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63. Sound Alarm – Michael Anderson

May 31, 2011 4 comments

SOUND ALARM (1988)

Michael Anderson

Sometime around 1987 I was working at a very large and popular christian Bookstore in Southern California when a copy of Billboard Magazine came across my desk. Along the bottom of the front page was an ad for an artist on A&M Records. The slogan on the ad was something like, “There’s Nothing Funny About the End of the World.” I was intrigued.

I immediately called my local one-stop mainstream distributor and asked about the project. He hadn’t heard about but did make a couple calls for me. It would be released a few weeks later, but he did call the next day and said he got an advanced copy of the album for my to review before ordering. I drove over right away and put the CD in my car. The content seemed “Christian” to me but i had no real proof the artist was a Christian. Songs were about faith and the title track mentioned Babylon and Armageddon.

I ordered some for the store despite the “hell” word being present and not receiving any confirmation about the faith of the artist. It sold well. In fact, it sold extremely well. My staff loved it and pushed and I don’t think a customer came in that didn’t hear something about it one way or the other. It charted in CCM Magazine just because of our sales alone.

About a month later i received a phone call. On the other end of the line was a man with a very low voice and calm demeanor. He introduced himself as Michael Anderson and asked why in the world was i selling his record at a Christian Bookstore. I was a bit stunned and taken aback. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I just wanted to know how you knew I was a Christian?”

As I found out later his manager told him the album charted in CCM Magazine and that was because of the sales from one store. He tracked down the store and called. That started a friendship that would last for several years. My wife and I would travel to Hollywood regularly to hang out with Michael and his wife. In fact, we were invited by Michael his wife’s birthday party at an amazing gourmet Japanese restaurant in Bel Air and were seated at a table with Michael and Stormie Omartian.

Michael’s debut project on A&M Records is a powerful, straight ahead Americana rock and roll in the same vein as the best from John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen but with a more blues and country influenced sound. Anderson’s voice will huff, puff, spit, scream and squeal with an edge that pierces as it communicates with passion few have reviled. On higher notes he is known to have his voice crack in trademark fashion. But on the mellower tunes he can bring it down to soft, almost Barry White-like smooth growl.

Anderson would record two releases for the mainstream market on A&M and then two projects for the Christian market on Forefront. He made his way there after I gave a copy of this album to Eddie DeGarmo at a Benson records sales conference.

“Sound Alarm” kicks off with the title track, a raucous warning of impending doom as the world descends toward Armageddon. This apocalyptic tune receives its theme from the “end times” perspective popular among many modern evangelicals. Anderson rough edged vocals sing:

Get ready, here they come
I hear the sound of a marching drum
There’s an army rising in the East
The mighty hand of a killing beast
there’s no where to run, there’s no where hide
We’ve made it through somehow
Stand up for and beg for mercy
You’re gonna feel the fire now

Sound alarm…Armageddon RSVP
Sound alarm…Babylon’s burning sea to sea

Borrowing theme and terms from the book of Revelation we hear about the acts of the beast, false prophet and a soon coming battle of Armageddon. But when Anderson gets to the final chorus the instruments stop except for the drums and he belts out the chorus with a passion the listeners throat starts to hurts! The song did moderately well on many rock stations across the country and A&M did make a pretty decent video for the single.

Anderson would also include a reworked version of the song on his first Christian release, “Saints and Sinners.”

“I Know That You Can Stand” follows with a more soulful groove but similar passionate vocals. The song acts aa an encouragement to those struggling with doubt.

I heard the cries, I know the fears
On the midnight hour of tears
And the comfort you find in the dark
As you hide away your broken heart
I know what like it appears to be
We walk by faith not what we see
And every burden that you bear too long
Can take you down or it can make you strong


But I know that you can stand
If you can believe
I know that you can stand
If you can just believe

The song ends of being the most obviously evangelical with references to love, hope and a faith “that stand the test of time.” I wanted to push the local station to play this tune becuase of it’s wonderful message and killer groove, but the final verse made that impossible. With his most passionate performance Anderson delivers.

