51. Hearts of Fire – Sweet Comfort Band
HEARTS OF FIRE (1981)
Sweet Comfort Band
There are truly not all that many albums in the history of CCM that can be labeled “game changers.” This is one of those rare exceptions. After two very powerful and legitimate soul and funk albums, the quartet released the decent, albeit forgettable, “Hold On Tight.” The album garnered limited sales and evenless radio excitement. It sounded too much like previous releases and, as a result, like something about five years too late.
Then came “Hearts of Fire.”
From the stunning (at the time) album artwork, the more rock (less R&B) sounds and the undeniably more “current” sound, the album changed the direction of the band, and for that matter, the CCM industry. The level of songwriting quality, lyrical maturity and production level were something more akin to Toto and Chicago than what was populating most of the shelf space in Christian music.
Sweet Comfort also needs to be noted for their musicianship, which was so far superior to their contemporaries, that, in hindsight, they deserved a much better listen than they received. If any band deserved a listen on the mainstream side of things it was SCB, especially with this album.
Other changes include a lyrical approach that is filled with significantly less “Christianeze” than most of the rock offerings of the day. Where Petra was creating Praise Rock with standard and “safe” content, Sweet Comfort expressed loneliness, doubts, marital strife, fidelity and faith.
It is also with this album that Sweet Comfort became Bryan Duncan’s band. Though Randy Thomas would still make occasional lead appearances here and on future releases, it was evident that Duncan’s personality and vocal prowess was the dominating force. This is most obvious on the ballads, where Duncan’s blue-eyed soul is so stirring that he really possessed no equal in CCM outside of possibly Russ Taff, who had no gone out on his own at the time.
After the flat response to “Hold On Tight,” the band needed to create something fresh and exciting. they accomplished it with this amazing and classic release.
It was evident from the progressive piano opening to “Isabel,” to the lower and more distorted guitar sound that permeates the whole album. Duncan’s voice is a little rougher here than on most SCB songs and it fits the Toto/Foreigner sound of the rock anthem. Written about he conversion of a young girl whose life was spent tending bar and trying to make it through the day, even the lyrical content was darker and heavier than earlier works.
It would be “Isabel” that would change my perception of the band, and especially of Duncan, who i had previously labeled as a soul guy only. His vamping at the end of the song showed much more aggressive emotion than I had ever noticed previously. And Thomas’ guitar work is stellar.
The same aggression and progression would follow with “You Can Make It.” Not quite as fast, but just as heavy, this is where the Toto comparisons really take shape. Pay attention to the vocals in the bridge and the really strong and underrated drum work of Rick Thomson.
The album slows down just a touch on the more acoustic and soulful “They Just Go On.” Here the late Kevin Thomson’s bass line is a gem. On a side note, the best bass solos I ever saw live were at the hands of Mr. Thomson. Here Duncan and Thomas share verse and chorus vocals. But it’s the great lyrical content that sets this on apart. There is a sense that the couple in the story are real people, with real struggles,
“The Road” is an example of the previously mentioned vocal prowess of Duncan on ballads. The song about life on the road and away from the family is pure emotion. Mainstream rock stars have such a different motivation for their sacrifice and that difference is examined here as Duncan bemoans the fact that he is running out of the emotional drive to finish what the Lord had started.
The only really “old style” R&B song on the album is the Stevie Wonder-like “Feel Like Singing.” The song has one of the few uses of a horn section on the project and Thomas’ guitar tone is very jazz oriented like something from “Breakin’ the Ice.” The riff does share a similarity to “Sir Duke.”
“Now of Never” is a return to the Toto oriented rock style. Nice guitar work from Thomas here as well; very Steve Lukather.
The radio friendly “Can You Help me” incorporates a very different Eagles like sound for the band, especially the vocals in the chorus. In fact, this song has always reminded me of something Prodigal would have done.
“Contender” just plain rocks. Once again Duncan’s more rock vocals are surprising. Using a boxing match as a parallel for spiritual warfare a decade before Carman made a mockery of the same imagery, the song sounds like it could have been entrance music for a boxer at the time.
The album actually closes with two very strong ballads. The first is the Thomas penned wedding song, “Just Like Me.” At the time a decent wedding song was a guaranteed radio success. This proved to be true here as well.
One of the bands finest ballads closes the album with “You Need a Reason.” A huge radio success and a lasting radio hit. The song also served as the concert closing “altar call” number. It would be this format of a ballad that Duncan would continue to find success with as a solo artist. A special nod to the killer sax solo.
CCM wasn’t really ready for something like this when it came out. The CCM world was populated with early Amy Grant, The Imperials and bands like DeGarmo and Key and Resurrection Band relegated to the far extremes. SCB brought thoughtful, well conceived and exceptionally produced pop rock to an industry completely void of that material.