The Unifying Diversity of Breaking Benjamin’s Spring Tour

Occasionally a tour lineup gets announced that makes you feel a little like you’re living in your own MySpace bulletins from 2008. Breaking Benjamin’s spring tour lineup was that for me, featuring support from Skillet, Underoath, and Fight the Fury (the newly launched side hustle for Skillet frontman John Cooper).

In many ways, the lineup seemed improbable: historically, Underoath has operated in a very different sonic lane than Breaking Benjamin or Skillet. Ten years ago, you probably never would have seen any of the three touring together, because Skillet was once primarily constrained to the Christian market.

But times have changed. Christian rock as an entity now exists almost entirely in the crossover space, a shift that Skillet has served as a frontrunner for since the days of their chart-dominating, double-platinum certified album Awake. Breaking Benjamin and Skillet have toured together now several times as a result. More recently, the rock landscape has changed further still, with “metalcore” bands getting grandfathered in increasingly to the hard rock genre. Bands like Memphis May Fire suddenly getting radio success on Mainstream Rock charts is one example of this. Underoath’s Erase Me single “Ihateit,” one of the mellowest cuts from the 2018 return album, also got traction in that format.

What is happening, in short, is consolidation, and rarely has that fact hit home as hard as when I looked at this lineup. Rock is not “cool” at present. The men in suits aren’t putting resources behind it. The result is that only the bands that already had legendary status, or the newer bands who are extremely adaptable, are surviving. The shrinking playing field sees bands that once existed comfortably in disparate subgenres suddenly coming together on the same bill. And while that speaks ominously of the challenges of rock in our current climate, tours like this one uncovered a vivid silver lining.

Fight the Fury kicked off the night with three tracks from their debut EP Still Breathing and one new track, “Soldier,” that we haven’t heard yet. John Cooper and Seth Morrison both displayed a side of their musicianship that we don’t usually see in Skillet, a raw ferocity that relied less on theater and more on flexing the muscles of heavy riffs and guttural screams. As a frontman, John Cooper has always held the crucial trait of legitimately enjoying every performance. That factor seemed amplified when presenting his passion project to an intrigued arena of listeners.

Click here for the Fight the Fury gallery

Out of all the bands on the lineup, I was most curious to see how Underoath would fit, especially given that they are still in the process of fully re-establishing themselves after a lengthy hiatus. If I had any doubts, they evaporated with the first ferocious riffs of “On My Teeth.” Underoath’s presence hit the arena like a tidal wave, consuming and relentless. I’d seen Underoath perform before in multiple different eras, and this was somehow the tightest I’d ever seen them. Every member seemed locked in to their purpose on stage, their role in the songs they were creating, whether they were throwbacks like “It’s A Dangerous Business…” or new tracks like “No Frame.”

One of the things that Underoath’s performance also impressed on me was their humility and work ethic. Lead singer Spencer Chamberlain seemed to fully recognize that the audience was from a corner of the rock world where Underoath has not yet proved themselves. He thanked them for giving Underoath a shot, offering praise to all the other bands on the bill. This is a band who has earned Grammy nominations and a Billboard #2 debut, not to mention the fact that they pioneered and defined an entire genre in the mid-2000s. But they understood the relationship they had to the audience in the room, never taking their attention for granted. I was as blown away by that as I was by the energy that carried them through even more mellow tracks like “Ihateit.”

Click here for the Underoath gallery

By the time Skillet hit the stage, the audience was warmed up and ready for the flurry of riffs and barrage of lights accompanying “Feel Invincible.” Skillet plays to a wide array of audiences, and I always find it refreshing how consistent they are, whatever stage they’re on, in messaging and in musical excellence. “Whispers in the Dark” brought back nostalgia for listeners like me, while “Sick Of It” saw a roar of approval from rock radio listeners (encouraged by blasts from cryo canons strapped to John Cooper’s forearms).

With 23 years of experience, Skillet has nearly perfected the arena rock performance. With a multitude of moving parts, from raised platforms that Korey Cooper, Seth Morrison, and cellist Tate Olsen ride alternately on “Awake and Alive” to a raised drum platform that Jen Ledger smoothly transitioned on and off of for vocal solos, Skillet dials up the intensity well beyond the songs alone: they create an experience. And that experience is always marked by a sense of purpose and conviction, evident in the urgency of songs like “Hero,” “The Resistance,” and fan favorite “Rebirthing.”

Click here for the Skillet gallery

It was almost hard to believe after Skillet left the stage that the headliner hadn’t even appeared yet. A restless crowd watched the crew drop a billowing white sheet over the stage. When the lights went out, there was a sense of collective breath being held– exhaled to scream along with the eerie opening melody of “Red Cold River.” The sheet dropped with the riffs, revealing plumes of pyro, silhouetting one of the most legendary acts in contemporary rock and roll.

Breaking Benjamin is the kind of rock band that has become a rarity in 2019. Despite the textured complexity of songs like “Breath,” “Blow Me Away,” and “Angels Fall,” Breaking Benjamin refuses to lean on tracks. Almost every sound in those songs was created live, proving the staggering skill of guitarists Jasen Rauch and Keith Wallen in particular. Frontman Benjamin Burnley seemed to effortlessly manage the seemingly impossible task of maintaining the same vocal ferocity captured in the studio, flexing his way through rumbling growls and searing melodies. Songs like “I Will Not Bow” left the audience breathless just trying to scream every word along.

