many, if not all of the same elements from Everchanger carry over to Stillworld, making this like a software update with a few tweaks to an already solid platform. Indigo kicks off this record…. absolutely insane! It touts some of the catchiest riffing, flows well between the soft and harsh passages, and in my opinion does the best job of stratifying Invent, Animate’s mission statement. Other tracks like Darkbloom and Soul Sleep showcase this juxtaposition from the insanely heavy to the suddenly calm and atmospheric, and White Wolf has by far the catchiest and most forward chorus/clean singing the band has written yet.

Lyrically, this album muses familiar territory from Everchanger – abstract allegories of faith, doubt, finding purpose, etc, but with that said, they’re written well and have some legitimately awesome lines to scream along to. Furthermore, I think this is a very well produced record and balanced record. The bass rumbles behind chugging guitars, the clean chromatic tapping comfortably coalesces with the rhythm, the drums are crisp, and the vocals are well placed.

I’m still head banging and power stomping my way through breakdowns and sweeping passages on this album and don’t anticipate putting it down any time soon!

 

King’s Kaleidoscope – Beyond Control

In my musical mind, King’s Kaleidoscope fit comfortably into a category of Contemporary Christian that follows in the lineage of Michael & Lisa Gungor, Rivers & Robots, Citizens & Saints, and Dustin Kensrue of Thrice – artists positioning themselves on the fringe of their own genre who craft honest, thoughtful, and transparent music reflective of their trials and triumphs in faith. If you’ve read this blog before, you might understand the stance I have on “Christian” music, but for the purpose of a good album like this, I don’t feel like that commentary is warranted.

Enter Kings Kaleidoscope.

I really didn’t have a lot of knowledge of this band outside of their former affiliation with Mars Hill Church in Seattle and (what I’m going to term as) their “dope-tastic” cover of In Christ Alone, but that was until I was tipped off to their new record, Beyond Control. My shotgun consensus…

Weird, but really good.

Upon first impression, this album feels like a B-side of experimental mastered material tossed into obscure cloud files and then sold as an extended play, but when you pay attention to the subtleties, Beyond Control is decorated with textured layers of soundscapes and shifts in style that still fit within a cohesive musical narrative. This album gives itself a lot of room to take some risks and because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, 13344507_1278219798878738_7414307795631577230_nthe band pulls off every stunt well. Out of the gate, A Resting Place sounds like organized orchestral chaos that I would find on the local classical station, but transitions into Enchanted, which sounds a bit like A Head Full of Dreams era Coldplay coalesced with the eccentric funk of John Mark McMillan’s Borderlands. Other songs like Lost? Strip away layers for a more simplified experience with acoustic guitars and orchestral synthesizers filling out the sound. Dust is a neo-jazz banger with an accompanying choir arrangement behind the chorus that captures the soul of traditional gospel music. In This Ocean Part 1 follows suit but has what I think are the catchiest melodies on this entire record. I think that speaks to the production of Beyond Control, because it is dense but not bloated. Even when this album reaches these bombastic moments in the arrangements, there’s enough variety and creativity in it all to make it justified.

Surprisingly, Friendship, is my highlight on Beyond Control. It’s a near three-minute instrumental interlude that’s led by piano, drums, and a French horn that swing you back and forth in a jazzy daze. Not only is the instrumental awesome, but throughout the track you hear members of the band commenting on cool licks made by the horn player, cracking jokes, laughing, and casually singing along with the melody. It’s playful. It’s a fun break in between what is otherwise a lyrically powerful (albeit vulgar at one point on A Prayer) sojourn through doubt, triumph and even social dejection from social media as discussed on Enchanted.

If you want to look up some wildly creative worship tunes that you can have some fun to, look no further… to quote the band from a moment in Friendship, “Whoah! That was sick!”

 

Explosions In the Sky – The Wilderness

People who know me best understand the love I have for this band and their ability to create moving, emotional oceans of nimble guitars, cathartically executed kettle drums, and crecendos reminiscent of classical movements that take you on a musical journey. If you’ve read this blog, then you’ve probably figured out why a record like The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place really needs no introduction. It will forever be a musical triumph that sits on my catalog’s throne. Now, their last full length album before The Wilderness was shockingly disappointing to me and in such a way that made me not even give that album a full listen. Maybe I’m being too hard on it and maybe it has to do with the fact that I place some of their earlier work with such high esteem, but it sounded like they were exhausting ideas and trying to pull you inwards to a more intimate atmosphere than before. In between albums, they have since written a few soundtracks, all of which showcased Explosions branching off into different soundscapes and experimentation all while still signing and sealing them with signature and familiar elements I know and love. I reviewed the first single, Disintegration Anxiety that showed off a distorted flurry of warped guitar tones and electronic sampling that caught me off guard at first, but was something I warmed up to over time. It felt like a breath of fresh air that I haven’t heard from a band in this genre in a while… and that’s the best way I can describe The Wilderness.

Fresh, but familiar.

Disintegration Anxiety is an appropriate sounding appetizer for an album laced with electronic filigrees, glitchy percussion, and a palate of different soundscapes. One of the best features of The Wilderness is that the band released a collection of still images captured by members and crew over the course of 17 years worth of writing, recording, and touring that inspired each of the nine tracks. Listening to these songs and pairing them with the images gives a more intimate view into the band’s imagination. For example, the opening track, Wilderness, is drawn from an image taken late night at an airport concourse in Europe with a focus on the gate sign reading, Austin. The band wrote about how it was a reminder that after being on tour, they were almost home. You can almost hear that sense of longing to return to their 12509094_10150599760549987_5072979378544854382_nroots when you reach the end of the track and hear a twinkling guitar loop that fades out to the end, reminiscent of their early work. Rather than crafting something with the flow of a classical piece like the rest of their discography, they wrote something more straightforward and spliced that still retains the same musical meta-narrative – much like different scenes in a film. Logic of a Dream reaches the most cathartic heights with these orchestral crecendos that sound like something off Hans Zimmer’s work in Interstellar, and Landing Cliffs ends the record hushed and spacey with atmospheric synths cradling gentle guitar chords.

This album had to grow on me, because it’s a sonic departure from albums that I’ve loved from the band. However, this new style they’ve embraced is in some ways even more emotional than other work. I don’t know how else to describe this, but I’ll end with a quote from Pitchfork writer, Brandon Stousy, about his thoughts on The Wilderness…

Because the group has done so much soundtracking, it’s difficult when listening to The Wilderness not to think of images that could go with these songs. Instead of making music for dramatic moments in football games, we’re getting sunsets you’ll remember a decade later, stumbling first kisses, half-heard car alarms during a comforting dream, that horribly unreal and frozen moment when you first hear a friend has died, walks alone at dusk, laying on your back and watching the constellations with the person you want to grow old with, the calm of seeing a loved one sleep. These songs feel personal. They tug at important moments.”