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53. Adam Again – Michael Omartian

June 7, 2011 7 comments

ADAM AGAIN (1976)

Michael Omartian

The artist with only four solo albums (as well as a couple with wife Stormie) may be responsible for the sale of more music than any artist in CCM. Between producing, performing and creating, Michael Omartian has been involved directly with albums that have sold a combined half a billion units!

Unlike many artists and producers in CCM, Omartian has been equally involved with both worlds of music consistently throughout his career. He was working with mainstream artists in the early 70’s as well as working with Barry McGuire and Second Chapter of Acts at the same time.

Omartian got his musical start as a part of Campus Crusade for Christ’s traveling musical group, The New Folk. But it wouldn’t be long before he was working with Steely Dan, Loggins and Messina and Rod Stewart. All the while he would earn a living as a top paid keyboardist performing with the best in the industry on both sides of the musical fence.

His first “group” was an instrumental band called Rhythm Heritage, best known for their television theme songs that spawned mega hits for the band. The first was the theme to the television show S.W.A.T. and the follow-up was the theme to Baretta, “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow.” the latter was sung by Sammy Davis Jr.

About the time Rhythm Heritage disbanded he began working with The Imperials, helping them create some of the finest music in the early CCM era. Albums like “One More Song for You” and “Priority” are true classics and both appear on this countdown.

But he also produced a couple great funk, soul and pop albums for the mainstream market that also found their way into the Christian market through a distribution deal with Myrrh records. Two of those albums appear on this list and there will be many who will argue that this one in particular could just as easily be listed significantly higher. I have spent the last several days listening to the album over and over and I am inclined to agree with that sentiment. The album is really that good.

The album is meticulously produced with some of the finest musicians on the planet directly involved. The credit lists reads like a who’s who in both Christian and mainstream music worlds. It’s important to remember that this was released in 1976 and was not “behind the times” like many “pop music” releases in the christian market, and was actually right in line with what was happening musically with the funk and soul influences combined with pop and the early strains of disco influenced white dance music and string arrangements.

Themes are just as “Christian” as anything in Jesus Music at the time, but Omartian avoided the normal “buzz words” associated with the genre. His goal was to create music with a Christian worldview that would be challenging and exhorting to Christians without alienating any listening audience.

The album features the work of Dean Parks, Larry Carlton, Ernie Watts and Lee Ritenour. Serious music aficionados would be impressed with just a guest appearance from any of those listed let along all of them appearing on one project. For those not as informed about studio and jazz musicians, these guys are the bomb; the very, very best in the world. And it shows on the project. Add to that the fact that Omartian belongs right with them on the list and it is no wonder why this project is so highly regarded.

The album leads off with “Ain’t You Glad,” a straight ahead pop rock number with a great groove and obviously built for radio success. This is as good a time as any to note that Omartian is more than just a musician and producer, he is quite a gifted vocalist, especially for the musical style and the era in which this album came out. White man soul filled with big choruses and monster backing vocals. Fans of Steely Dan will find quite a bit to like here.

The funky, keyboard driven “No Matter What Shape You’re In” follows with another monster hook and great, uplifting message about love and support to those around us. The horn section add a perfect, Chicago-like soulful vibe.

“See This House” slows things down a bit with a sadder and more contemplative message. Omartian sings of the need to let others into our lives. He uses the image of a beautiful house high on a hill, that is dirty and broken down inside, though the outside it stunning.

Some don’t care for “Whachersign” as much as I do…I love it! This is pure mid-70’s pre-disco era white man funk. It’s fun and groovy, that borders on cheesy, with a little “Love Boat” theme song creeping in. It matches perfectly the lyrics that ridicule the “pick up line” regarding astrology, especially popular in the 70’s. It was the age of Aquarius remember. Omartian puts on his most gaudy lurex, polyester jacket and croons about not needing to get to know anyone, just their “sign” to know if they have a future.

“Annie the Poet” is beautiful tribute to Jesus Music’s first and possibly only true poet laureate, Annie Herring of Second Chapter of Acts. During the 60’s and 70’s young people were constantly seeking truth and revelation amongst the arts, especially music and poetry. Followers of Jim Morrison (The Doors) and Bob Dylan would hang onto every word from their “gods” in search of intellectual and spiritual revelations. All the while a sweet little poet submerged into the Christian subculture of Jesus Music was offering the real truth. The song has a Van Morrison type calypso type feel, almost progressive at times with a great big chorus. A really loving and beautiful tribute.

While side one is more pop and soul oriented, with a real focus on more radio ready tunes, side two returns to the more progressive style found initially on White Horse. The side open with an instrumental “(Telos Suite) Prelude” and it sets the tone for side two. Progressive with a classical influence, the song has touches of Kansas and early Styx instrumentals, and much too short.

This immediately bleeds into “Alive and Well,” the best cut on the whole album. Progressive and rocking from start to finish, this is song broke down barriers in CCM like no other at the time. There is more than a nod to the more rock oriented Chicago sound here and just as good. Omartian appears inspired vocally on the song as his vocals match the more progressive sound and energy.

The song is about the Devil, who was apparently Alive and Well in and living in Los Angeles at the time. Unlike other more humorous tales and tunes about the Devil, here the man in the red suite is seen through his evil and destructive actions in Hollywood and the music world.But he also realizes his judgment is nigh.

Progressive jazz infused with the rock make it a completely unique song for the Christian world. The horn section inspired by the progressive jazz melody lets loose here and really drives this song. If this was the only song of note, it would still be listed amongst this list.

A short break between songs lead the listener right into the title track. Mellower, but no less “rock” in style, “Adam Again” is the response to the temptation the Devil presents in the previous song. The song tells the story of a young bride that is having doubts about the fidelity of her husband. The suspicions are not unfounded as we find the husband at a bar contemplating an indiscretion. But both want to return to their days oh marital happiness, but not knowing how to do it. They desire to return to the garden and be Adam again. Sad, but powerful.

The album closes with the six-minute epic, progressive rock number dealing with the coming of Christ, “Here He Comes.” As dealt with exhaustively throughout this blog, the topic of the second Coming and Rapture (especially the dominant Dispensational view” was the single most popular topic for musicians in the Jesus Music era. But few expressed the topic in such a wonderful and artistic way.

Classical and progressive, with a dull compliment of instrumentation, time signature changes and huge choral vocals. very uplifting and powerful. The chorus is reminiscent of a Second Chapter of Acts melody. Few have duplicated the this song for taking a musical expression and having it perfectly match the content while remaining completely current.

There is not a throw away on the entire project, and it withstands the test of time significantly better than most albums from that time period. The production is brilliant and miles ahead of its contemporaries. Simply brilliant!

56. Tribal Opera – iDEoLA

June 2, 2011 11 comments

TRIBAL OPERA (1987)

iDEoLA (Mark Heard)

On Mark Heard “Stop the Dominoes” the poet lamented…

I’m too sacred for the sinners
And the saints wish I would leave

But this was not supposed to be the case for Heard working under the pseudonym iDEoLA on the newly created What? Records  in 1987. This was to be a label dedicated to allow Christian artist the free expression to write and perform what they wanted and would include a strong relationship with mainstream counterpart A&M to market, distribute and promote the releases to the mainstream radio and record market. Label mates Tonio K. and Dave Perkins were perfect fits for this type of fledgling project. But unfortunately for all involved (including the consumer) the dreams never truly  materialized.

But what we are left with, though, is one the best singular recordings in CCM. This is one of the few releases in this countdown by an artist with only one release. Of course with iDEoLA that isn’t quite accurate as the mastermind and singular performer is the late Mark Heard.

Musically this was quite a departure for Heard as his previously releases were acoustic or electric driven folk, rock and blues. But like Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwod Mac), to whom Heard is often compared, he felt free as an artist to expand his musical horizons while remaining true to his core, which is songwriting. There will be many who will disagree, but I am firmly convinced that Mark Heard was the very best songwriter in Christian Music and rivaled the very best in all of music including Bruce Cockburn, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan.