There was also a disarming approachability to Breaking Benjamin’s set, a difficult thing to achieve for songs so intense. At multiple points, Benjamin Burnley left the stage to sing with fans in the audience– often children. In fact, for their encore of “Dear Agony” and “Diary of Jane,” Burnley spent a good 5-10 minutes on the arena floor, finding parents and their kids and bringing at least a dozen families on stage with them. There was something so refreshingly non-rockstar about the entire thing, a proof that Breaking Benjamin understands entirely that their songs stand on the shoulders of the entire rock community.

Click here for the Breaking Benjamin gallery

And indeed, the entire evening was a picture of the rock community at its very best. As I mentioned earlier, consolidation in the rock industry is real, and it has caused some unfortunate casualties. But it’s also caused magical moments in time like this. Not only was the lineup diverse in terms of where the bands were coming from musically– it was a picture of what happens when men and women of widely varying beliefs interact with respect and honor for each other.

Skillet is formed by members that are devoutly Christian, and John Cooper clearly but graciously spoke about his love for Jesus before the band launched into their hit “Hero.” Both Underoath and Breaking Benjamin are groups of men who hold a wide array of beliefs about life and spirituality. For some of them, their relationship to belief has been much-discussed and complex. But for that evening, they all shared a stage, repeatedly voicing praises for each other. Benjamin Burnley fondly recalled the first time he asked Skillet how on earth they ended up with their band name. John Cooper gushed about how exciting it was to tour with Underoath for the first time.

That attitude on stage was reflected throughout the entire room. People of all ages, all backgrounds, all beliefs, were able to join each other under one roof and enjoy music, enjoy songs that served as deeply personal common ground in their stories.

Rock in 2019 is a slippery place to stand. But Breaking Benjamin, Skillet, and Underoath proved what happens when we lock arms as a community and hold each other up instead of letting each other fall. What they effectively created was a picture for the potential of our era, a standard of unity to fight for– and to enjoy with all our hearts when it’s found.

Listen to songs from the tour in this Rock On Purpose playlist (content note: profanity).

For a full list of tour dates for each band, visit:

http://breakingbenjamin.com/tour/
http://www.skillet.com/tour
http://underoath777.com/#tour
https://fightthefury.com/

Life Is Beautiful

(Content Note: Mentions of suicide, self harm, and drug use.)

I was 11 or 12 years old when my brother introduced me to the song “Life is Beautiful” by Sixx: A.M. I was depressed and didn’t want to be alive anymore; I found solace in that song.

Will you swear on your life that no one will cry at my funeral?”

There was a part of me that wanted to believe that life truly was beautiful, but I couldn’t see it. Instead, my brain twisted the lyrics into a suicide note. I imagined my mother crying at my funeral, but I didn’t want that. Instead, I wanted my family and friends to be happy and live fully, knowing I was free from the burden of life.

I was too naive to understand this song was actually written about Nikki Sixx’s recovery from a heroin addiction. But I was somehow old enough to be tired of life. It felt like I was dead inside and I hadn’t even made it to high school yet. However, the music made me feel as if I was somewhere in between life and death. I was drowning in a pool of melancholy, but it was okay. I could feel something.

You can’t learn to tell the truth until you learn to lie.”

Around the same time I became enamored with “Life is Beautiful,” I wrote my first suicide note. I don’t really remember if it was originally meant as a suicide note, but it was concerning enough to my friends that it got back to my mother. She was upset, so I realized I couldn’t say anything about being depressed. And so the lies began.

I hid my self-loathing behind sarcasm and fake happiness. I began to self harm and hid that behind my sleeves. I hid inside myself for years; eventually I realized I was a shell of everything I could be. So I decided to tell the truth, thinly veiled within my own music and poetry.

“You can’t live until you die.”

Eventually, I found other music to fall in love with and “Life is Beautiful” fell out of my regular rotation. Until years later, when I noticed The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack in my recommended albums on Amazon. I bought it, and all of the feelings from when I was 12 flooded back.

Maybe I never developed a drug addiction; maybe I was never actually on the brink of death. But I lived inside of a suicidal mind for the majority of my youth. My brain felt like it was in a stare-down with death for years.

Just open your eyes and see that life is beautiful.”

Listening to this anthem of my adolescence again at 19 and hearing something other than a musical suicide note was breathtaking. For the first time, I heard what Nikki Sixx was trying to say. I haven’t experienced nearly as much as he has, but I’ve experienced enough to understand.

Life is filled with pain and disappointment. You can shut it all out and be numb to everything, or you can face the hurt and enjoy the good experiences. There’s not a lot I know for sure, but I definitely know this: it was only after I spent years living as someone who was already dead that I began to realize how beautiful life really is.

This post contributed by Sam, who blogs at Life of an Average Introvert. You can follow her writing on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Panic! At The Disco And the Art of Joy

Panic! At The Disco ran a countdown on one of multiple massive LCD screens, descending through the seconds until their set. The energy of roughly 16,000 people in the room—many of them teenagers—crackled tangible and electric in the air. Their voices sounded like the signals of individual satellites ascending into the dark towards the stadium’s roof, out of sync, until the final minute unified them: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

I was on the arena floor in the media area, two cameras slung over my shoulders, perfectly positioned to watch Brendon Urie jump from inside the stage onto its surface—like levitating. Like magic. And the crowd responded in kind, on their feet, in the air, instantly screaming the words back.

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Later, I’d walk the venue floor, past rows and rows of listeners, to find my way up multiple flights of stairs to an upper level vantage point. I watched the room erupt with the optimistic radio smash hit “High Hopes.” I saw them brought down to rapturous attention with “Dying in LA” (a piece that saw Brendon Urie performing the song at an all-white piano, suspended in midair, traveling across the length of the arena). I witnessed a masterful cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” unite every generation, parents and their teenagers and the 20-somethings like myself in between, in a raucous sing along.