When you’re broke and bleeding, face down on the ground
And your best friend has let you down
And there’s nothing left that you can trust
And all your dreams lie in the dust
Just remember there’s a law of grace, a law of sin
That got you in this mess you’re in
And this whole damned world can go to hell
And you can rise alive and well

I know that you can stand

“I Need You” follows with a much more mellow and subdued Anderson. This a beautiful song with a great melody and groove similar to something from Russ Taff. It is worthy to note that Michael wrote several songs for Russ Taff’s , “The Way Home.”

“Until You Loved Me” returns with a much more aggressive rock sound and with that the return of the cracking vocals. This is a great groove driven rock song with some of the best guitar work of the project.

Clocking in at nearly 6 minutes “Sanctuary” is a slow and haunting ballad with a comforting reminder that God is your sanctuary in these dark and terrifying times. Written like a Psalm the listener is comforted with…

I’ll hold you all through the darkest night
I’ll hold you close to the light
And give you…

Sanctuary…sanctuary..
In your valley of tears

Sanctuary…sanctuary…
In your shadow of fear

“Little Bit O Love” kicks off side two with a rollicking bluesy number reminiscent of John Hiatt. “Memphis Radio” continues Anderson’s love for the city that would provide a great a financial reward a few years later. I have always fancied that Marc Cohn ripped off the content for his “Walking in Memphis” several years later.

“Soweto Soul” in a technologically driven African rhythm based soul tune relating the apartheid travesty to the US and its continuing goal of advancing race relations with both positive and negative results. There is a point when Anderson comments that the need for God’s intervention is ultimately necessary.

The grinding guitar and groaning keyboard introduction is reminiscent of both Peter Gabriel and Dire Straits. The potentially odd combination works throughout and remains one of my favorite tunes on the whole record, especially the big hooked chorus.

The album closes with the ballad, “Time to Go Home.” Actually, more accurately it closes with the song “Time to Go Home,” that starts as a ballad and builds into a great mid-tempo rocker ala John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen, complete with long fade and killer harmonica.

Michael’s follow up release would be much more pop driven with almost U2ish or Big Country type guitars on the first single, “True Love” which should have been a hit. The two Christian albums lacked the passion of the debut but still contained some wonderful songs including the CCM radio hit “Something to Believe In.” This song means a lot to me because I was the first person to hear the song as he played it for live in his living room 3 years before he ever recorded it.

One night while visiting with Michael in Hollywood he played a demo for me that he was pitching in Nashville. He did this often for feedback, but this one had his wife singing the demo and I just instantly loved hit. Sounded like a hit. Never heard the song for another two years or so. The song was “Maybe It Was Memphis,” and Pam Tillis finally recorded it.

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64. Notes From the Lost Civilization – Tonio K

May 31, 2011 17 comments

NOTES FROM THE LOST CIVILIZATION (1988)

Tonio K

Tonio K released two albums for the Christian market in the mid 80’s on What? Records. Both of them reach the Top 100 on this list. Both a must own album and truly brilliant works. Both are completely different musically and differ greatly in topic and theme.

More will be said about Tonio K in a future post, but it should be noted here that for nearly three decades he released some of the most important releases that no one knows about. Before embracing the Christian faith Tonio K released several critically lauded and publicly ignored masterpieces.

The same rang true in Christian music circles.

I believe “Notes” was the last release for What? Records, a brilliant label whose imprint was the kiss of death in the CCM world. I cannot confirm this right now, but I believe every What? Records release appears on this countdown. The label was a joint effort between Word Records and A&M with the intent to bring Christian music to the masses with artists that had the chops and integrity to pull off the crossover.

Where Tonio’s CCM debut (Romeo Unchained) was driven by technology and “new wave” rhythms and production, “Notes” was organic, blues and country influenced Americana rock and roll set in the heart of city life and suburban nightmares. There are two versions of the album with the Word released version not containing a song that will be discussed later. No one should own the Word version and I refused to carry that version in my store at the time.

