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.

The Bands That Grow With Us: A Skillet Concert Review

On August 24, I walked from my parents’ house to a college performing arts center. Skillet’s buses and semi were huddled around the back of the building, and a small crowd of concert-goers in emblazoned t-shirts clustered around the front. I checked in at will call for my pass, got my camera’s settings in place, and settled in for a night watching Skillet bring their blistering live show to East Texas.

Ten years ago, I stood in that same room to see that same band. Skillet was touring the record Comatose at the time, and it was my very first rock show. Then, I had a general admission ticket which I’d kept on display in my bedroom for months in advance so I could see it whenever I was having a bad day. When the concert day finally came, I was so excited–and nervous–I couldn’t sit down. A crowd pressed against the front of the stage. I edged into the center of it, holding to the railing, ready.

I remembered this as I scoped out the photography situation. I walked past the spot where I had staked my claim ten years earlier, smiling at the memory of how hard I had to hold on once things got rowdy.

The room dropped to black, with an introductory swell of music that had the crowd screaming. Then John Cooper’s voice boomed out over the room: “I feel, I feel it: invincible.”

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The room was instantly captivated, singing along in a roar. The band was electric. Korey Cooper seemed in constant motion, practically dancing with her guitar. Seth Morrison’s guitar work, a marriage of grungy distortion and precision, won the admiration of the metal heads in the room. And Jen Ledger carried herself with effortless grace through her vocal lines despite the sheer intensity being poured into the drum kit.

Skillet followed with “Whispers in the Dark,” a familiar tune that had older Skillet fans screaming every word. I sang along quietly as I snapped pictures, remembering singing along at the top of my lungs ten years ago, when the song was new. Two songs from concept album Rise followed, “Sick of It” and the title track. “Lions” and “Back From the Dead” bridged us back to the present before cellist Tate Olsen took the stage under a single spotlight, signaled the beginning of 2009 smash hit “Awake and Alive.”

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Around this time I was standing halfway back in the room, resetting my camera, when a mom approached me. I could see her eyes bright with tears, so I moved closer to her so I could hear her.

“Are you with the band?” she asked.

“Kind of,” I answered, a little hesitant. “I know them, a little bit.”

“They saved my daughter’s life,” she said.

I dropped my camera and gave her my full attention. “I’m so glad,” I told her.

She started to tell me, through tears, that her daughter had been planning to attempt suicide when she came across Skillet’s music. The songs met her where she was, gave her hope, lifted her out of the dark. “I just want them to know that,” the mom told me. “Could you tell them, if you ever get a chance?”

I promised her I would. I told her it mattered. I asked her daughter’s name so I could hold it with me, carry the story. She pointed her out to me, dancing and singing on the front row in a white dress.

That story was the same story I’d been living in that room ten years before. I’d been the one who had been planning suicide, who had scarred up arms and a desperate spirit, who caught and held Skillet’s music as literal whispers in the dark–whispers that maybe there was more for me. Whispers that maybe I could survive into adulthood, against all odds. And when I saw my first Skillet show, with all those songs fresh and vital in my new steps into a recovering life, I stood on the front row and screamed every word in living defiance of the dark.

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The rest of Skillet’s show continued to be infectiously passionate, touching on hits like “Hero,” “Monster” and “Rebirthing.” An acoustic performance of “Stars” centered the evening on the message of hope. A special performance of Jen Ledger’s solo single “Not Dead Yet” gave Jen the chance to show her incredible growth as an artist, while rallying fans in life-giving determination. The evening ended on “The Resistance,” with plenty of firework style pyro canons.

The show had a lot more bells and whistles than that first Skillet show I saw ten years ago. I’ve seen Skillet somewhere around 25 times since, and their performances only continue to get tighter, more raucously enjoyable. But beyond the exceptional musical offering, I found myself thinking about the way music grows with us.