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Panic! At The Disco’s showmanship is masterful. From the explosive fireworks that punctuated “Ready to Go” to the plumes of pyro perfectly timed with a ferocious live cover of “The Greatest Show,” every element is woven together to create an experience. At moments, it was like being immersed in a movie. A small strings and brass section created a refreshingly organic feel to big, arena-sized songs. Nicole Rowe and Mike Naran offered the perfect balance of personality and professionalism on bass and guitar. And then there’s Brendon—every inch of his posture a showman, channeling the Vegas vaudeville that raised him. He strutted and danced, occasionally descending below the stage’s surface as if to make a point before bursting back into the spotlight, cheekily soaring through effortless vocal runs that would leave most vocalists gasping.

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The crowd was engaged at every moment of 25 songs and nearly 2 hours. For that matter, I was engaged. I was in the generation that first found Panic! when “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” was the edgy emo anthem every MySpace kid was living for. I’ve watched Panic! At The Disco manage to somehow continue to capture the attention of each new generation, a progression of continued relevance that I’m sure is on some level calculated, yet never feels contrived.

Usually, I am drawn to the songs that reveal something deep about the world, that go beneath the surface. Rock has always been a socially conscious genre, from the scathing commentary of early U2 to earnest current acts like Rise Against. Spirituality finds a natural home in the genre for that reason.

But Panic! At The Disco does not fall into that category. Their songs often feature your standard party content that will not be for everyone reading this. So what is it about them and their music that have been so resonate for over a decade now?

As I watched an arena full of listeners passionately singing along, often abandoning their phones for long periods of time, intensely connected to each other through the songs, I felt a slow-dawning realization: the resonance is joy.

The curtain of 2019 has opened on a world deeply, painfully divided, politically, relationally, ideologically. The issues that are being discussed are important, make no mistake. But the digital age and the non-stop access to these life and death conversations becomes exhausting on a soul level. I see the word “compassion fatigue” more and more frequently. The pursuit of truth and beauty is certainly worth enduring for. But there is a bone-deep weariness that comes with being asked to bear the weight of empathy for a perpetual onslaught of tragedies, the worst of human experience exposed and available to us 24/7. Teenagers coming of age now are the first to have spent their entire life in a world where to-the-minute updates on the latest human rights atrocities are literally streamed into their consciousness.

In a world like that, maybe something to simply enjoy is no small thing. The art of joy, of delight, becomes something spiritual in and of itself. There is a gift in having spaces to let go of the weight we carry, to rally ourselves, to sing a hopeful song, before facing the hard conversations again. Maybe even trying (and failing) to sing along with Brendon Urie’s ridiculous falsetto is an act of pushing back against the belief that tragedy is all there is.

“Feel good” anthems become something more in times like these. They become a powerful affirmation of all the living we are invited to do, even in the face of the dark.

Had to have high, high hopes for a living
Didn’t know how but I always had a feeling
I was gonna be that one in a million
Always had high, high hopes.”

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After “Victorious” finished the evening with a flash of confetti, I left the Pray for the Wicked tour smiling, surrounded by others who were doing the same.

See the full photo gallery.

Hayley Williams and When Emo Music Grows Up

This week, alternative music icon Hayley Williams took to Instagram to share that we can expect social media silence from her for awhile. “If you deal with depression or any kind of PTSD, please take it seriously and try hard to remember that it’s not who you are but rather it is a very common effect of the world we are exposed to and the lives we try so hard to engage in,” Williams shared. “I know it’s very popular to say ‘it’s okay to not be okay…’ but please give me the grace to admit that as I am quickly approaching 30 I am just not okay with not being okay anymore.”

The Instagram post (which ultimately pointed towards a mental health internet break for Hayley but no end to her musical and hair dye endeavors) followed up an intimate, confessional editorial she wrote for PAPER Magazine earlier this year. In the op-ed, Hayley Williams wrote about her struggles with mental health and how the process of reaching a new rock bottom informed the band’s darkly shimmering pop masterpiece After Laughter.

Moments in the raw discourse that the Paramore singer has begun to build with fans might bring to mind lyrics written by her teenage self– bring to mind less for comparison, more for contrast. There was all the urgency of adolescence in Paramore’s early songs, the intensity born of a time of life when emotions are all as big and unnavigable as rolling tsunamis. I remember what it felt like to be 16 years old and singing “this is an emergency, so are you listening?”

But I also know what it’s like to be nearing 30 and no longer OK with not being OK.

Hayley Williams is one voice in what I believe is a growing conversation: what happens when the emo kids grow up? There is a certain rite of passage to being sad, to encountering the boisterous tragedy of the world for the first time. I don’t believe that adolescent experience, too often dismissed as “teenage angst,” is anything to be sneered at; I think it’s a necessary, borderline sacred, part of becoming. But none of us stay teenagers forever. And the bands who started as Warped Tour kids haven’t stayed there either.

The groups who sang our emo anthems of the early-to-mid-2000s have grown up with us. They’ve had other jobs. They’ve gotten married– and divorced. They’ve had a few kids. They’ve been through health problems. They’ve lived the monotony of the daily demands of bills to pay. And for the good bands, their music has begun to reflect it. A newer face, Beartooth’s 2014 album Disgusting was a scalding, almost difficult to hear journey through the throes of alcoholism. But to me, this year’s Disease was perhaps even more poignantly painful, seemingly asking: “is this the best recovery gets? Getting up and doing this again and again for the rest of my life?”

I’m getting older
Still lost as ever
Faking a smile while I bury the pressure.
Why does this happen?
I should be fine
But I can’t shake the feeling I’m living a lie.

