Shedding Some Light: ‘Sunlight’ EP by Jon Foreman

This review originally appeared on NewReleaseToday.com.

Jon Foreman, the unassuming surfer frontman of renowned alt rock band Switchfoot, has been in the spotlight since the band’s formation nearly two decades ago. After he had already established his voice as one of unconventionally honest spirituality, a trademark that won Switchfoot one of the most genuinely successful crossover careers in Christian music history, Jon decided that some of the songs stemming from his habitual writing needed a different home. The result was four EPs released through 2007 and 2008, each one titled after a different season.

The EPs have gained a strong following in their own right, with fans clamoring for more even as Jon Foreman focused on his responsibilities to Switchfoot and his folk rock side project Fiction Family. Seven years later, 2015 finally saw more of Jon’s solo material coming to light in The Wonderlands, a project encompassing songs written over the course of the past decade. The 24 songs were released as four new EPs, the first of which is Sunlight.

Foreman aficionados will likely notice right away that the production is a little more invasive on this project than on the prior four EPs, although that never detracts from the thoughtful writing. “You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are” is a soaring pop track that manages to stay vulnerable beneath its slick veneer. The song was featured as part of the To Write Love On Her Arms movie soundtrack, which is fitting given both Jon’s long-term support of the organization and the tender lyrics: “Come surrender your hidden scars / Leave your weapons where they are. / You’ve been hiding, but I know your wounded heart / and you don’t know how beautiful you are.”

Although there’s a certain element of whimsy (see “Caroline”) that suggests, along with the title, that these songs may be some of the less introspective selections of The Wonderlands series, they are by no means spiritual lightweights. Both “The Mountain” and “Patron Saint of Rock and Roll” explore elements of what true faith looks like in a culture of cynicism and blind hypocrisy (found both outside and inside of our own spirits). Although “Patron Saint of Rock and Roll” in particular employs a tongue-in-cheek cleverness in its tone, the lyrics have an underlying bite.

The two tunes that play most like Jon Foreman classics bookend the collection. “Terminal” starts the album with reflections on mortality, employing a chord structure that subverts expectation and with just enough production to make the track come off slightly otherworldly. The lyrics draw on imagery from Job to explore our own transience, cautionary as Jon breathes “don’t let your spirit die before your body does / we’re terminal.”

Album closer “All of God’s Children” is a listener favorite which Jon has been playing at aftershows since 2010. This track’s organic sound is smoothed just enough with the sound of cool piano beds and subtle strings to draw it in line sonically with the rest of this collection, although Jon’s raw vocals and acoustic guitar remain relatively untouched. The song spotlights redemption in a shadowy world, providing what could conceivably be a thesis statement for much of his work past and present: “I’ve been waiting for love to give birth, for new life to show pain its worth.”

Jon Foreman has become, in many ways, the unintentional voice of a generation– the voice for the disillusioned, spiritually disenfranchised kids coming of age in the 21st century, desperate for a faith that can be experienced beyond the smoke-and-mirrors pseudo-piety of surface level Christianity. The Sunlight EP is a radiant example of why he holds that role, with reflections on faith that are accessible without ever taking the easy way out, lyrics that are in equal measure honest and hopeful and a musical style marrying his acoustic tones with contemporary production conventions. The first installment of The Wonderlands is a strong start for a promising EP arc.

You can find the Sunlight EP on iTunes and Spotify.

‘Numb’ by VERIDIA: Sonic Solidarity

If good things come to those who wait, then great things might come to VERIDIA fans, who have been waiting four years for a full length album from the electrifying rock act VERIDIA. That full length album is coming in the form of The Beast You Feed, available for preorder through PledgeMusic now. The first taste of The Beast You Feed is lead single “Numb.”

“Numb” serves as an introduction to a new era of VERIDIA. The electronic elements step to the fore, but still with the hard-hitting grit we’ve come to expect. Brandon Brown’s guitars lines are still woven through the mix. Beats laid down by drummer Kyle Levy punctuate the emotional intensity of the message.