The album kicks off with “Without Love,” which is about as simple a theme as one will hear from Tonio K, but in normal Tonio K fashion, there is a twist and attitude that makes it something completely out of the ordinary. Borrowing the common theme from 1 Corinthians 13 that all we do is meaningless unless it done in love, Tonio delivers the common theme with uncommon stories of “people on the moon and under the oceans” and how the world works to divide us rather than bring us together.

“Children’s Crusade” bemoans the lies believed by a younger generation that theirs will be the one to create the Utopia we long for. This was no more obvious than the 60’s generation of love and peace that discovered the cruel realities of the workings of the world. The wonderful, simple production of T-Bone Burnett here helps the brutality of the lyrics realize their stark reality.

“Stay” continues one theme from the previous album; love is hard. The mid tempo ballad recognizes the desire to keep love going and around and the cost associated with the vulnerability. The theme of forgiveness and commitment to vows has always been woven throughout Toni K’s music, but here it takes on a more transparent position. this coupled with some of the best vocals on the album make it a real highlight.

On the rockier side, “City Life” reveals that life in Los Angeles for those that would have it no other way. Despite describing it like “living in a civil war zone,” there is a vibrancy and passion that is all-consuming and attractive. This is also some of Burnett’s best production, restraining the song from becoming the punk laden music of early Tonio K, while providing a bounce and punch that reveals what city life is like.

Tonio K was never really known for the acoustic ballad before his foray into Christian Music, but its presence on the two albums, especially here, is stunning and beautiful. “You Were There,” co-written with John Keller, is really a wonderful song with a great vocal performance that drives the song from start to finish. It would be a mistake to automatically assume that God is the subject, but rather the love and guidance that God provides to us through others.

There are not many songs about the Devil that sound as quite as cool as “The Executioner’s Song.” But most songs about the Devil were not written by Tonio K. His ability to add a line or phrase unexpectedly is such a treat. Here he notes the Devil wears hats, and for some reason, it is just funny. Great organ work here by Booker T drives the song.

“I Can’t Stand It” is more funky and groove oriented than most of the songs on the album and fits into a classification of surf/punk/soul music that marked Tonio’s earlier works, especially “Amerika.” It is also closer to the “angrier” K where false religions take the brunt of his caustic tongue.

The song left off of the Word distributed release is the funny and brilliant “What Women Want.” Even at that time the song was nowhere near offensive outside of simply using the word “sex” in the lyrics. By the time the chorus rolls around it is obvious the point of the song. Literally it was one of the worst and most offensive decisions in CCM music history. It was completely knee-jerk and needless.

It is also the best song on the album!

“I Can’t Stop” is a love song. Or at least a Tonio K love song. Funky and cool, with a great rhythm section driving a fun and energetic melody, the song fits right in with “I Can’t Stand It” and “City Life.” The “world is against us” theme continues here.

The album closes with “Where Is That Place,” a Tonio K take on the US. He asks what happened to the America we grew up in, or at least the one we grew up believing existed.

it used to be the teacher’s favorite country
it used to be the showplace of the west
everything worked
and everyone smiled
it used to be another word for the best

where is that place?
where did it go?
whatever happened to that place?
god only knows
that isn’t it over there
and this isn’t it here
now how did a place that big just disappear?

A perfect close to an album where Tonio K’s odd and thoughtful take on the obvious and common radiates throughout. He would record a third album for A&M that never saw the light of day through the company and later was released independently as “Ole.” My only comment about that album is that it is worth tracking down and may possess the best Tonio K ever in “Hey Lady.”

 

65. I Predict 1990 – Steve Taylor

May 27, 2011 10 comments

I PREDICT 1990 (1987)

Steve Taylor

Sometime in the Summer of 1987 I received a phone call at Maranatha Village. The lady answering the phones at the store mentioned that the caller asked for the Music Buyer or Store Manager, but would not give his name. That usually meant complaints and I was in no hurry to respond. I reluctantly picked up and the phone, and to my great pleasure, it was Steve Taylor on the other end.