The examples of alternative bands who have undergone similar subtle thematic shifts over years of maturation are endless. See Papa Roach’s shift from suicide anthem “Last Resort” to the message of “Face Everything and Rise.” Dig into the steady unfolding of Breaking Benjamin’s discography. Most recently, even Avril Lavigne traded the sarcasm of “My Happy Ending” for the worshipful sincerity of “Head Above Water” (and its corresponding nonprofit).

This steady progression seems to be propelled by the same slow recognition: we have to start with recognizing that we’re not OK. But we can’t stop there. We can’t be 30-somethings still mired in the same things that held us captive at 13. We who have survived owe it to everyone still in the emotional trenches to tell a truer story.

We have to talk (and sing) about what happens when getting better looks less like a straight line progression and more like a cyclical pattern through winters and summers, deaths and rebirths. We have to talk about what happens when you check off every suicide prevention box on the list and still lose someone. We have to talk about both the teenage kids struggling with self-harm and the adults awkwardly navigating their old scars through the world. We have to talk about the resolve that begins sobriety and the ongoing day-to-day ache of continuing to fight for it. We have to talk about it getting better. We have to talk about the fact that sometimes it hasn’t yet.

This means that those that once just sang about pain are now advocating for better mental health access and destigmatizing treatment for those whose brains can’t stop being sad, as Hayley Williams has done. The underdog, anti-system message that forms the core fabric of rock in all its forms is being forged into a determination to help those the system has rejected (see Silent Planet’s recent support of rejected and homeless LGBT youth). In short, social critique has matured into social change.

Those conversations are difficult and require nuance. It’s one thing to write a song about being suicidal, and we will certainly always desperately need those. But we also need the nuance of gutsy songs like twenty one pilots’ “Neon Gravestones,” which admits that maybe we do a dangerous disservice to everyone around us when we simplify, even glorify, such a life or death conversation.

The difficulty and risk of fallout from those kinds of ventures explains why some bands choose to stay in what seems like a state of musical adolescence, fixated on the same topics that were in vogue alongside side swept bangs and guyliner. And I can certainly enjoy those bands in their own right (as I said, there is nothing wrong with the rite of passage that is an “emo phase”).

But as an emo kid who grew up, I’m grateful for the bands who did too. I’m grateful for the music that hosts the hard conversations. These are the kinds of songs that give me tremendous hope for the alternative music scene in 2018, and I’ll be looking forward to hearing a lot more of it.

Listen to a few of the exceptional albums referenced in this feature:
After Laughter by Paramore
Disease by Beartooth
F.E.A.R. by Papa Roach
Ember by Breaking Benjamin
Head Above Water” by Avril Lavigne
When the End Began by Silent Planet
Trench by twenty one pilots

A Story of Unending Redemption: RED Unstoppable Tour Review

As my 11 year old son and I stood in line outside the Chameleon Club in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania, interacting with fellow concert goers, I was taken back to the first experience I had seeing RED perform live.

In 2006, before RED released their freshman album End of Silence, I had the privilege of being introduced to them as they toured in support of Day of Fire. I was a youth leader before having kids of our own, and I was passionate about sharing my love of rock and roll with teens– some of whom otherwise may not be exposed to a positive message of hope and love. Rock and roll bands have a unique way of relating to the most vulnerable among us, young and old alike.

Fast forward 12 years to this chilly fall evening in Central Pennsylvania as we wait for the doors to open for the Fall 2018 Unstoppable Tour. My son, who was the youngest at this all ages club show, was spending his wait time laughing it up with the adults in line. Kids have a way of bringing out the best in strangers, which made this particular wait memorable for me.

Two members of Portland, Oregon based Veio (one of the opening acts) came out to chat with fans, introducing themselves to my son and I. I appreciate smaller hometown shows because artists are more accessible to fans than at festivals and arena tours.

Finally the doors opened and we entered the venue– a multiple story open floor plan (standing only) club, with the 21-and-over crowd allowed on the floor while the under-21 crowd was directed upstairs to a balcony, away from the bar. The Chameleon Club offers an intimate setting in which to see a concert with great views from anywhere. We got there early, so we were able to head up the stairs to find a great spot along the front railing with a perfect view of the stage from above.

The aforementioned Veio opened up the show with a hard-hitting four song set that will definitely lead me to explore their music further. I learned from mixing with fans before the show that “The Revery” is a nearly ten minute track that is a must-listen.

Veio was followed by international rockers Skyharbor, comprised of members from India and the United States. Their sound was raw yet melodic, featuring the impressive vocals of Eric Emery.

Our favorite of the supporting acts was The Veer Union, a Vancouver based band with a heavy vibe for fans of Spoken and Seventh Day Slumber. They provided one of the highlights of the evening during their final song “Numb,” a Linkin Park cover dedicated to Chester Bennington.

Finally it was time for the main event as the RED crew set up a cemetery-themed stage for the Pennsylvania native hard rock veterans.

As the track for “Still Alive” began playing, lead singer Michael Barnes and brothers Anthony and Randy Armstrong took the stage along with their touring drummer Dan Johnson, who was perched atop a gated crypt on the back of center stage. The band entered on cue with fire and smoke blasting from the towers of the graveyard, electrifying the capacity crowd and kicking off a 17-song, nearly two hour set.

The opener transitioned seamlessly into “Faceless,” during which I came to appreciate the energy and passion of the young fans surrounding me. It was a refreshing night to be joined by so many fans rocking so hard along with the band. I have always been the one jumping up and down and giving every fiber of my being, singing along with my favorite songs.