Musically this is electric and eclectic. Both world music and rock and roll. Samples, steel drum sounds, electronic bass and both acoustic and electric guitars. The comparisons to the aforementioned Lindsey Buckingham and Peter Gabriel are fair and complimentary. But hidden within the punctuated production and world rhythms are some of Heard’s finest lyrics and melodies.

In a musical format not noted for deeper thoughts of the human condition Heard starts, “I Am an Emotional Man,” a transparent revelation that beneath the image, guitars and sample machines is a man with emotions that are out of step with the accepted 1980′s facades.

in the primal jungle streets
where the sky is smothered
two-legged creatures breathe and eat
bruising one another

i wish i’d never been told
that the species has souls

i am an emotional man
emotional man with obsolete tears
i guess i’m just an emotional man
emotional man with out-of-place feelings

The first, and I believe, only pop radio single follows with “Is It Any Wonder.” I remember hearing the single months before the album came out and there was some sort of contest to “guess” who the artist behind the band was. I was working at a large Christian Bookstore at the time and won the contest. I always assumed there weren’t too many Christian Bookstore workers that knew who Mark Heard was.

It made sense to make this tune the first single as it is clearly the most accessible and pop driven tune. It was almost like the first time I heard Springsteen’s, “Dancing in the Dark.” It was a folk/Americana rocker placed on top of a straight dance beat. But somehow it worked. But unlike Springsteen, Heard actually had something worth saying.

i had a dream, it was a mystery
i dreamed of science and of history
i dreamed that since we stood up out of the dust
we formed our words on lips of beauty and trust
i should’ve known better than that
i should’ve known better than that
everything looks different in the morning

is it any wonder
is it any wonder
is it any wonder we dare to live in our dreams

“Watching the Ships Go Down” laments the world of failing love and true lack of real attachment in intimate and emotional relationships. This sense of isolation that pervades society is under the microscope as Heard denotes:

take each other for granted
it’s only love we tell ourselves
it’s only emotion
untamed as any ocean
with the wind at our backs
and time on our side
breakers crashing on rocks
we assume that we’ll survive

watching the ship go down

the percussive rhythms of “Talk to Me” are hypnotic as the repetitive chorus. One of the most “tribal” songs on the album, but male backing vocal choir in the verses is set against the hard and staccato solo voice of Heard.

“Go Ask the Dead Man” continues to be a personal favorite. This also infuses the American rock rhythm and African chanting call and response as it lyrically depicts the struggles of seeking answers to life’s great questions. But the answers given are like the blind leading the blind unless one asks the right person.

The two most highly thought of songs kick off the second half of the project. The first, “Love is Bigger Than Life” is one of the most upbeat songs on the album, both musically and lyrically. The driving tribal beat mixes with a memorable chorus to accentuate Heard’s best vocals. One may even mistake it for a “love song.”

it can bite you like a snake
joy most poisonous
it can stalk you like a ghost
quieter than air
it can shake you when you wake
arrow to the heart
it can change you while you sleep
slowly but surely

heartbeats drown out the weather
two hearts beat better and better

The albums central theme and lyrical center is “How To Grown Up Big and Strong.” This song has been covered by several artists and deservedly so. It may ranks as one of Heard’s best compositions.

strong man strangle universe
he drown the stars
blinded by the mission of a thousand wars
he fit and dominant
not wonder why
he love the battlecry

strong man is survivor
he live to pound
little wooden crosses in the bloody ground
he fit and dominant
he stand a chance
he not bow to circumstance

and the world keep on turning
and the sun keep on burnring
and the children keep learning
how to grow up big and strong

I remember going to a Christian Nightclub in Orange County back when this album was released. Heard performed to a crowd that was completely unfamiliar with his music except for myself and a few of my friends. This was a crowd more interested in Chris Eaton, Leon Patillo, Kim Boyce and Russ Taff and simply did not get what Heard was doing. That was until he performed “Everybody Dances.”  Of course they had no idea what they were dancing to and the songs lyrics flew several feet above the meat market ceiling, but in the wry Mark Heard way, he played it three times during his set.

The album finishes with two more songs regarding the human condition. “Why Can’t We Just Say No” looks at those who move forward toward an inevitable end and apparently do nothing to change their direction. “Hold Back the Tears” expresses the frustration of a society that simply does not allow transparency for fear of rejection or persecution.

It should be noted here just how stellar the production of this project. It was easily one of the finest produced albums for its time and still sound sonically strong.

Despite the electronic and manufactured feel of the project musically it lyrically carries the stamp of the raw emotion connected to the struggles of the human condition. In fact, it is these raw and very personal lyrics couched within a very artificial setting that makes them so impacting and worthy of our attention.

57. Shotgun Angel – Daniel Amos

June 2, 2011 4 comments

SHOTGUN ANGEL (1977)

Daniel Amos

Terry Taylor populates this list more than any other artist. His most important and famous incarnation is as lead singer, songwriter and personality that drives the classic band Daniel Amos. There are a total of eight Daniel Amos project included here and many will complain that the number is not enough.

After a straight ahead country debut, Taylor and Company entered the studio with an ambitious desire to create a pop record that was also a concept record. What emerged from those sessions remains a classic from the Jesus Music era and possibly one of the most important album in the history of CCM.

It is impossible to avoid any comparison’s to the Eagles given the musical composition and vocal styling. But there is as much of a nod to the Beach Boys, ELO and the Beatles as to the Eagles here. There is also several hints as to the future rock and alternative musical direction the band would take. The album stands out for a unique combination of straight ahead Jesus Music on side one and a full rock music concept album on side two with no breaks between songs.

Jonathan David Brown was at the production helm for this album, as well as the obvious presence of a strong vision cast by Taylor and the band. Few Christian albums at the time possessed such stellar production, unique creativity and complete and utter abandonment to the art. From the album cover to the final note there is little to complain about here.

How great is the album really? Well consider I consider it one of my all time personal favorites despite disagreeing with nearly every single idea and ideology expressed on side two.

Maranatha Music would release this album and there was a direct connection to Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel and the eschatological ideas that populate side two as well as several songs on side one. In fact, Frontline Records released side two as a special reworked concept album called “Revelation” that included one new song, enhanced production and the inclusion of reading from the book of Revelation by Pastor Chuck Smith.

But the album would also prove to be one of the last recording for a rock band on Maranatha as the label would soon shift directions to children’s and worship music.

The album kicks off with “Days and Nights” a slight country feeling number with more in common with Poco and other California country/rock bands. The longing to be with a loved one while doing what one is called to do is a constant struggle and strain as revealed here.

With no break between songs, a much more country “Black Gold Fever” reveals a more humorous approach to the country music sound. In fact, a few songs similar will find its way onto later albums like Alarma and the Lost Dogs releases. This is “hoedown” western music.

Once again there is only a limited fraction of a second between numbers as “Praise Song” changes the musical landscape drastically. The Beach Boy type vocals accompany a beautiful praise song, but one much darker than one would expect at the time.

One of the real classic from the era is “Father’s Arms.” This is pure ELO, complete with brilliant and creative string arrangements and guitar styling. No band harmonized like Daniel Amos during that era as the whole band participated. Taylor really began branching out musically and lyrically here with some brilliant changes and the ability to take a common Christian theme and weave twists and challenges into them.

“Meal” is just odd. The song actually may have been, in some ways, a bit ahead of its time. If there was actually ever a time for such a unique time. But it would have never caused an eye to blink on a Swirling Eddies album.

Side one closes with the title track, which is actually a cover tune of sorts. the song was written by Bill Sprouse Jr., who had fronted the Jesus Music band, Road Home throughout the early and mid 70’s. Sprouse had passed away right before the recording and Taylor loved the song and it was a perfect fit for the band and the album. The song is easily one of the top 10 Jesus Music songs of all time, with few competitors ranking ahead of it.

But the song is purely an Eagles tune from the music to the vocals. But the Eagles comparisons would begin to lose veracity come side two.