He told me that most of his call were lasting less than 3 minutes and that stores either had not heard of any controversy regarding his most recent release or they were very familiar with the controversy and had returned the product immediately to Word Distribution. I was the rare store manager who was not only very familiar with the controversy, but also overwhelmingly supportive. I had been a fan and friend of Taylor’s for a few years at that time and once he realized who he was speaking with you could tell he relaxed.

The two main issues surrounding the album were the album cover and its pseudo “tarot card” appearance and the lyrics to the lead track, “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” The album title, a mocking of prophetic prognosticators, most notably Lester Sumrall, was matched perfectly by the artwork and was utterly inoffensive. And anyone who can’t get the point of the song in question doesn’t deserve a response. Fools!

The album was recorded using Sparrow’s money and distributed by Word on the Myrrh imprint after Sparrow “gave up hope” on the project. Myrrh bought the masters, finished the album and released it about a year after its initial release date.

The album features a maturing songwriter beginning to his stride and adding less of the satire and humor of the first few projects and a more serious content and writing style. There is plenty of sarcasm and satire on the release, but it is couched in a more sardonic tone and interspersed with more “serious” expressions.

The album also contains what I believe is Taylor’s finest rock song and most interesting use of arrangements. Also, Taylor’s vocals are expanded and challenged beyond the previous bouncing Boingo and Bowie stylings.

The album also features some of the longest titles to songs in any collection.

The album starts with the aforementioned, “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good,” the one of the few songs on the album that resembles his previously work. The obviously satirical work tells the story of an ice cream truck driver that notices a new abortion clinic opening in the neighborhood he canvasses. He realizes that if this clinic is successful it will damage his business by limiting the number of potential future client; children.

The song examines the futility and danger of responding to the horrific actions of one with the horrific actions of another. It was shocking just how often the song was misunderstood even though in one line Taylor clearly states “I don’t care if it’s a baby or a tissue blob.” That alone should have been enough to educate the listener as to the point of the song.

“What Is the Measure of Your Success,” reveals Taylor at his Bowiest, with a haunting rock groove and low growl in the chorus. If Christians were to be offended by any song on the album it should have been this one. Taylor examines the worldly tendency of modern Christendom and compares them to their secular counterparts and finds them all too similar. Like much of the record, there are few answers here as the question is meant to cause self-examination.

The quirky “Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better” could have fit on “On the Fritz,” but is smarter and more engaging. And more dangerous. Sparrow would have nothing of it. The half-rapped verses are filled with more words than time to express them and one wonders when Taylor will actually breathe as he winds through them. The story here involves a young college student introduced to worldly philosophies and his inability to adequately deal with them. The song features the odd and intriguing fiddle work of Jefferson Airplane’s Papa John Creach.

As the album turns more serious, the slow and moving “Babylon” introduces a darker and more challenging Taylor. Whether expressing the Old Testament exile of Israel or God’s current people needing a legitimate and lasting cleansing of worldly influence, the song rings with eternal truths. It also features some of my favorite Taylor vocals.

What I consider Taylor’s finest rock songwriting follows with “Jim Morrison’s Grave.” The ode to “better to burn out than fade away” mantra of modern thinking and embraced by rock and roll as a whole is both brilliant and biting. Taylor’s vocals stretch and pierce with an edge that are nearly exclusive to this great song. The imagery displayed here as a result of visiting Morrison’s grave in Paris points to the vacuous and depraved life that believes cruelty and disdain are necessary evil of genius and success. The final line of the song is brilliant as he describes the lasting music like that of a ticking watch on a dead man’s wrist.

Musically the song is relentless and never lets up until the very end where the song doesn’t quite fade as simply dies with a strained backing vocal belts over a longing keyboard repeating over and over. The hook, though, is where Taylor reveals himself to be the growing and perfecting songwriter he was becoming at the time.