After tight renditions of “Lie To Me (Denial)” and “Fracture,” RED launched into what was for me a spiritually moving throwback set. I remember listening through End of Silence when it was released, during dark periods and challenges early in my adult life. “Lost in You” and “Let Go” were songs that comforted me during a difficult season. Music has a way of bringing back memories, good and bad, while reminding us that we serve a God who will always love us and hold us close. I sang these two songs followed by “Already Over” as my prayer during this show, my soul overflowing and my heart full to be able to sit alongside my son as a reminder of God’s goodness.

After this set, it was time to ramp it up with hard hitting tracks like “Feed the Machine” and “Release the Panic,” which represent a time to just rock out until all the anxiety and stress built up from life is washed away by the sweat dripping off my forehead.

In a fun twist, RED upped the anti on “Breathe Into Me,” creating an edgier moment than the recording. After this song, RED said thanks to the Lancaster fans and left the stage– but no one in the house was leaving as chants for one more song filled the room.

Drummer Dan Johnson took his place on stage first, treating us to a wild and fun drum solo that captivated my son as we approached midnight. After a minute or two, he was joined on stage by the rest of the group as they launched into their final song. They capped a fantastic night with “Unstoppable,” a Sia cover and one of the best tunes on their latest album Gone.

After the show, we chatted with our new friends on the way to the parking garage and said goodnight.

My son and I have come toe to toe with depression and anxiety, with rock music being our shared refuge. It was exciting that he expressed how much he enjoyed RED, along with the supporting artists joining them on stage. I agree that it was a great night, given the superior quality of all the bands, and I hope that he continues lean on positive music to help him overcome the challenges sure to come his way as he enters his teenage years.

RED continues to demonstrate how musically tight and in sync they are as they present one of the most exciting and technically sound live shows, night in and night out. On this raw and cool autumn night, this was everything that my soul was craving, and I left fulfilled.

The Wounded Heart of Breaking Benjamin

This post contributed to Rock On Purpose by September Grace

Redemption is often shown in fiction as a clear-cut story: Point A to Point Fall-from-Grace to Point Happily-Ever-After. In so many stories–musically, cinematically, literarily–we gravitate toward sharp contrast redemptions. We want to see someone at rock bottom be stabilized, someone awful become someone good. If someone can travel from an extreme bad to an extreme good, then maybe, just maybe, there’s a redemption story for us too. Maybe, just maybe, if we find that sweet spot of a turning point, our physical, financial, mental, and spiritual issues will go away. We’ll have our own Happily Ever After.

But redemption is messy. Humanity’s heart itself is a mess of contradicting desires, beliefs, and convictions.

In 2015, Breaking Benjamin released Dark Before Dawn, their first album in six years. In 2018, they released their follow-up Ember. I’d liked Breaking Benjamin in the mid-2000s, but not enough to keep up with. Many of their unapologetically angry and honest songs hit too close to home for me; they resonated with my own anger at feeling like a rejected redemption story, and I wasn’t willing to face that anger yet. But, on a whim, I gave Dark Before Dawn a listen…and fell in love with their sound, their lyrics, their theme, their heart (confession: they are now the only artist I pre-order albums for).

In Dark Before Dawn, Breaking Benjamin sings about the rollercoaster of hope and despair, of anger and love, of striving to save and giving up for lost. More than anything, they sing about the weariness of hope, the relief of surrendering to the dark, yet choosing to fight for hope all the same.

These are uncomfortable topics, especially in Christian circles. For Christians, there is an unfortunate teaching that we must always be happy and optimistic. But a Christian’s joy and a Christian’s hope aren’t superficial; they are more than that. A Christian’s joy allows for grief. A Christian’s hope allows for sadness. Romans 12:15 says to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Even for Christians, those who call themselves children of God, those who are already “redeemed,” their redemption story isn’t concluded, and chapters of their life will still have painful moments, months, years.

Dark Before Dawn paints a redemptive story, but not a clean-cut one. After the opening instrumental track “Dark,” track two, “Failure,” sets the stage of a lost, tired, and despairing heart. The heart in “Failure” seems to have lost all but a single spark of hope.

“Tired of feeling lost / tired of letting go / tear the whole world down.”

The spark of hope struggles to stay lit in the beginning of “Angels Fall” when the heart loses even more. But it finds reason to hold on and move forward. Even if it’s not rational, even if the heart is angry, it’s not giving up…it can’t give up, as giving up means there truly is nothing left.

“When angels fall with broken wings / I can’t give up I can’t give in / When all is lost and daylight ends / I’ll carry you and we will live forever.”

This pattern of hope lost then regained, of anger and bitterness fighting against the desire to love and cherish, continues throughout the next four tracks. Part two of the album begins with “Never Again,” where hope has taken the upper hand in the constant battle between despair and new beginnings.

“Never again / Time will not take the life from me.”
“Never Again”

“Heaven above me / Take my hand / Shine until there’s nothing left but you.”
“Ashes of Eden”

“No longer defeated.”
“Defeated”

Dark Before Dawn altogether depicts a loaded step in the redemption story: despair, almost hope, despair, anger, hope yet again, love, despair, but ending on the decision never to accept defeat. Breaking Benjamin’s follow-up album, Ember, follows a similar battle for the fate of the heart and soul, but with the flames of fight starting to burn brighter.

In Ember, the heart has begun to feel again. “Feed the Wolf” sings of repressed rage, addiction, violence, and the fear of so many powerful, negative emotions boiling to the surface. “Red Cold River” mourns the return of spiritual numbness after such a sharp emotional awakening. “Tourniquet” paints love as a powerful force that can save (“Love will tie the tourniquet“) and destroy (“and suffocate me“). “Psycho” returns to anger with a harsh, raw refusal to cover up the spiritual, mental, and emotional wounds just to achieve a fake mask of peace.