The popularity of rapture fever, a soon coming Antichrist and the accompanying Great tribulation was at a peak in the late 70’s, well before the popularity of the Left Behind book series. Based on some unique understanding of Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse and its connection to the nation of Israel becoming a nation, it was believed the 70’s was the terminal decade.

As a result, there was an intense amount of proclamation and distribution of “Rapture Ready” materials with an exclusive and particular bent to it at the time. Side two of this project is the musical equivalent of a Rapture Gospel tract based on the Dispensational understanding of the “end times.” But it is so beautifully crafted, stunningly performed and brilliantly conceived that no differences in positions can detract from singing its praises.

The side is one long rock-opera that is joined together with some brilliant string arrangements and the constant theme. the melodies that would populate the side of woven through the Classical string instrumental into called “Finale: Bereshith Overture.” Like the introit to a musical or play, the song serves as a musical expression or hint as to what is to come. The name itself means the beginning or before the beginning and speaks to the everlasting nature and plan of God through Jesus Christ.

“Lady Goodbye” pictures the rapture of the church only (this is the Dispensational model) and relates it to both Revelation 4 and 12. The song is lush and beautiful piano and string driven number that works well on its one without the rest of the songs on the side. The song builds throughout and one gets the feeling that there was some serious listening to The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper while recording this.

“The Whistler” speaks to the coming tribulation now that the church has been taken away. The sounds interwoven are dark and doomsday like. This is purposeful as the beginning pains of the tribulation are approaching. There are only two verses, and short ones at that, as the musical expression carries the mood. We are introduced to a devil and the idea of the four horsemen and Babylon, God’s enemy.

This devil character is revealed to be the antichrist as “He’s Gonna Do a Number On You” reflects the popular understanding a “mark” that accompanies the coming of the beast or antichrist. More ELO type rock here as the main character (antichrist) becomes the popular political leader he is presumed to be. This song, more than any other, would be a perfect fit on Horrendous Disc.

The lock step marching sound of “next, next, next” moves into the more funky “Better.” The lost around during the time believe it is a time of peace and prosperity that the antichrist will supposedly bring with him. There is a delusion cast upon the world as they embrace this utopian, cashless society. Great grooves abound on the number and the guitar work gets heavier as it continues. It also features some of drummer Ed McTaggert’s finest work on the album.

The sound of a cash register (circa the 1970’s) is the last sound before a beautiful string arrangement introduces “Sail Me Away.” Musically similar to “Lady Goodbye,” here the sailing away is a longing and hopeful cry of repentance from one who now realized the truth as the previously discussed events were contained in his dream. This song of hopeful repentance is musically juxtaposed to the previous few rock raucous numbers accompanying the tribulation and antichrist. Not overly subtle, but brilliantly conceived.

Technically the rock-opera concludes with the previous song, but the album concludes with “Posse in the Sky.” Not directly connected to the previous songs through the string arrangement, it is the summation of the side as the lyrics serve as a warning of the soon coming rapture of the church and the warning to not be left behind.It is a song of tribulation and judgment presented in a pop country hit.

This would also be the last time anyone could compare the band to the Eagles as the following album would shed any comparisons.

Brilliantly conceived, meticulously produced and phenomenally performed, the album is a must have for any real collector of Jesus Music or for anyone that may want to understand the era better from both a musical and theological stand point.

 

58. The Secrets of Time – Charlie Peacock

June 2, 2011 2 comments

THE SECRET OF TIME (1990)

Charlie Peacock

While managing Maranatha Village I would receive a phone call the beginning of each month from Charlie Peacock asking me if I needed anymore of the cassettes of West Coast Diaries Vol 1. That helped strike up a friendship. But there was often several years in between conversations. In fact, the most recent conversation I recall was after a Sunday Morning service in Colorado Springs where Charlie had performed the offertory for the Church I was attending.

I obviously love a lot of different music and because of connections over the years with many, if not most, of the artist that fill up this countdown, I am not very starstruck. But when it comes to Charlie Peacock…I am a dumb fan! I just love what he does and will find buying albums that he produces even if I don’t care for the artist.

When Exit was just starting out I was invited by label head Mary Neely to a concert in Hollywood with Steve Taylor and this new band Exit was releasing called Vector. What I remembered the most about that evening was this bouncy keyboardist that seemed to play with one hand while dancing with the other in that classic 80′s swinging of the arms sort of way. Mary gave me a copy of their album advance that night and I immediately noticed the unique vocals on the songs sung be that keyboardist. They would become my favorites.

Not that much later Mary invited me out the LA one more time for a convert of Exit artists as they were looking to sign a mainstream distribution deal. The line-up included Robert Vaughan and the Shadows  (discussed previously), the 77′s, a new, revamped Vector and that keyboardist, Charlie Peacock. I left that evening with a blank tape advanced copy of a record called “Lie Down in the Grass.”

WOW!

It was several years between the release of “Lie Down” and the Sparrow release on which we will focus, “The Secret of Time.” In between was a self titled album on Island records that still has two of my favorite Charlie Peacock songs, “Message Boy” and “Down in the Lowlands.” The latter would be covered by Russ Taff on his wonderful Russ Taff project. The “Charlie Peacock” seemed to come and go without even a notice, but the mainstream Christian debut, “Th Secret of Time” would make Charlie Peacock a mainstay in Christian music, whether the artist ever intended things to be that way.

“The Secret of Time” combines reworking of several songs from the West Coast Diaries series along with new songs. It may end of being Peacocks most consistent project with jazz, funk and acoustic/alternative all performed with pop sensibilities and Charlie’s unforgettable, breathy vocals. Though the following album, Love Life, would contain Peacock’s biggest hit, “In the Light,” it was TSOT that contained his most memorable collection songs, though not his best overall effort (much later for that).

“Big Man’s Hat” kicks off the project with a funky, driving bass and a killer groove. The struggles of arrogance and pride and their detrimental results are the focus of the song, which showcases Peacock’s wonderful ability to twist a phrase.

I thought I had to talk like a fool
I thought I had to drink like a goldfish
I thought I had to lie like a dog, I was one sick cat
Was all this because I wore a big man’s hat?

This struggle with the flesh shows itself in the way in which we approach others, especially those we love. This is true to Peacock as he sings:

You got to have big man’s thoughts
To make a big man’s girl
And when I finally made that girl, she did not have a clue
That I would break her like a matchstick
That I could turn young love into the third world war
That I’d sit in the seat where the devil had sat
Was all of this because I wore a big man’s hat?

“The Way of Love” looks at real love, the kind described in 1 Corinthians 13. Set to a lighter, jazz influence groove with swirling keyboards and a constant driving acoustic guitar. The song also features some great vocals by the late Vince Ebo.

Love is patient, love is kind
That’s the kind of love that you give me all the time
I like a love that keeps no record of wrongs
Loves me when I’m good, loves me when I’m not
I know whether night or day
I’ll be waiting for the moment just to hear you say
This is the way of love, this is the way of love

The acts of selfless and sacrificial love are described in “One Thing,” and very radio friendly pop ballad with a breezy jazz groove.

I would lay down my life for YOU
Take YOUR pain and bear the weight of it
I would fight for you that you might live
I would think by now that it’s understood
I would die for you, oh, you know I would

A very nice sax solo leads the instrumental break before the final chorus where Peacock’s breathy, Simply Red type vocals take over as the song drives to a conclusion.

The song closest to the early Charlie Peacock sound is “Put the Love Back Into Love.”  The topic here is purity and fidelity and the consequences to individuals and a culture when purity is ignored.

Sometimes he tries to imagine
What it would have been like
To be pure in heart, to be innocent
On his wedding night
Looking back he had no idea
All that he gave away

But rather than simply bemoaning the loss of innocence and purity, Peacock sees the hope for future generation as he pleas for a more Biblical approach.

Maybe this will be the generation
That will set their minds on the things above
If they set their minds on these heavenly things
Then they’ve got a chance to
Put the love back into love

The story here is of a man who  through negligence or particular acts almost drives true love away. This may be the most personal song on the project as it gives a glimpse into the background and life the artist. There is a sense of hope even as the subject tries to justify their actions through self-delusion.