These songs met me in a place of deep desperation, and it would change everything about me–set me on my trajectory to work in the music industry, change the way I viewed God. Those days are long in my history now, fond memories of a time when I was a different person. Now, I get to see the story repeat itself, get to champion the life-giving cycle perpetuated. I was given what I needed, when I needed it most, through these songs. Now others are having that exact same experience. I am lucky to even get to witness it. I am gifted beyond belief when I get to be a small part of helping people connect the dots between their pain and the songs that meet them in the middle of it.

And that is a great grace in the progress we make, in the things given to us for healing: they don’t end with us. We get to turn around and give them to others as we grow. In this way, a small seed of life creates life abundant.

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For a full gallery of photos from this concert, click here. To find out when you can see Skillet in a city near you, visit skillet.com.

Stories: ‘Awake and Alive’ by Skillet

The Song: “Awake and Alive” by Skillet

The Story: “I got into Christian music completely unintentionally. My family was Christian, I was Christian, but I was never really into praise and worship,” Amy shares. “I preferred modern music.”

It would be Pokemon that unexpectedly led Amy to music that would change her life. “Soon, I started watching AMVs, or anime music videos, with Pokemon and any song that sounded catchy. There was one that stood out from the others, genre and lyric wise: ‘Awake and Alive’ by Skillet.”

Two years later, that initial discovery would snowball into something much bigger. “I gradually started listening to some of their most popular songs, such as ‘Hero,’ ‘Monster’ and ‘Rebirthing,'” Amy says. “Another two years later, I was a full fledged panhead. Now (another two years), I’m still proud to call Skillet my all time, number one, absolute favorite band. Disciple, RED, TFK, The Afters and Manic Drive are also some of my favorites.”

“I find it way easier to connect to God through their songs than through most worship songs,” Amy explains. “At first, I thought this was wrong, but really, it’s still worship, just not the specific genre. About three years ago, I started my YouTube channel (AMyV), with the goal of bringing AMV watchers to Christian music, particularly Skillet.”

You can see Amy’s video creations on her YouTube Channel AMyV.

If you have a story like this of ways a song has changed your life, visit our contact page or email directly to maryrosenikkel@gmail.com.

Chester Bennington: What We Do, One Year Later

This post originally published on Threads of Stars on July 20, 2018.

All afternoon on July 20, 2017, my phone was going off: “did you see the news?”

And I had; all of us in the rock community had, the news spreading through our tight knit family like a blackout, lights suddenly switched out. Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park and easily in the top 5 most influential voices in rock for the past two decades, had died by suicide. Just months after their latest record. Just months after all the interviews saying he’d been in a dark place but was in so much therapy, getting so much better.

It’s early to call it, but this might be the Kurt Cobain of my generation.

It matters because we’d identified with him for so long, processed our own emotions through his own words. I know it well; of a thousand memories, I remember being 17 and watching and re-watching the music video for “Numb,” because it was me. That was simple fact for millions: somehow, these songs were about us. And when we find ourselves echoed in someone else’s journey and then it ends in the dark– what does that say about our journey? What does that say about the possibility of hope?

And what do we do next, after and during the grieving?

First: we take from lives like Chester’s a legacy of the full sum, not the tragic mistake of a moment. His stories of rehab, of healing, of fighting to be more than an illness or addiction: those are still just as true as they were 24 hours ago. They are perhaps the truest things about his life. We will not remember the tragedies of others as their definition. We’ll be braver and paint the whole picture, light and dark.

And this does not have to be an indicator that the inevitable end is in shadow. It can instead be a reminder of how costly it is to continue to leave issues of depression, suicide, addiction, and mental health unaddressed for a single second longer. It can make us kinder to each other. It can make us fiercer in our fight against the killer that’s eating whole generations alive, leaving holes in families, in schools, in churches– on stages.

We can take to heart the reminder that fame and fortune aren’t any kind of antidote, and that sometimes the people who seem to have it best need help the most. And even if sometimes all the right methods of treatment can’t erase the choice of a moment– those methods are still worth pursuing, because if there’s a chance that they can keep one person alive for five more minutes, that’s a chance worth fighting for.