But where Ember truly progresses Dark Before Dawn‘s story is in “The Dark of You.” Breaking Benjamin could easily have continued the cycle of self-focused destruction and recovery. Instead, they show kernels of growth, of grace, and of an increased understanding of selfless love.

“Fade away to the wicked world we live / And I become the dark of you / Say a prayer for the wounded heart within / As I become the dark of you / …Save this selfish world.”

The next track, “Torn in Two,” continues the plea to the hopeless to “hold on / rise / hold on,” while “Blood” mourns the destruction caused by the very hate the heart once clung to. “Save Yourself” is a grief-stricken prayer for other hearts not to be deceived by the dark. And finally, “Close Your Eyes” is yet another prayer for the darkness to be taken away, to be filled with light, and to be renewed for the next battle in the journey.

Quite a bit of rock music includes some element of the redemptive journey. I think part of what makes rock music so attractive is its raw vulnerability to admit what it doesn’t know, have the courage to feel pain, and still seek answers. I imagine Breaking Benjamin will remain on my playlist for quite some time, and I can hardly wait to see what their next chapter holds.


September Grace is an aspiring novelist, book hoarder collector and movie watcher. She has a black feline floof named Faust, an assortment of plants that seek global domination, and a distinct lack of awareness for where she is at any given moment. You can learn more about September at nevermorelit.com.

Supernatural: 20 Years Later

Intro

Supernatural.  This was the album that followed THE album for a rock, rap and soul trio who defined an era in Christian music.

dc Talk’s fifth and last all-new studio project was released by Forefront Records twenty years ago on September 22, 1998.  The ultra-popular group was coming off an album, Jesus Freak, that certified RIAA Gold in its first month and recently earned double Platinum certification.

To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the release of Supernatural, hop in our Rock On Purpose time machine to take a trip down memory lane and recall what was happening in Christian rock, how and why we think dc Talk saved their best for last.

Take a Dive Into Collaboration

Before Supernatural, the primary songwriter for dc Talk had been the hip-hop third of the group, Toby McKeehan.

After Jesus Freak, the band signed a mainstream distribution deal with Virgin Records in 1996, with the objective of getting their music out to a wider audience. For the first time, all three vocalists were a part of the writing process on every song with Supernatural.  The result of the collaboration was a drastic shift in style, from a mix of alternate rock and rap to a pop/rock sound–the first record in which Toby McKeehan did not provide any rap verse.

Indicative of the fact that dc Talk was in the prime of their career, the early reception for Supernatural was impressive. It overtook Jesus Freak to set a new record for first week sales for a Christian release and debuted at 4 on the Billboard 200 charts.

The landscape of Christian music in 1998 was also starting to shift away from an era of rock-friendly radio to a preference for pop/worship.  With the exception of Supernatural and the Newsboys debut with Peter Furler as frontman, Step Up to the Microphone, the majority of radio was captivated by softer tunes such as Avalon’s “Testify To Love” and Rebecca St. James’ “Pray.” Compare that to 1996, when Jesus Freak, Newsboys’ Take Me to Your Leader, and Jars Of Clay self-titled debut were dominating the Billboard charts.

This allowed songs like “Into Jesus,” “Godsend,” “Consume Me,” and “Red Letters” to gain significant traction from the Supernatural release.

Since I Met Jesus Freak, I Love Rock and Roll

That shift in the radio market did not prevent dc Talk from laying down some impressive rock and roll tracks on this record.  Let’s take a spin through Supernatural to visit the themes and some of our favorite rockers.

The new musical direction and themes of both spirituality as well as wrestling with change is evident from the start with the fast-paced “It’s Killing Me,” a song about letting go of something that is tearing you up inside.  The familiar voice of Michael Tait welcomes the listener as the trio takes turns singing through a verse before building to that familiar harmony in energetic and fist-pumping fashion on the chorus.

“Dive” is a slow but driving rocker with an interesting blend of electronic submarine-like sounds, thick and heavy guitars, and steady rhythmic percussion.  This song carries a theme of leaving the familiarity of a lifestyle that we’ve become comfortable with and taking a plunge into the unknown.

“My Friend (So Long)” was written as a fictional story about dealing with the emotions and feelings of two remaining if one of the members left to pursue a solo career.  dc Talk released a concept video for this fun single, which was filmed in a hospital in Tennessee around the time that Toby McKeehan’s first son, Truett, was born.

Another great song, “Wanna Be Loved,” was recorded live with horns provided by The W’s during the Supernatural Experience tour.  The theme of diversity and inclusion is a familiar one across many of dc Talk projects, from “Walls” on Nu Thang to “Colored People” on Jesus Freak. At their peak, the band started a foundation called E.R.A.C.E. (Eliminating Racism And Creating Equality) for the purpose of raising awareness of racial injustice and bringing people from all cultural backgrounds together.

Among the best tracks, and demonstrating the vast dynamics that collaboration yields, “Since I Met You” is closer to punk rock as Toby shows off his vocal skills.  The song is quite enjoyable lyrically too, with wordplay drizzled throughout revealing the internal conflict of pretending everything is fine but needing to rely on God to be made whole.

“You call me crazy, man you make my day
My state of residence was disarray
At every party and as far as anybody knew – everything was cool, but
The truth was bottled up inside of me

Since I met You I’ve been alright
You turn all my darkness into light.”

If “Since I Met You” is the ultimate statement that the boys still rock, the declaration that we’re still Jesus Freaks on this record would be “Into Jesus.”  This anthem declares that, yes, we’re still believers in Christ, even though perhaps we’re making some music to reach a wider audience.