Through some clever thinking and a strong imagination
I could twist the truth into any configuration
And find myself doing things
That I never dreamed I could do

 

I’ve know the kind of pain
Where you can’t catch your breath
You sat if this is life
Then please bring me death
Thank God that that wish I made never ever came true

“Almost Threw It All Away” has been a long time favorite among Peacock fans. The mid tempo ballad with the most unforgettable chorus expresses the love someone else had in Peacock. Relationship, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, are in danger of collapse when they are not worked at. The vocal bridge performed by Ebo and Peacock is worth the price of admission as the song becomes a Gospel delight.

It is sometimes easy to forget amidst the brilliant musical performances and unparallelled songwriting, that Peacock’s unique voice is really stunning. This is never more evident than on this song.

The title track is the most musically unique and creative. It’s funky, groovy and in a constant flux. Few artists can combine funk, soul, world music and progressive jazz into a flawless and seamless melody. Peacock can.

“Dear Friend” ended up being one of the biggest hits from the project as it discusses the patience of God as He waits for all that are His to come to faith before His return.

Dear friends He is not slow in keeping His promises
As some understand slowness to be
Keep a watch out, don’t lose faith, He said He would come for you
He’s gonna come for you, you wait and see

One of Peacock’s prettiest songs follows with “Heaven Is a Real Place.” It does sound like something that would have worked on the Island album and possesses a great chorus that should have garnered more radio success. But like many songs on the album Peacock’s experimentation lent itself to 5 and 6 minute numbers, which are the death knell to radio success.

I have always argued that “Drowning Man” may be Peacock’s finest song. Not just musically, but lyrically here Peacock began to explore is future theological leanings with hope and reverence. The songs is simple in its performance and complex in its ideas. That juxtaposition makes it utterly unique.

The album concludes with the funk driven lesson in apologetics, “Experience.” Peacock discusses the struggle between knowing something as fact and knowing it as true. These are questions of faith, doubt, Scripture, philosophy and how the Lord works with these differing factors to draw men to Him. This appears to be an early clue to Peacock’s later Reformed theology leanings and deeper doctrinal understandings.

There is a difference, a qualitative difference
Between what I know as a fact, and what I know as truth
It stands as a great divide to separate by thinking
From when I’m thinking foolishly and when I’ve understood

The facts of theology can be altogether cold
Though true in every way they alone can’t change me
Truth is creative, transforming and alive
it’s truth that keeps me humble, saved and set free

We can only possess what we experience

Peacock for the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit to  infiltrate the soul of a man and provide the necessary faith to embrace the truths presented.

Straight up honesty, that’s my obligation
That’s the point when I obey the truth without hesitation
When faith gains consent of my stubborn will
And makes the irreversible commitment real
To the Jesus of my journey, to the Christ of crucifixion,
Resurrection and redemption, to the Father of mercy,
To the God of all comfort
Then and only then, then and only then,
Then and only then, truth begins its
Saving and illuminating work within the heart
And not a moment sooner, not one moment sooner

Artist, author, theologian, innovator, producer, songwriter. Charlie Peacock is all of this and more. The term artist is thrown around quite loosely, but he is one that truly deserves the title.

59. Der Kommisar: The CBS Recordings – After the Fire

June 2, 2011 4 comments

DER KOMMISAR: THE CBS RECORDINGS

  

LASER LOVE (1979)        80-F (1980)                    BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED (1982)

After The Fire (ATF)

I will admit from the outset that the inclusion of this particular is a bit unfair, but I am including the entire discography of After the Fire under one title because it is the only way any ATF music has been released on CD other than a similarly named Best Of compilation that was terribly mastered. And since the only title ever released in the U.S. was actually just a “best of” compilation including this incredible band under these circumstances seems justified. I will primarily focus songs that were on the original U.S. title and other key songs.

After floundering for many years as a “prog” band in the UK sounding more like Genesis and Yes then anything like the music contained on this collection, a young guitarist named Andy Piercy joined the group and things changed. Piercy was one half of the popular British Christian duo Ishmael and Andy. They recorded one project together that I am familiar with. Though Piercy was a member of the more progressive band, he would later show his more pop leanings in songs written for the bands new formation.

Another key addition was after the departure of bassist Nick Battles, John Russell joining the band on guitar and Piercy moving to bass. Russell played a more punk pop style guitar with faster hooks that played perfectly into founder and keyboardists Peter Banks’ musical direction. Several drummers would work their way through the bands line-up over the years, though most notable was Ivor Twydell, who released three Christian album after leaving under the name Iva Twydell. Twydell has since converted to Buddhism.

For trivia’s sake it should be noted that the other half of the group, Ishmael and Andy, went on to record a wonderful ska/punk project under the name Ishmael United entitled “If You Can’t Shout You’ll Have to Face the Penalty” discussed previously.

With the changes in line-up came the changes in direction of the band as they began to morph from a prog rock band to a more synth driven new wave. This also brought with it an even stronger evangelical Christian influence though the entire band (at least the core members) were Christians all well. Their faith was quite clear on many of the their songs like Laser Love, One Rule for You and Take Me Higher.

Ironically to American audience they are simply known as the band that did the English version of Der Kommisar. The true irony is that the band had pretty much broken up by the time that song soared to the top of the charts in the U.S. The often confusing song was a cover of a Falco tune sung originally in German. The anti-drug song became the only hit in the U.S. for the band despite having significantly more success in Europe and the UK.

“Der Kommisar” never appeared on any official ATF album. It’s lone appearance was on the one ATF album released in the US, which was simply a best of with “Der Kommisar” added.

LASER LOVE

The debut (of sorts) kicks off with one of the bands most popular numbers and immediately presented the new musical direction. Electronic sounds, heavy on keyboards and a more static and fast paced guitar riff sound, the band was the definition of new wave.

Your love is like a laser burning right into my life
You knowing my weaknesses you cut me like a knife
You’re separating all the wrong things from the right

With strong melodies, creative keyboards and new wave Euro vocals the song is immediately likable. And though, like the lyrics above, the majority of content is not deep or overly creative that vibe and joy expressed throughout ATF’s music make them a wonderfully enjoyable listen. But the reader be warned, this is true euro new wave with all the glitz, glam and sugary pop hooks one can muster. But hidden within the simple lyrics and memorable hooks are some very well crafted pop tunes.

“Joy” follows with what would become an ATF hallmark; the quirky, high energy instrumental. I remember local radio stations using ATF’s instrumentals as background music for commercials as they presented a high energy and fun background without a general familiarity as to draw attention away from the actual verbiage in the commercial. The instrumentals, especially the one here, tended to be more keyboard driven.

“Take Me Higher” is a personal favorite and seems a little bit like an SAT test with all the comparing and contrasting going on.

I am a minute and you are an hour
I am a room and you are a tower
I am a motion and you are the power, you are the power
I am a word and you are the line
I am a poem and you are the rhyme
I am a watch and you are the time you are time

You make my life worth living, you set this world on fire n’ just
When I think its over, you take me higher, you take me higher

Sung about as quickly as one can possibly enunciate, the live version (available n this double disc) is pure energy. And really that’s what ATF brought to their music, a certain energy that was infectious, enjoyable and just plain fun. They even included several instrumentals on their projects showing that the former prog band never lost their musical chops. My introduction to ATF was actually the liver version of this song as it was a regular song on the “rock” show on KYMS radio.

“Life in the City” continues in the pop hit making while “Suspended Animation” has a more Gary Numan odd feel to it. In fact, there is a little David Bowie there that sets it apart from the normal pop arrangements that fill the rest of the album.

“Like the Power of Jet” sounds suspiciously like “Take Me Higher” musically with a drastically different vocal line. The end result is a song that can be forgotten but shouldn’t be.