The slightly Indian influenced melody of “Svengali” reveals a powerful morality lesson set to a rock beat. The 19th century novel (and classic silent film) on which the song is based tells the story of a wretched and evil music teacher who develops a control over his opera star pupil and destroys both of their lives. Taylor relates this to those things in our lives that lead us astray and away from God, most notably intimate relationships with unbelievers that keep us away from maintaining a healthy relationship with others and with God.

Like “Since I Gave Up Hope,” “Jung and the Restless” addresses the modern and postmodern pitfalls of looking for truth outside of the Scriptures and embracing man’s misguided and ungodly ideologies. This is the only other song that sounds like Taylor’s earlier work, except here it is darker in tone and content. The guitar work (Dave Perkins) is subtle and groovy and really drives the song. This song also contains the annual yodeling that somehow seems to make every Taylor release.

Many consider “Innocent Lost” one of Taylor’s greatest songs and I do not disagree. In fact, it is here where the maturity as a songwriter and a performer are shown through restraint. The simple song reveals a simple Gospel story in a brilliantly moving fashion.

But the best song on the album is the albums final pop/rock number, “A Principled Man.” Oddly enough, it was my least favorite song at first listen, but not only has grown on me, it has become a real anthem with lasting power. A touch of Big Country, Hothouse Flowers and World Party 80’s rock dominates a world music delight. The jangly chorus and final chorus is striking and unforgettable.

The album closes with a classically influenced ballad, or operatic pop number. “It’s Harder to Believe Than Not To” is really a simple and haunting song recorded with a small string orchestra and vocal support from an opera singer and is based on a quote from Flannery O’Connor. When challenged that Christianity is for the weak O’Connor responded with the line that makes up the title.

The song is probably the simplest song in Taylor’s repertoire outside of “Hero” or “baby Doe.” Yet it remains a personal favorite because its beautiful arrangement and poignant content. Taylor nearly whispers at points and the listener finds themselves leaning into the song to assure they do not miss a moment. Really quite brilliant!

Taylor would only record one more solo project after this and has been MIA for two decades, though rumors of a 2012 Taylor release are making the rounds. Before a single decade Taylor was probably the single most important solo rock artist in CCM and repercussions are felt until today. In fact, every single Taylor studio release made the list as well as his band effort under a different name.

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.

67. Mutemath – Mutemath

May 24, 2011 4 comments

MUTHMATH (2006)

Mutemath

Possibly the single greatest debut album of the 2000’s.

Mutemath broke onto the scene in 2004 with their EP “Reset,” and two years later followed up with the staggeringly impressive eponymous debut listed here. Birthed from the demise of Earthsuit (reviewed previously), the band has released two full length albums and both have made the list. But it is this debut that created the buzz and attention this band more than deserves. Check out their performance on David Letterman to see what a live band should look like.

The band was signed to Warner, but the album’s release was initially through their own independent means. They sold 10,000 copies independently in their first month and Warner quickly negotiated and settlement and resigning of the band. One of the main issues was Warner’s initial decision to place the band on a christian label and market them primarily to the Christian market, something the band fiercely opposed.

The version being discussed here will be the Warner release, which also contains songs from the bands previously released EP.

Filled with spacey and raucous rock, the album never relents and gives one the distinct impression that if the Police did not break up in the 1980’s they would possibly embrace the sound and vibe found here. Like Earthsuit, the band employs energetic rock, atmospheric theatrics and driving and impulsive live performances that are beyond memorable and border on heroic.

The band was an immediate underground hit with plays of their debut single, “Typical,” getting over 100,000 plays in just four days. They also received a major national television plus when American Idol contestant, Chris Sligh, performed the song to a befuddled and uninformed panel of judges.

The album begins with a marching drum and keyboard driven instrumental called “Collapse.” The odd number sets the tone for the album with its ethereal and atmospheric vibe. This is a sound the band would carry throughout the project.