We should be sobered. We should never be without hope.

“They say that I don’t belong
Say that I should retreat
That I’m marching to the rhythm
Of a lonesome defeat
But the sound of your voice
Puts the pain in reverse
No surrender, no illusions
And for better or worse
When they turn down the lights
I hear my battle symphony
All the world in front of me
If my armor breaks
I’ll fuse it back together.
My battle symphony:
please just don’t give up on me.”
– Linkin Park

Let’s fight together, my friends. It’s what we do.

Chester Bennington’s wife Talinda Bennington has risen as an incredible voice of advocacy and life in the year since losing Chester. For more about her mental health initiatives or if you need help, please visit changedirection.org. You can also follow Talinda on Twitter to join the conversation.

You can also read Linkin Park’s reflections on one year without Chester on their Facebook here

10 Tattoos Inspired By Lyrics

Happy National Tattoo Day! Tattoos can be a powerful way of telling our stories, of marking life events, of honoring the processes of our soul. For anyone who processes the world through the lens of music, the intersection of tattoos and songs just makes sense.

We asked you to share the stories of your lyrical tattoos. Here are your stories, your works of art.

The Song: “The Rose” by Memphis May Fire

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Molly designed this piece with artist Spencer Minor, inspired by the Memphis May Fire lyric “we are the rose that grew from the crack in the concrete.”

The Song: “Times” by Tenth Avenue North

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“A few months after my dad was killed in a traffic accident, I heard the song Times by Tenth Avenue North. My dad was a farmer that loved sunsets, and in the midst of the time of grief, and now in the time without my dad, God was and is still over under inside and in between.” – Dan

The Song: “Stars” by Skillet

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“This is Inspired by the Skillet song Stars. I’m a huge long time fan, but I love the lyrics to this song and the story behind it…that God is there for you no matter what!” – Sharayah

The Song: “Dare You to Move” by Switchfoot

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“‘Dare You To Move’ by Switchfoot has played a huge role in the last several years of my life. Wanted to get this as a reminder of where I’ve been (and all I’ve still yet to do.)” – Sarah

The Song: “Unbroken” by Disciple

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“[This is] Disciple’s Attack album cover with the artist’s flare put on it.” – Courtney

The Band: Random Hero

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“It wasn’t so much song lyrics, but it was inspired by Aaron from Random Hero message that he gives to the crowd at shows. He always stresses how we can not avoid pain, but can chose to be miserable or do something to change it.” – Jennifer

The Song: “Feed the Machine” by RED

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“My ‘Feed the Machine’ tattoo inspired by the Red song of the same name.” – John

The Song: “Invisible” by Disciple

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“This song came into my life during a broken time. I had been dumped by a not so serious boyfriend at the time in a very lousy way. I felt like I was undeserving, a vapor. I was crying every night feeling completely worthless, like I could never be loved and was all alone… When that Disciple album came out, I had set it aside and didn’t listen until one night I was driving home from picking up some of my belongings from my ex’s house. That song came on, and I had never felt God’s presence so harshly until that moment… I felt like he had just wrapped me in his arms, telling me that I am deserving and I’m not alone or invisible. To this day I still cannot listen to that song without crying because it reminds me of a time where God physically comforted me when I needed it. The Bible verse is what the song was inspired by straight from the CD booklet.” – Breanne

The Song: “I Am A Stone” by Demon Hunter

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“DH has been a huge and important part of my life since they began and these lyrics are a daily reminder to me that God in his unshakeable love and faithfulness to me and his unending pursuit of me is and always will be by my side…even in the darkest moments when we tend to forget that He is there and we are not alone.” – Amy

The Band: Day of Fire

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“This is Day of Fire’s logo. Got this done a few years ago by the former lead singer, Josh Brown. It’s supposed to represent the Holy Spirit.” – Jeremy

Do you have a special story about how a song has impacted you? You can share the story by clicking here!

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