The highlight of the album, and possibly the bands finest effort, is “One Rule For You.” Carrying the same theme as David Edwards’ “Commercial Suicide,” the band bemoans the fact that an artist can discuss nearly any subject, including religious affiliation, unless that religion is Christianity. The rejection of the Christian theme on pop radio is not a new phenomenon. The mid-tempo pop number shows exactly how a keyboard driven song should be performed and arranged. Great vocals here as well.

Oddly enough their biggest hit in the UK is actually a song about how an artist can sing about any subject and receive radio airplay until that same artist writes a song about their Christian faith. This truth extended into the public square and how all topics are free game except for Christianity.

They say believe in what you like as long as you can keep it to yourself
I say if what I know is right, it’s wrong if I don’t tell somebody else
What kind of line is that you’re giving me
One Rule for you, one rule for me

The band returns to The Knack type pop rock with “Time to Think.” There are also touches on the Romantics and The baby’s here as well. Vocals are shared here and the diversity helps. Nice guitar touches help propel the song.

Every time I hear the instrumental “Timestar” I think Eddie DeGarmo must have been a fan. Not because of the musical arrangement, but the quirky keyboard sounds that would later appear on D&K albums during their “keyboard” era.

“Check It Out” closes the album with a pure infectious romp that must have been a blast live. I can imagine the live crowd screaming out the chorus while pogo-ing and bopping throughout the hall. A false ending and quick return only adds to the energy level.

80-F

CBS originally rejected the initial version of this album and this caused a shake-up in the band with some departures and new additions, most notable the addition of The Flys drummer Peter King. Some of the changes are said to have been more “pop” songs lyrically and a toned down spirituality.

The second album kicks off with another instrumental, the title track. More guitar oriented than most of the other instrumentals, the song is fantastic. I doubt a band could get away with this today.

One of my all time favorite ATF songs follows with “Love Will Always Make You Cry.” One of the few songs that are clearly not aimed for christian radio, but for mainstream consumption, it possesses such a great bridge and hook that it comes to mind by just hearing the title.

“Can You Face It” sounds way too much like other ATF songs that it just doesn’t stand out on its own, while the following song, “Whose Gonna Love You (When You’re Old, Fat and Ugly)” sounds like nothing else in the bands repertoire. The mean title belies a humorous indictment against selfish, self-centered and egotistical people.

“Starflight” is almost an instrumental. though it contains a clear verse/chorus structure, the lyrics are limited and the story is told brilliantly through the musical arrangement. One gets the feeling of flight through space as the lyrics describe the Rapture (?).

“Wild West Show” is quirky and fun and “Billy, Billy” is the best rock offering in the bands catalog. The former looks at life as though we are all actors on a stage, while the latter describes the impact on ones life when rock star status is reached. “Billy, Billy” feels real, as though the band is talking from experience. The song describes a former bandmate that “makes it” and changes to a point where he doesn’t even recognize his old friends.

“High Fashion” continues the constant theme of the dangers of falling for the world’s traps of power, money and fame. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” is reminiscent of “Check It Out” and sounds like a concert and album closer. But the album actually closes with “Joanna,” a song that really stands out for sounding more like Queen and very little like ATF.

BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED

Many argue Batteries Not Included is the best of the three albums and i really can’t disagree. There are so many great songs on this album and a growth in songwriting.

“Short Change” kicks off the album with a song I’m sure was meant for radio success that didn’t materialize. Fun and poppy, but perhaps too much like previous hits.

“Frozen Rivers” is a great example of the growth of the band musically and lyrically. There is much more going on here than in much of the bands history, with a great chorus and fine tuned lyrical approach. A cold heart is likened to a frozen river that never reaches the sea.

“Sometimes” is a personal favorite and always reminded me of the best pop rock from the Knack. What from the initial listen sounds like a fun rockin’ love song is actually a tune about God’s unending love and His refusal to let us go. The best guitar work of any ATF song.

“Sailing Ship” is the closest the band gets to its previous incarnation, with the big drums, slow, building arrangement and obscure vocals. Very Genesis like here, but works well within the new direction as a slower paced new wave song with prog leanings.

One song that should have been a hit was “I Don’t Understand Your Love.” In the vein of “Billy, Billy,” the song just has radio written all over it, but perhaps a few years too late.

“The Stranger” is really a nod to their progressive roots. Dark and mysterious musically and an odd, spoken word verse structure and processed, off-beat, choir-like vocals in the chorus really makes the song a stand out, if only for its attempt at originality.

“Rich Boys” follows with what we expect from ATF. Great groove and fun and memorable chorus. Once again the world of popularity and fame is critiqued. There was a great 12 inch dance version of this song released.

Like the previous “Sailing Ship,” the song “Carry Me Home” covers similar ground musically with a touch the Genesis sound the spaceship like imagery.

One of the great travesty’s in the bands history is that they broke up before the US had a chance to discover them. I recall hearing “Dancing in the Shadows” and just wondering how this song was not a number one hit. It was a minor hit when CBS released the “best of” project and released it as a follow up to “Der Kommisar.” This song also had a great 12 inch dance remake released.

Continuing with the space theme is “Space Walking,” nearly an instrumental, but some limited vocals. But the vocals are mixed so far back that they are impossible to really decipher and sound more like the instrumentation than like a lead vocal. Mostly forgettable.

“Gina” is an odd little tune. Last just 1:30, it tells the story of a young girl lost with just a keyboard accompaniment.

“Stuck in Paris (Nowhere to Go)” and “Bright Lights” close with a similar rock driven edge that one would have hoped was the musical growth direction the band would take in future releases. But, instead, they would be the last songs recorded by the band.

The inclusion of all three album here under the CBS Recordings title is listed here as an average of where I would have placed the three albums separately. One of the titles would have been listed higher, another lower and one about at this point, so listing this title here represents an overage of the three releases.

There have been occasional reunions, reworked singles and concerts over the last several years. The fanbase has actually grown larger over the years as new generations discover this great British pop band. Their history is nearly legendary for a band that can’t lay claim to all that many hits or best-selling albums.

There have been a few reunion shows over the years including a famous “standing room only” performance at the world-famous Greenbelt festival in 2004. The band is primarily fronted by Russell and Banks.

Andy Piercy has ultimately made the greatest impact on the Christian Music scene. In fact Piercy has been more important to the growth of CCM’s most popular format of music than possibly any other artists though many fans have no idea who he is. As the leading proponent, producer and developer of modern worship talent in the UK Piercy is responsible for introducing to the marketplace artist like Split Level, Delirious and Matt Redman. He was one of the originators of the famous Soul Survivor worship conferences.

60. Warrior – Jerusalem

June 2, 2011 10 comments

WARRIOR (1982)

Jerusalem

The very first time I ever saw the Swedish rock quartet Jerusalem live was at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa during one of their famous Saturday Night concerts. I remember being able to see from where I sat the Pastor for the evening steaming and freaking out back stage as the Ulf Christianson, lead singer and guitarist, walked up and down the aisles of the main sanctuary yelling “You are Sodom. America is Sodom. The Church is Sodom!”

I went to hundreds of Calvary concerts during my musical formative years and that remains one of the very few that I can remember nearly in its entirety, along with David Edwards, Resurrection Band, the debut of the Lifesavors and the 77′s concert that got the group banned from playing at the Saturday Night concerts. Jerusalem was touring to support their newest rock collection at that time, Warrior. Like the album itself, the night rocked!

The first two releases from Jerusalem, creatively titled Volume 1 and Volume 2, showed sparks of musical brilliance and powerful, heavy blues influenced rock, but nothing that could have prepared me for the onslaught that is Warrior. The first two releases were originally written in Swedish and then translated into English. This made for some odd, and nearly unforgivable lyrical expressions, where some things just didn’t translate well. It is said that Warrior was penned in English and it shows. the lyrics, though not overtly creative and original had a much better flow and rhyming scheme. But Warrior was more about package and message than creative content.