The album quickly moves to the single, “Typical,” a song that received critical and college radio play, but should have been much bigger on mainstream rock and may have been if the band had any real distribution and promotional support. The song jumped nearly one spots on the alternative charts before peaking at #35 once the lack of real promotional support became apparent.

the song itself has a monster groove that is relentless throughout. Both passionate and angst filled with this odd pap, almost dance-ability, attached to it. Phenomenal drumming drives the song and pushes the song over an edge most in CCM never even broach.

Another short, limited lyrical number follows with “After We Have Left Out Homes,” which serves as a transition to one of the best songs in the collect, “Chaos.” The song, like much of the album, sounds like it was recorded live in the studio with a thumping and unique bass line interspersed with odd and quirky keyboard sounds. All the while, the drums continue to be the driving force behind the album. Touches of U2 stylized guitar meets post punk aggressiveness.

“Noticed” is more restrained and melodic, but no less rock and roll. the bridge does carry a distinctly “Synchronicity” vibe before reaching an aggressive style The police never came close to embracing. All while maintaining a purely melodic composure.Lyrically the song struggles with the concept of understanding the working of the heart; how easily broken and hardened it can become.

With “Plan B” the band shows its musical diversity. Starting nearly ambient in tone (and returning to it throughout the arrangement), the song twists and turns and delivers both a punch and a whisper. There is actually a touch of 80’s CCM band In-3d that many may recognize.

“Stare at the Sun” is sheer hypnotic beauty. Lead vocalist Paul Meany is the least Sting-like here and it’s a really beautiful performance. One gets the sense of what a great vocalist he truly is as he pushes his range and never really belts it out, instead using a restrained power that works perfectly.

“Obsolete” is a stunning instrumental that infuses more acoustic instrumentation while never disbanding the bands sound and electronica qualities. The addition of the acoustic piano adds a wonderful touch to the song. There are some vocals sparsed here and there, but nothing that would make it much more than an instrumental experience.

The frenetic fun that is “Break the Same,” makes the song a personal favorite. Like “Plan B,” the band here shows its musical dexterity with some wonderful progressions. Our lives may be quite different, but we “all break the same.” The Warner version is actually cut significantly with the final verse removed and yet still clocks in a 6 minutes.

The slower, nearly jazz infused “You Are Mine” is probably the closest thing to a ballad and may remind many readers of some of the more adventurous “Sting” compositions.

“Control” should have been a rock single that legends are made of. Instead it simply became the song many fans wait for at every show. Powerful and passionate, the great combination of unbridled musical attack in the chorus and restrained, melody focused verses makes a memorable rock anthem.

Another of the rarely discussed, but personal favorites is “Picture.” This one reminds me the most of Earthsuit for some reason. Great rock, well-played and a killer arrangement with top-notch vocals.

“Stall Out” may best be described as “ambient rock.” Never aggressive or hook driven, the song is propelled by a constant drumming and swirling guitar and keyboard that just hypnotizes the listener and envelopes the mind and soul. It’s beautiful rock that despite its length (7 minutes plus) never feels long or in need of editing. The melody is so uplifting and contagious, it would work as a modern worship song in many settings.

The album closes with another instrumental and the title track from the EP, “Reset.”

There are very few debut’s that come close to matching exactly what this mature and stylized band accomplished with theirs. Impressive and ingenious.

68. The Last Temptation – Alice Cooper

May 12, 2011 6 comments

THE LAST TEMPTATION (1994)

Alice Cooper

We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” Wayne and Garth

Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. Being a Christian is real tough. That’s real rebellion!” Vincent Furnier

Born Vincent Damon Furnier in 1948, a man would one day legally take on the name of his first band, Alice Cooper. Not born out of séance as legend has attributed to it, the band took on an androgynous name to match the on stage persona of its leader. Shock rock was born and those that followed in its wake from David Bowie and KISS would be forever indebted to Furnier and his bandmates.

Born into a religious family, one that embraced a small offshoot of the mainstream Mormon Church called the Church of Jesus Christ, Furnier always had a rich religious upbringing. His parents would later convert to a more mainstream Christian understanding, with his father becoming a Baptist minister, but it would be several years before young Vincent found his own faith.