Finally, the title track. “Supernatural” opens with a bass part that Otto Price nails–he still crushed it almost two decades later on the Jesus Freak Cruise in 2017.  In the second verse, Kevin Max reminds us all that he is one of the elite vocalists in Christian music (if not beyond) and that we are strangers in a foreign land.

“Beyond this physical terrain
There’s an invisible domain
Where angels battle over souls in vast array
But down on earth is where I am
No wings to fly, no place to stand
Here on my knees I am a stranger in this land.”

Sail Away on My Ship

“I am solo in this world of water
Only the tip of a sunrise visible
Like the morning light in a little girl’s eyes
I crave this freedom
I find it only in this little ship.”

Like “Alas My Love” on Jesus Freak, Kevin Max poetry closes this album. Perhaps the words above in “There is a Treason At Sea” are a foreshadowing as much as they are inspiration for the cover art for the album.

Fast forward twenty years to 2018, and Toby McKeehan is better known by his stage name of TobyMac as he continues to soar in his solo career. Michael Tait, after two solo projects and the starring role playing Jesus in Hero: The Rock Opera, joined forces as frontman of the Newsboys in 2009. Finally, crooner Kevin Max regularly releases music independently across a variety of genres from pop/rock to jazz. His most recent album, AWOL, is a brand of classic rock targeted to mainstream listeners.

Despite two decades separating us from their last release, the demand for dc Talk is still very high as they plan to set sail on the second Jesus Freak Cruise next June– and have hinted at a possible reunion on land at some point as well.

Supernatural showed us how dc Talk could successfully follow up the most important album of all time in Christian music, so a second act for dc Talk would no doubt withstand the test of time.

Find Supernatural on iTunes or Spotify.

Rock and Roll Helps My Family Overcome

In the Bible, James 1 reminds us to be slow to speak and quick to listen. These words are a lifetime challenge, one that I’ve been wrestling with since growing up in a Christian conservative household.

As I grow in age and gain wisdom, these words have taught me that by taking time to listen to others, it turns out everyone has a story of struggling through difficult seasons. Not everyone has an addiction to overcome, or actionable suicidal thoughts, but everyone– if we’re honest– has struggled with some form of anxiety or depression.

This is the story that has been written so far about my family, our shared struggles with depression and anxiety, and how rock and roll has been therapeutic in bringing us together.

As with most true stories, this story has a beginning. The term “beginning” might be misleading, because I don’t believe anyone just wakes up one day and starts to experience depression or anxiety. These mental health challenges are deeply rooted and creep up on us over the course of time. Often we don’t even realize it’s on us until we are at a crossroads, which is where this story begins.

A few years ago on one of the last hazy days of summer vacation, my wife and our four kids were visiting my mother-in-law and swimming in the pool. At the time our oldest son was about 7 or 8, and our youngest was an infant. I was working about a 3 hour drive away from where they were for the day. It was a routine kind of day, nothing out of the ordinary– until I got a phone call from my frantic mother-in-law. My wife had passed out while swimming. Emergency help was on the way.

By the time I arrived at Hershey Medical Center, my wife had been flown there by helicopter and was awake and seemed well at the time. She would have a type of pacemaker installed when a heart condition was determined to be the root cause. Later, lab testing would reveal that three of our kids also share this genetic heart condition. Our story, and our battles with anxiety and depression, began on that hazy, routine summer day.

My oldest son had the composure to go ahead and call 911 when my wife passed out in the pool, then sat with our younger kids watching the scene unfold. He didn’t know how to process this emotionally at the time, so I suspect there was a lot of buildup that festered over time.

Fast forward to February 2017 on Super Bowl Sunday.

I’d recently had battles with my own depression, to the point where I had contemplated and even researched suicide. At that time, I chose not to seek help for myself .

Our oldest son came home from church that day, rabid to play video games. I shut that down because of concerns I had with behavior that morning. His response was unexpected, to say the least: he went to his room and covered himself with his blanket in a fit of rage. He made what we assumed to be empty, unknowing threats of self-harm and suicide. As parents, we took the first step of discussing it with him, hoping he’d understand that those are not words to speak lightly. He doubled down, so we took him to the Emergency Room, hoping to prove that what he was saying was serious and that we care so much about him that we will seek medical attention.

What they don’t tell you in the parenting handbook is that mental health is not to be messed with. I think he got so nervous at the hospital that things escalated to the point that he simply didn’t know how to respond, and we wound up staying two nights in the ER. After that, my son would be graciously admitted to an outpatient psychological center for further counseling and evaluation– about 3 months of outpatient, daily counseling for him. During the ER stay, I really connected and felt I fully understood “Love Feels Like” by Toby Mac (featuring dc Talk). I truly was “poured out, used up, still giving; stretching me out to the end of my limits.”

Later that summer, we had to say a very hard goodbye to our dog, who was 12 years old when we put him down. That was particularly hard on my oldest son, who had become attached to our dog while going through counseling. It was at this time that I started to introduce my kids to Skillet songs like “Invincible,” and my older boys used the Echo Dot to find more and more songs by Skillet.

Shortly after these traumatic events in 2017, my wife and I had the privilege to set sail on the Jesus Freak Cruise. This cruise was much needed for us after a difficult season. It also connected me with my roots as a Disc Jockey and writer in the CCM industry, and even more so my passion for positive rock and roll (dc Talk was one of the original Christian grunge rock bands I listened to).

Earlier this year I experienced another season of extreme thoughts and high anxiety. Life has taught me that this will be a lifelong ongoing battle, and the best thing to do is find a community to be a part of (enter the influence of the rock and roll community). Getting involved again in the music industry last fall (first with NewReleaseToday, and now with Rock On Purpose) has helped me to connect with my family in so many ways.