The albums kicks off with “Constantly Changing,” one the best rock anthems for its era. The riffs were more akin to something from Bad Company or Deep Purple with a monster hook filled guitar groove. Then comes some of the best drumming for the time. It is a non-stop lesson in how to write a memorable rock anthem. All hook, no dead spots and a great duel lead guitar solo.

One of the things I remember most from this album are the drums. Loud. Pounding. Relentless. Nearly every song seemed to have the drums up front and center in the mix. Again, for those unfamiliar with the history of Christian Music, drums were an inconvenience and best left to way back in the mix. Especially in 1981!

The other notable factor of Warrior is that there a lot of guitar solos and instrumentals. Most Christian music got right to the message and the musicianship and instrumentation was an afterthought. Not with Warrior. In fact, the title track has an over 3 minute instrumental introduction. And it, like the rest of the instrumentation on this album, is quite good. Loud guitars played with originality and passion.

Now it should be noted that Ulf’s voice can be an acquired taste. The thick accent trying to emphasize English words makes the voice sound strained at times, but never off key. But as for those who have seen Jerusalem live can attest, Ulf’s dialect struggles were made up for with the pure passion of a screaming evangelist with an electric guitar slung over his shoulder.

The title track follows with another three minutes minute or so instrumental introduction with a hard rock groove ala Bad Company or even touched of Rainbow. Like much of Jerusalem’s music on this album, songs are epic in scope and go through many time signature and musical expression changes. When the vocals kick in so does the music!

“Pilgrim” is short by the album’s standard at just over four minutes. It is also, in its own way, the mellowest cut on the album. The guitar is not as crunchy and the vocals significantly more restrained. The guitar solo has more in common with Dire Straits (as does the song itself musically) than Bad Company, Led Zeppelin or AC/DC.

The only misstep on the album is the quirky “It’s Mad.” What must have seemed like a good idea in the studio and was enjoyable the first few listens becomes childish and annoying with repeated listens. The retelling of the Biblical story of Jericho would have fit better on a children’s Bible story record. The introductory keyboards are out of place and the arrangement is just silly at times. But that one misstep does not deter from the rest of the album.

I will note that many people love the song and list it amongst their favorites from the album.

“Man of the World” returns to the heavier rock sound and if Christian radio had a real rock presence this would have worked well as a rock radio single. Again, the drum work here is tremendous and Ulf’s vocals are top notch. In fact, it is on songs like this that one can catch a glimpse of the live passion that band brought.

The centerpiece of the entire project is the epic (over 12 minute) Sodom. It is more like a mini-rock opera than a long song. It tells the story of a world that has rejected its creator and the results. Synthesizer and acoustic piano instrumentation starts the opus in something closer to Kansas than Bad Company. But that moves smoothly into a Blind Faith like bluesy rock. This then builds into straight ahead Robin Trower-like rock grooves with more intense and passionate vocals.  Finally, after a blistering and pounding guitar work that compares favorably to Eric Clapton (circa the 1970′s) for several minutes, the song slows down as Ulf’s vocals take over to proclaim like a prophet, “Sodom in the world today/Sweden is Sodom,/Europe is Sodom/America is Sodom.” This continues and builds with emotive ferocity until a hymn-like arrangement overtakes the entire scene and brings the epic to a close.

“Ashes In Our Hands” takes quite a while to get going with a very long fade in instrumental, but once it arrives it is relentless and packs a powerful punch. I love the drum accompanied bridge before kicking back into full rock form.

The album closes with the token ballad that it appears was a prerequisite for getting an album released on a Christian label. “Farewell” has an altar call feel musically, lyrically and “length-wise” as over six minutes. Even here Ulf’s voice will not be tamed for too long as he nearly loses control near the song ends pleading with the listener to seek the Lord while he may be found.

Despite only having 8 songs the full album clocks in at over 50 minutes! The length of the songs is precisely what makes the album so incredible. When a band can actually play their instruments at the level at which Jerusalem does, there is no reason to edit the songs…let ‘em play!

 

61. Declaration – The Alarm

June 1, 2011 9 comments

DECLARATION (1984)

The Alarm

In the early 1980′s myself and several friends bought floor seats at the old LA Sports Arena for U2′s “War” Tour. We had grown custom to showing up midway through the opening acts because of several years of being so utterly disappointed in the opening bands and hated wasting our time. For some strange reason there was no traffic on a Friday Night heading into Los Angeles and we arrived before the concert started, so we took our time buying T-Shirts, buttons and programs.

Finally we heard some loud, acoustic rock coming through the walls to outer walkway. We could barely make out the vocals but were able to distinguish the words “Come on down and meet your maker, come on down and make the stand…” We ran with all we had in us to get through the crowd and up to the very front of the stage. There began my life long love affair with The Alarm.

Part U2, part Big Country and all passion. The Alarm’s first full length release makes the chart based on the sheer ferocity, passion and energy this album exhibits. There are flaws to be sure (one is not doing a full version of The Stand) but it all made up for by great songs, killer hooks, over the top passion and lyrics that define inspiration.

After releasing a great 5 song EP to coincide with their tour with U2, a year later The Alarm released Declaration. Where the previously reviewed MxPx album dealt with the struggles of teen life the Alarm here deals with teen struggles from a politically and socially different perspective. This record sees the world of European youth in the early 1980′s not in black and white, but rather shades of gray and brown. These are not songs of suburbia, but the inner city filled with smoke stacks and the ghetto filled with crying babies and laundry hung from string draped across the street from window sill to window sill.

The title track starts the record with a 40 second acoustic build up that sets the theme of the project:

Take this song of freedom
Put it on and arm yourself for the fight
Our hearts must have the courage
To keep on marching on and on

This moves directly into “Marching On,” a reworking of a song from the debut EP. This is a plea to the audience of forgotten and disenfranchised youth to not let the world and their circumstances keep them accomplishing great things. We are told over and over to keep marching on. In the hands of less believable or passionate band this would come across as trite and pandering. But unlike their contemporaries, The Alarm had a real sense of “truth” behind their words and also provided something others did not; a real sense of hope.

We have got to stand together
Forget the east and west
’cause there’s another voice crying in the ghetto
Another mouth to feed
Another heart beating in the ghetto
Another soul to set free

This sense of hope amidst desperate times and situations is what truly separates The Alarm from bands like The Clash who expressed similar themes, but with a sense of futility and hopelessness rather than the hope that was always present, especially on Declaration.

This is followed by “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?” a song that should have been a rock radio hit. Clocking in at just under 3 minutes this is almost an acoustic punk song with a monster hook in the chorus. This was a plea to those who simply let life pass them by instead standing up for what they believed. I always saw it as a complaint against other bands that would find satisfaction in just complaining about the circumstances around them instead of actually doing something about it.

The truth is the truth
Or the truth is surely a lie
Get back in your shelter
If you can’t come down off the fence
And one more question
Where were you?
Where were you?

It may have been directed at politicians, adults, parents, the culture or any other possible targets but the truth remained.

After the anti-war tune, “Third Light,” comes the true centerpiece of “Side One” and an epic lasting nearly 6 minutes entitled “Sixty-Eight Guns.” This is easily the most ambitious song musically on the entire project. It is almost a mini-musical with several musical changes and interludes. Starting with an inspirational acoustic rock theme, nearly hymn-like in arrangement complete with a horn section, the song then comes to nearly a complete stop midway through with lead singer Mike Peters proclaiming:

Up on the terrace i can hear the crowd roar
Sixty eight guns
And in the subway i can hear them whisper
Sixty eight guns
Through all the raging glory of the years
We never once thought of the fears
For what we’d do when the battle cry was over .
Nothing lasts forever is all they seem to tell you when you’re young

Before returning to the musical theme that started the project Mike vocals lose control and become nothing short of a primal scream announcing:

When you’re young
Have no illusion, no disillusion
Unbreak the promise
Unbreak the vow
Uphold the promise

The song then returns to the original theme and ends with a powerful crescendo of drums, horns and guitar. Live this song was a revelation. Simply breathe taking. Though the recorded version does not quite match the live performance it is still an impressive on its own.