After a few albums it became apparent that the band name Alice Cooper had morphed into the stage name for Furnier and it stuck. This villainous, evil, woman killing, “Devil incarnate” character became the main attraction in the world of glam and shock rock and Cooper indulged his fictional personality with drugs, drinking and sexual fantasies. Stage performances included guillotines, blood, animals, fire, smoke and lights like no other band on the planet.

But hidden amongst the teen angst, evil glorification was some amazing rock and roll that delivered hits like School’s Out, Eighteen and No More Mr. Nice Guy. Oddly, the music was never quite as heavy or foreboding as the on stage presence and performance. The same could be said for bands like KISS, whose music was much more melodic and blues and soul oriented than heavy metal.

The 1970’s were very kind to Cooper from a success point of view. He released 7 albums in a row that were either gold or platinum at a time when those numbers were a rarity. Tours were large and lavish. Money abounded. But with the fame and money came intense pressure, alcohol consumption that nearly killed him and longing for the safety of his youth.

The 1980’s were not as kind as new wave and punk took over and the lavish stage performances audiences previously paid big bucks for were replaced with clubs, electronics and sub 3-minute radio ready hooks. Cooper released several albums in a row that did not fare well. He claimed that he did not even remember making many of those album as the result of alcohol amnesia.

In the late 80’s Cooper withdrew and went into alcohol rehab in an attempt to save his marriage and his life. What he found was a supporting family and the faith he had longed for. He moved to Arizona and began a trek of discovery that would eventually lead to the creation of “The Last Temptation.”

A thematic album in which the protagonist is lured into an evil circus sideshow where all his dreams can come true if only he would sell his soul to the sideshow leader, The Last temptation is a morality play set in an evil wonderland. The protagonist, Steve (the same name used in Cooper’s classic Welcome to My Nightmare), is lured into Cooper’s net with promised of cars, women, drugs and relief from the strain and pressure of the world around the young man.

The story is oddly autobiographical as many of the temptations Steve faces are those that  Cooper himself struggled against. But like normal, Cooper plays the Devilish character as Alice. This remains to today as Cooper argues that the Cooper character always meets his doom and that a great way to shine a light is to show how dark the darkness can be.

There is a shift here from earlier Cooper works, as the darkness is more realistic and no longer shown in a positive  light. Sin is brutal and harmful and our evil inclinations are revealed in a threatening and honest way. This is not a welcomed nightmare and the glory of sex, drugs and rock and roll are debunked.

The morality play and album start with “Sideshow,” a great acoustic based hard rock song that introduces the Cooper character as he begins the incitement of the young man to join his traveling troop of evil. Smart, classic rock riffs with Cooper’s whining rock vocals combine in this 70’s rock sound. The guitar riff is reminiscent of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting,” and is a driving force throughout the song.

The young man, Steve, is visiting the circus, but is invited to see the sideshow by the ringmaster. We realize immediately this is a troubled young man who is looking for a thrill as he bemoans his current circumstance with the line, “I need to get high just to be dull.” So, as much as the listener may want to blame the ringmaster, Steve has his own sinful lusts before the temptations even begin. He has the “God-shaped hole” Luther spoke of and is looking to fill it.

“Nothing’s Free”introduces the ringmaster in a song that sounds musically and vocally uncannily like Steve Taylor. In fact, the first time I heard anything from this album was at a Warehouse Music store in the Summer of 1994 and this was the song that was playing. I initially though I stumbled upon a Chagall Guevara album. It had the similar crunching guitars and a vocal style so eerily similar to Taylor I froze in my tracks.

The song notes that the offer from the ringmaster was to cost Steve something. His soul, his ethics, his morality and his pride. Ultimately the ringmaster is asking Steve for his life.