That message is delivered by singer Deena Jakoub in tones that range from flawlessly clear to a droning cadence emphasizing the theme of numbing out our pain: “I wanna go numb / ‘Til I feel dumb / Give me more drums / Turn the bass track up / I wanna go numb.”

It’s in these lyrics (and the brilliant way the instrumentation serves their point) that the true identity of VERIDIA stands clearer than ever before. They shed light into some of the darker places of the human emotional experience, offering the perspective of people who have been there. “I realized that in taking action to numb painful emotions, I was also numbing beautiful ones. While trying to numb heartbreak, I was simultaneously numbing my ability to feel the love around me,” Deena shared about the song’s message. “You are beautiful and so is your story. It’s NOT just you, we all numb… and even though I’ve come to realize vulnerability is one of the most valuable relational tools, it doesn’t make it easier. But, I promise, it is SO worth it. I’ve decided to stop letting fear, anxiety, and depression prevent me from having incredible experiences, from loving and truly knowing myself and others. You can find joy, love, happiness, and fulfillment in this life.”

That solidarity will be the takeaway, resonating with listeners for just as long as the throb of the infectious bass line.

You can listen to “Numb” now on Spotify or iTunes.

Panic! At The Disco Topped the Billboard 200. Here’s What That Means

Panic! At The Disco, one pillar of what is widely known as the “Emo Trinity” (the other two being Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance), recently scored their first debut at number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. The album that finally landed that status is Pray for the Wicked, which dropped on June 22.

If I were writing this from the year 2000, this event would be more or less unremarkable: a band with 14 years of history and decent chart success nailing a number 1 album. But the fact is that the year is 2018, and for a band that gained its momentum and maturity in the alternative rock scene to be sitting atop the charts? That is enough of a novelty to pay attention to.

Panic!, now the sole property of frontman Brendon Urie, has shifted its sound from vaudeville-meets-emo to more of a brassy west coast pop sound. The guitars have become more muted, the melodies more hooky. But the influence of Urie’s alternative background remains: you can hear it in the clever, tongue-in-cheek lyricism that remains far more wordy than your standard pop fare. This is a classic emo trait.

What this means is that rock still has something valuable to offer the market at large. Even if some core aspects of rock shift or adapt with time, the key elements that forged a fiercely loyal following still have the ability to keep gaining new audiences. What Panic! At The Disco has proved is that you can grow up as a rock artist without losing the best of where you started, and there’s still a world out there who will (quite literally) buy it.

Granted, Pray for the Wicked is primarily a party album, with themes that only venture as deep as possible cautionary tales (“Roaring 20s,” “One of the Drunks,” “Dying in LA”). Some rock fans might hope for the days when weightier examples of their culture were in the spotlight again. A hope which is a distinct possibility; if we go back just a few years, this same general concept was upheld in 2015 with Breaking Benjamin’s The Dark Before the Dawn. The long-awaited return from Breaking Benjamin was piercingly spiritual, as most good rock tends to be in one form or another, and also extremely forthright in its aggressive musical style. In December of 2017, U2– who set the tone for this entire generation of conscious rock– secured their eighth career number 1 with Songs of Experience. The market is making a declaration to any rock and roll makers: we’re still listening.

Farewell, Third Day: A Look at the Legacy

Legacy. Priscilla Chan, a philanthropist and spouse to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is quoted as saying “We–the current generation–have a moral responsibility to make the world better for future generations.”

In the music industry, this has often been fulfilled over the course of time. We’ve seen legacies left and ways paved by many, from Elvis Presley and The Beatles to Larry Norman and Petra.

After time has passed, this generation will be able to reflect on the music and legacy left by a group of high school kids hailing from the Peach State (Atlanta, Georgia) who decided to form a band. Initially, singer Mac Powell and guitarist Mark Lee experimented with the band Nuclear Hoedown, but later initiated a southern rock band that would garner some impressive statistics: 1 American Music Award, 4 Grammys, 24 Dove Awards.