In a creative twist, the first side (back when music was on vinyl) ends with the inspiration “We Are The Light,” a song that borders on something closer to an acoustic rock worship song than a rock anthem.

Hold on
To what you believe is right
Dont let anyone turn your eyes
Look ahead
Dont stop to look behind
The past aint no friend of mine
Theres a failure who is standing on the corner
For he cannot see hope
Theres a blind man who is standing at the crossroads
For he cannot see light

 

And as we fire the candles
We must make sure they burn through the night
For if they should die
There’d be no light

It’s interesting how the birth of CD’s and digital formats and the death of the LP has created a change in how the songs on records are placed. If this same album was recorded today it would almost seem a better fit to have “We are the Light” close the project rather than be placed half-way through. But it’s the perfect way to end the side of a record.

After the forgettable “Shout to the Devil” another epic takes center stage; “Blaze of Glory.” This is probably the strongest song on the entire record. This is the definition of an anthem. Ringing acoustic rhythms, passionate and  heart felt vocals this is what is meant when an artist where his emotions on his sleeve. This song contains the marching orders hinted at earlier in the project with a seemingly never ending chorus of “going out in a blaze of glory” with Peter’s screeching vocals vamping on top of the backing vocals “I’m going out…I’m going down…with my hands held high!”

“The Deceiver” is a nearly Springsteenesque song directed either at politicians or Satan himself.

You are, you are the weakness
Within us
You are, you are, you are, you are the sickness thats in my soul
You are you are you are the maker
You are called greed and youre a cheat
You are you are you are the deceiver
You are called greed and you’re a cheat

You are not welcome in my life

The album closes with another epic length song, “Howling Wind,’ lasting over 6 minutes. The album finishes with the great song of hope that was hinted at throughout the project and comes to the forefront here.

There is virtue truth abounding
Peace will come to everyman
And there’s a landmark on the skyline
There is a sign standing in the road
Sail on my brother
Sail on through the night
(love on)
Love on this wasteland is waiting on down the line

 

And there is a howl howl howling wind
A ringing around my ears
And a wild wild wind is a blowing
Tearing down my tears

But rather simply a song of blind hope Peters recognizes the personal responsibility needed for this great hope to find it’s fulfillment.

Love on this wasteland holds no dominion
I refuse to lay me down
On the grapevine comes the saying
“son, you’ll reap whatever you sow”
I sow the seeds of my love, my love
Deep undying true love’s what i sow

The Alarm remains one of the top 4 or 5 bands live I have ever seen. Dynamic and compelling with a pure passionate display of emotion pouring through every song. With Declaration the band began the process of building a cult following as superstardom was not in the cards, but the integrity on display musically and lyrically would generate a fan base that never gave up on the band.

66. Gang Affiliated – Gospel Gangstas

May 24, 2011 5 comments

GANG AFFILIATED (1995)

Gospel Gangstas

This was the best Christian rap album of all time…

…and it’s not even close!

Rather than sporting the normal Top 100 review process I have decided to primarily speak to the album, the market and the groups impact on both. Since themes were consistent throughout the release, the most important thing about the album is its authenticity, and how that reality impacted CCM as a whole. Even rock bands were influenced to be more “legit” as a result of this rap release.

In 25 years of working in Christian retail, wholesale, radio and concert promotion no other release has carried with it as much  controversy and appreciation as the Gospel Gangstas’ “Gang Affiliated.” Even those that would not include rap as a personal favorite style appreciate just what the Ganstas created with this amazing project. And no other album has been banned, ridiculed and attacked as much as Gang Affiliated. Even the furor raised over Stryper’s “To Hell With the Devil” did not match the controversy surrounding this project.

Whether it was the guns on the album cover, the gang clothing, the scary images, the seemingly anti-authority and anti-police lyrical content or the prevalent use of the “n” word, nearly everyone found something to be offended by.

I was working for Frontline Records at the time and we originally had sold in a compilation record that DJ Dove was putting together to promote up and coming rap artist in the Christian market. But right before release date the sales force was told that title was being changed and that it would not be a record featuring just one, brand new rap artist called the Gospel Gangstas (later changed to Gospel Gangstaz for subsequent releases). At first we were concerned that the product shipped was not the product that was sold in, but once we saw the immediate sell through of the title and intense response from fans, all was forgiven.

But soon after the release the complaints began pouring into the Frontline offices. Bookstores started pulling it and keeping behind the counter; some because they claim the theft of the product was high and others because of the cover and the content. Oddly enough, despite the intense outcry of problems none of those same stores ever returned the product because it was selling!

What made this record so amazing?

It was legit! Authentic, real, believable…legit!

There were no subjects off limits to the Gangstas on this project; police brutality, welfare, gang warfare, sexual promiscuity, murder, rape and drug dealing were all staples of this releases subject matter.

Fornication on my mind 7, 24, And some mo’
The devil used girls for bait to hook the Solo
I would invite em on a late dinner date
But it was lust on my mind not the food on the plate, But wait
I was like a hound, Sniffin around, Nose to the ground
Diggin in any girl I found, The devil had me bound
Ditchin school to feed my hungry flesh
I had an A in fornication, But a F on my test, Oh yes
Being in bondage is a horrible state
I can’t escape, Havin sex so much that I’m losin weight

Throughout the project each member of the Gangstas gives their testimony and how they gave up the sins of the past (drugs, sex, violence, etc) and had embraced the Gospel. Full length cuts are interspersed with sermonettes, samples and even several “interview” segments where the Gangstas explain some of the more controversial lyrics. To add to the controversy one member of the group was serving time just when the album was being released.

The Gangstas, and this album, were nothing without the Gospel part. They never once shied away from proclaiming the Gospel and never once did the Gospel message take a beck seat to the issues of drugs, gangs, sex and violence.

In an attempt to assuage fears about the groups lyrical content several “interviews” were placed throughout the project giving the group a chance to explain and defend the content.  These were interspersed between songs and were cleverly used to transition from one song to another as well. This was both a necessary evil and an artistic triumph of brilliance that would be duplicated by others.

But ultimately this title deserves to be on this list because of the barriers that were broken as the result of its release. Sure, there were plenty of Christian rappers doing their thing with limited results. PID, D Boy, etc all had been out in the market long before the Gangstas, but no, up to that time, had created such an authentic and polarizing project.

Despite the controversy (and possibly because of it) it continued to be a top selling album for a very long time, lasting much longer on store shelves than releases by their peers. If anyone was remotely interested in Christian rap this was in their collection. Though rap music has progressed and changed and improved, not many releases equal the intensity, believability and out right authenticity of this project and all the success that today’s rappers enjoy is due, in large part, to this one release.

69. Alibi – Edin Adahl

May 11, 2011 13 comments

ALIBI (1982)

Edin – Adahl

The debut album from two sets of brothers from Sweden (Bertil and Lasse Edin and Simon and Frank Adahl) was like a breath of fresh air sweeping across the Christian Music scene. Though they share the same home country as the rock band Jerusalem, the musical styles they employed could not be any more different. Where Jerusalem stayed with powerful, guitar driven hard rock, Edin-Adahl was all about pop, rock, world music and new wave with an emphasis on melody and harmony. They even scored a moderate mainstream hit with the song, Like the Wind, later in their career.

They were one of several European acts that the fledgling label, Refuge, tried to bring to the United States. Of all of those artist it was Edin-Adahl that had the greatest impact. But still it was not enough to bring them to the forefront of most CCM fans at the time.

Alibi employs greater diversity in musical styles and is truly a ground breaking release. Despite the constant criticism of the bands simplistic lyrical content (language barriers notwithstanding), when this album was released most of Christian music would never venture into New Wave, reggae tinged or synth driven rock this album brought to the industry. Alibi did this and more so, all without sounding disjointed or scattered. It also did so with a production quality that was vastly superior to anything in the industry at the time.