“Lost in America” follows with Steve’s open complaint about his current circumstances. He wants money, girls and a car. Caught in the catch-22 of knowing that he can’t have any without all of them. A driving, heavier rock song (heaviest on the album). The studio tried to push this song as the single and video, but it never took off. What it did expose was that all the grunge angst of the early 90’s owed a lot to the shock rock of the early 70’s. The final verse reveals that Steve wants to be a “rock star” and embrace the trappings associated with it. Sound familiar?

“Bad Place Alone” follows with a similarly heavy blues rock vibe as the beginning of the temptation is displayed through the introduction of alcohol and drugs. The results are not shown as pretty pictures with hot chicks and drug parties in Hollywood, but rather ambulance rides and detox centers.

“You’re My Temptation” introduces the most powerful and poignant of all temptations. Just like the warning in Proverbs, a dangerous and tempting woman should be avoided. Cooper reveals the Devil in a dress with the line “You fool me with your angel face/Your Master knows where I’m weakest.” It should be noted that Jack Blades (Night Ranger/Damn Yankees) and Tommy Shaw (Styx/Damn Yankees) co-wrote the song.

The first of the two power ballads (and should have been singles) follows with “Stolen Prayer.” The song was co-written and co-performed with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Cornell’s voice is a pleasant addition to the song. Not really a prayer of repentance, but rather a prayer of questioning and a plea for understanding. The ringmaster is still poking the knife into Steve side while confusion and fear have set in. The allusion to suicide (murder?) in the final verse reflects the struggle Steve is going through and he questions what side of the equation his is willing to die for. In the end it appears the ringmaster has stolen the prayer of repentance before they can be uttered and Steve will embrace the evil temptations set before him.

It is at this point that the real spiritual battle has begun with the rocker “Unholy War.” This is a completely Cornell penned tune and it shows with the darker and more “modern” alternative rock leanings. It may also be the weakest song on the album. But Steve’s fear of judgment day begins to show a chink in the ringmaster armor and a shift in Steve’s thinking begins.

With “Lullaby,” Steve begins to reflect upon his upbringing in the faith and how he now longs for those simple truths. Musically in the vein of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” this song really shows the shift in Steve’s thinking and the intense spiritual warfare taking place over the soul of this young man. Cooper’s vocals shift from sweet to dark and evil as the battle rages.

The other ballad (and actual single) is “It’s Me.” This song again was co-written by Blades and Shaw and it really shows. this is a Night Ranger power ballad with a Styx key change at the end. But as the song ends you realize it is the still small voice of the Holy Spirit whispering in Steve’s ear “I know you’ve sinned every sin/ But I’ll still take you in.”

The album closes with the 6 minute epic that I have always wish a band like Thousand Foot Krutch or Stavesacre would cover. Though it has no historical relation to CCM radio, even rock radio, I would place it amongst the best Christian rock songs ever. Here, Steve is delivered to the side but with a fiery result. he must rid his life of the ringmaster and his sinful desires. This will require a purging by fire, or to be “Cleansed by Fire.”

The song starts slow, but by the halfway point is fully rocking and possesses the best bridge lyrically ever. Cooper let’s loose on the devil and his conversion is complete with driving and aggressive list of those things he finally questions the ringmaster about.

What about truth
What about life
What about glory
What about Christ
What about peace
What about love
What about faith in God above
What about war
What about hell
What if I stumble
What if I fell
What about blood
What about greed
And all of these things you’re offering me

Steve eventually tells the ringmaster to go back from where he came…back to Hell! The song is epic musically and lyrically is the perfect close to a powerful morality play set to rock music.

I have met Cooper twice briefly and found him to be one of the nicest guys on the planet. Once was at a Ligonier conference in Pasadena as he is friends with RC Sproul. He was also shopping at a Christian Bookstore in Buena Park I used to call on. The store was located across the street from Knott’s Berry Farm and he was there with his families and wanted to get some Bibles for them as their luggage did not arrive with them.

Cooper has recorded a handful of albums for the last two decades (including the most recent in 2008 with “Along Came the Spider) in which the depravity of man and the need for God has been a constant theme. Alice Cooper, the character, remains the same and in each concert I have been to, has received his judgment and just rewards.

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.