One of those was a shared interest in Skillet. Turns out, boys really enjoy banging their heads and screaming lyrics about feeling “like a monster.”

We went to Uprise 2017 together to see Skillet live, which ignited a passion for singing and rock and roll in my boys that help us to relate well together. Matt Baird, lead singer of Spoken, took time to take a picture with my boys and I and to sign posters for them. He was genuinely interested in chatting with us. I think those moments can have a lasting impact for our children.

My son is doing better now, and music is still a very important thing in his life.  He listens to Imagine Dragons and Skillet, both bands having a big impact with a positive message.

As for me, after walking through a very dark time in December and into winter of 2018,
rock and roll music has kept me alive and fighting on many days. Lacey Sturm, Skillet, Seventh Day Slumber and the community of fellow rockheads and the various rock shows I’ve attended this year help to be a reminder to me that life is worth the pain, and we’re not in this thing alone.

I stand here to say this: the struggle with depression and anxiety is real, but positive and deeply meaningful music with an edge to it has been a therapeutic escape. It’s also OK to seek professional help.

Our community that is rock and roll is an example of the best medicine: love each other well, remind those around you that tomorrow needs them. Remain so tightly connected, pray for one another and make sure absolutely nothing is off limits in our conversations with each other.

The best part of it is that our fellow rockers have James 1 figured out: listen well, speak slowly.

TWLOHA: World Suicide Prevention Day and Music

The music community, and especially the rock community, has become inextricably tied to the mental health conversation in America. And it’s a time when that conversation is more urgent than ever before: the suicide rate in the United States has risen 25% in the last 20 years. That tragic number has been felt in losses of rock icons Chester Bennington, Tom Petty, Chris Cornell and Jill Janus.

As we mark 2018’s Word Suicide Prevention Day at the start of National Suicide Prevention week, TWLOHA‘s music and events coordinator Elizabeth Wilder took some time to share about this year’s campaign and the unique role music has to play.

Can you share a little bit about the idea behind this year’s World Suicide Prevention Campaign theme, “Tomorrow Needs You?”

Every year we come together and brainstorm different World Suicide Prevention Day slogans. In past years, we have pulled from books and blogs and quotes from people who have had close ties with To Write Love on Her Arms. Finding the perfect slogan or theme is all about connecting with an audience. What is going to draw people in? What is going to get people thinking? And more importantly, what will engage people?

“Tomorrow Needs You” hit us and it stuck. It’s an opportunity to allow people to look forward, to see the future and know that it’s bright. We hope that this phrase can let people know that they’re never walking alone.

A really fun moment that has set this year’s campaign apart from years past has been the raffle of the signed soccer jerseys. How did that come to be, and what impact has it had on TWLOHA’s overall aim for this year’s fundraising?

Jamie, our founder, and Ashlyn Harris actually went to the same high school, so the connection has always been there even before she became a soccer icon. Jamie reconnected with Ashlyn a few years ago, and she has always been a big supporter of To Write Love on Her Arms’ mission. We’ve been able to witness the support of the soccer community grow every year, and we’re so grateful for the friendship we’ve been able to nurture. Jamie attended the USA vs. Chile game, where Ashlyn Harris, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, and Alex Morgan all graciously donated their jerseys to raise money for our WSPD campaign.

The response has been incredible. In about a week, we have raised over $30,000 through raffle tickets. We raised our overall goal to $50,000 because of the engagement it had received. We’re so humbled by the ongoing support, and the multitude of opportunities we’ve been able to share with these women.

TWLOHA has done the difficult, valuable, complex work of enduring as a non-profit for over a decade now. What are some of the ways that TWLOHA’s approach has grown and developed over the years?

It’s really interesting to think about how our approach has grown over the past 12 years. I think it’s all about meeting people halfway, wherever that may be. Whether it’s at a music festival, in a school, or at a yoga event, we want people to feel welcome and heard. We’ve learned that mental health does not discriminate. It impacts all walks of life, and we want to be able to feel comfortable enough to share their story. Our mission is to reach as many people as we can, however we can.

The mission of TWLOHA has always been tied to the music community. What makes music a natural fit for the conversations TWLOHA wants to foster?

At To Write Love on Her Arms we always like to say, “Music is a safe place.” We go to concerts to drop the heavy at the door and get lost in our favorite bands/artists. Being able to act as a bridge of hope and help to people in the music scene feels, like you said, a natural fit. We want to connect with people the same way they connect to music. It’s a unique platform that can reach a lot of hurting people. From the beginning we have had such strong support from the music community, and we can only hope that continues over the next few years.

How can music fans specifically engage in supporting the work TWLOHA is doing?

We make it really simple for people to get involved and support TWLOHA’s mission. We encourage people to take a look at our Get Involved page to see how you can bring a message of hope and help to your community. Whether it’s purchasing info cards to hang up in venues and coffeeshops or getting educated, everything helps to start a healthy conversation about mental health. Music fans specifically can host a benefit, which a is a night of song and poetry, to raise awareness and support TWLOHA. We’ve witnessed so many stories shared, and so much vulnerability at events likes these.

What is a good shortlist of resources for those who are struggling or know someone who is struggling?

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, we encourage you to check out TWLOHA’s Find Help page. We have resources in all 50 states, and 3 different countries. If you’re in immediate crisis please don’t hesitate to text TWLOHA to 741741, Crisis Text Line, you’ll be automatically connected to a trained crisis counselor. We want you to know that you’re not alone, that your story is important, and that help and hope are real.

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