As mentioned above there has been a pretty heavy level of criticism leveled against the bands lyrical content as trivial and jingoistic, but when one considers the language barrier and the content of much of CCM at the time, it is not too far out-of-place. Rhyme structures suffered the most because of the translation issues. This hampered early Jerusalem releases as well. Later, when the band began writing songs in English, the issues were resolved. But the music and vocals are so strong that the lyrical issues are often ignored by fans.

The opening track, Wake Up, kicks off with a solid funky groove similar to Squeeze or Steely Dan. The vocal harmonies of the brothers keeps the song from sounding ordinary and the production quality was so superior to nearly everything else  in the christian market at the time. Lyrically the entire album was better than what Jerusalem provided, but were not all that more pedestrian than most of Christian music, and at least they had the excuse of translation issues.

Themes from the album were common Christian music fare, but this album was all about the music and vocals. Driving power pop rock drives “On the Cutting Edge” into a very timely sounding hit. The Chicago wall of vocals in the chorus are just huge. The sibling quality shines through with great harmonies here and throughout the entire project.

A true stand out is the reggae driven title track with steel drums and old school organ laced keyboards and slow groovin’ vocal lines. The song also possesses some of the albums best lyrics. This was musically so authentic and out-of-place in CCM, the pop band was labeled a new wave band.

“Bring Back the Joy” starts out with a Genesis type progressive sound with a great keyboard instrumental intro before the drums and guitars add to a fuller, blues driven rock sound. It’s nearly 2 minutes before the vocals are introduced. The progressive verse structure switches to a Supertramp like melodic chorus before returning to the darker and heavier feel. All the while there are touches of world music rhythms throughout.

The rock/worship anthem “Let All the Earth Proclaim” driven by intense harmonies and surprisingly edgy and loud guitars. In fact, I was always surprised someone like Petra never bothered to cover this gem.This was a modern rock worship a decade before anyone else ever ventured into the genre. The vocals really shine here.

What would have been Side Two opens like side one with a Steely Dan type jazz influence pop rock hit song, “Saviour.” Again, Petra or White Heart could have rocked this number without any hesitation, except those bands wouldn’t have put the killer horn section into the chorus.

“For the Rain In Your Heart” sound more ska than reggae and preceded the Supertones by 20 years. Fun, energetic and a glimpse as to what the follow-up release, “X-Factor” would provide. Edin Adahl was always one of those bands I wanted to see in concert and this song is one of the reasons why.

After the “Rain In Your Heart,” there comes a “Storm in My Heart.” This returns the band to the Steely Dan cool jazz sound, especially in the chorus. In fact, the chorus is a full Steely Dan rip…but it works!

“Send Me” is a new wave keyboard driven song that sounds a lot like what would appear later on Simon Adahl’s solo work.The final chorus fade is such a hook that the verse structure can be forgiven. I even like the “spoken word” repeat as it fades.

The album closes with the great ballad (the only one on the album), “Your Heart is in His Hands.” Straight from the era this a simple power ballad Bryan Duncan would have thrilled to sing. Like the trend was at the time, a ballad must always finish an album and be released as the single. CCM radio never really touched anything from the album though KYMS was all over several of the songs making them local hits.

Edin-Adahl never received the recognition their quality works deserved and that is real shame. The first two releases deserved their day on CD, but as far as I have been able to ascertain they never made it. That is a true travesty especially when one considers the true high quality production.

71. Mannequin Virtue – Vector

May 5, 2011 11 comments

MANNEQUIN VIRTUE (1983)

Vector

Exit Records may not possess the largest number of releases on this countdown, but they may be responsible for more releases per capita than any other label. The 77’s, Robert Vaughan, Charlie Peacock, First Strike, Steve Scott and Vector all make the list. When considering the limited number of releases and artists the label possessed, that is pretty darn impressive.

Vector’s debut album was the third album released by the label and was one of the early hits. The album also introduced a young singer-songwriter, producer and performer named Charlie Peacock. Peacock would leave the band soon after the release of the album and only sang one song on its debut.

I was working at a Christian bookstore in Southern California and had just graduated from High School when this album hit. It became an instant hit in the area and even KYMS radio pushed the envelope to add a few songs because of the “cool factor.”

But Vector is so unique and incredibly different that a review is both enjoyable and utterly frustrating since comparisons do not do the band justice and superlative fall short of just how original and powerful the band was with this debut project.

The band may be the first truly progressive rock new wave band in music. You can hear the influences of progressive rock acts like Genesis and world music influences like that of the Police, but there is an energy, originality and offbeat center to the band that is completely Vector. The original line-up consisted of Steve Griffith on vocals and bass, Jimmy Abegg (Jimmy A.) on guitar, Charlie Peacock on keyboards and vocals and Aaron Smith on drums (Bruce Spencer would take over after the recording of the album and a short tour with Aaron before Smith joined the &&’s).

Can we just take a moment here and note what a freakin’ incredible line-up of talent this one band possessed? Seriously, it is like a supergroup before we knew who they were. And one last thing…Aaron Smith is a monster beast and no one comes close!

The album starts off with the title track, the most accessible and commercial song on the album. It is utterly unique for the time to have a “new wave” band with such an impressive rock drummer driving the song. This keyboard dominated tune has a great vibe and killer chorus. Griffith’s vocals soar Abegg’s unique and completely original guitar styling is demonstrated. Producer Steven Soles creates a wall of sound and pristine production seriously lacking in the genre at the time.

Raise you hand if you agree this song should have been a monster hit?

The funky and odd “substitute” begins to demonstrate the progressive and art rock tendencies of the band. Clearly MTV ready, the song’s “boingoish” rhythm is rife with danceable beats and intelligent lyrics. Again, Smith’s pounding is hypnotic and the drum bridge is head bobbing.

Peacock’s one lead vocal appearance is on “Running From the Light.” The wispy, high-pitched Peacock delivers with such a sensual groove that it was obvious that he was something special and would be doing his own music soon. The progressive jazz influence Peacock was noted for shows up here as well as the world music under current. The rhythm would be seen later in Peacock’s solo efforts, especially the debut. Griffith’s bass also takes center stage here.

The Bowie like musical offering of “Lost Without Love” is when I fell in love Griffith’s dramatic vocal style. His long and winding range is ever so evident here and carries an otherwise common melody to a totally different level.

“The Shore” slows things down, but by no means mellows things out. The Steve Scott like droning and building slowly pulls the listener into the song and surrounds you with a such a majestic melody.

Aaron Smith’s drum god prowess takes over on “The Hunger and the Thirst.” Though using common base themes in Christian music, the band lyrically takes them to a much deeper and more creative level. The give and take between Griffith and the backing vocals in the chorus is fantastic and it is all driven by Smith’s outrageous drumming.

A personal favorite is “Desperately,” with Abegg’s outrageous guitar rhythm juxtaposed against Peacock’s edgy and off-center keyboard work is impressive. Again, I find myself at a loss to adequately and fairly find the right words to help the reader get what is going on here musically. I continue to fall back on the progressive rock influence that shapes an utterly unique new wave/alternative vibe. The closing minute of guitar work by Abegg is worth the price of admission.

“All Around the World” is really a beautiful song. The Steven Soles influence can be felt here as well as even late 70’s and early 80’s bands like The Baby’s. Smart, well crafted pop with an ingenious melody and hypnotic rhythm.

The only song to match the title track in accessibility and radio friendliness is “Only to Fail Again.” The most pop driven and hook oriented song on the album, the chorus provides a great and memorable experience. The lyrics dealing with man’s constant failings is such a surprise couched in a fun and poppy new wave melody. Again, another hit that missed.

The album closes with the Police tinged “I Love Them All.” Released around the same time as “Synchronicity,” this song was right with the times and not a few years behind like much of the contemporaries. Beautiful and haunting, the song lingers with the listener long after it fades out. The beauty found in God’s unending love is the perfect close to t\an album filled with questions, doubts and glimmers of hope.

If ever a band’s name suited the music they create it is Vector. I can’t really explain why, but when I heard the name this is exactly what I expected, though significantly more impressive than I ever could have hoped for.

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