Over their 27 years as a band, Third Day has indeed left an indelible mark not only on the industry, but by leaving behind impactful songs that will transcend generations. For the majority of their tenure, Third Day was comprised of Mac Powell (a dude who was made with vocal chops for southern rock), Mark Lee (one of the most brilliant songwriters who happens to be a solid guitarist), David Carr on drums, Tai Anderson on bass and Brad Avery tickling the ivories. The lineup has changed a bit in the last few years, but Mark Lee and Mac Powell have been constants.

Among their many legacies, Third Day paved the way for the industry as we know it today, from their freshman self-titled debut through their final studio album. It may be too early to know the full impact of their legacy; only time will tell. However, it’s not too soon to reflect back on what they’ve meant to so many fans. Their early records were rooted in southern and grunge rock, with tunes like “Consuming Fire,” “Blackbird,” “You Make Me Mad,” “Alien” and “Sky Falls Down.” Their sophomore project, Conspiracy No. 5, garnered a Dove Award for Rock Album of the Year along with a Grammy nod for Best Rock Gospel Album, an award they’d later earn for Come Together and Wire. Over time, they updated their style to a more pop rock vibe on their later records, all along continuing to earn accolades, recognition and chart success.

Beyond their musical impact, Third Day was uniquely able to sing about some very challenging and soul-searching subject matters. Their lyrics contained themes of broken people in need of grace and hope, messages that can be found throughout rock and roll today thanks in part to their willingness to go deeper in their message than simply praise songs written for Sunday mornings (they found space for Sunday music, too–but more on that later).

“Thief” is a song from their debut record that tells the story of the cross from the forgiven thief’s point of view. “Cry Out to Jesus” and “I Need a Miracle” are songs with messages of hope for those going through a dark season; the latter was written because of the former. The story goes that the band met a couple in New Jersey after a concert whose son had been depressed and drove deep into the woods to end his life. But he turned on the radio to hear “Cry Out to Jesus,” which gave him encouragement to keep going.

Third Day also was one of the first rock/pop bands to release worship albums with Offerings and Offerings II, which led the way to an explosion of bands crossing over to worship (here’s looking at you, Newsboys). This became a trend in radio that shapes what is played in most Christian formats today: a blend of pop and worship, with very little room for music that pushes boundaries.

Their final album, then, is an ironic indication of the state of the industry they helped shape. In 2017, Third Day released Revival, a passion project in which the band returned to their southern rock roots. It is among their best work, filled with plenty of hooks, plenty of rock, and showing off those familiar vocal chops provided by Mac Powell. Though it is deserving of attention, Mac Powell put it best during their final show in Nashville: many folks haven’t heard of it because the founding members decided to do a project they would proud of. Unfortunately (and ironically), it is not music friendly to the radio format Third Day has helped usher in, so it is not a record that was recognized by many fans.

This adequately sums up the state of the industry: there is a small subset of artists getting the bulk of the national airplay from radio, and a growing alternative and underground made up of independent rock and hip-hop artists, making music that still speaks to the deepest, darkest parts of our soul and gives us hope to carry on.

It is hard to be in a successful band for 25 years. After their recent hiatus, Third Day recently embarked on a 12 city farewell tour to say thank you to longtime fans. Perhaps it would be fitting, years from now, if we can reflect back on this moment as the beginning of a Revival in the music industry — a time when creativity is rewarded and lyrics are real and honest. That would be the most fitting legacy of all.

So thank you, Third Day, for staying true to your roots, and for leaving us with music that gives us hope to carry on through the toughest seasons of life.

This post was written by contributing writer Matt Durlin.

30 Seconds to Mars’ ‘Rescue Me’ And the Universal Cry For Help

[Content warning: suicide]

The of suicide has been painfully present in the news over the span of the past month. A few high profile losses paired with sobering news about the suicide rate from the CDC (in summary: it’s going up) have continued to open the window for questions to be asked with increasing urgency. How do we talk about depression, suicide, mental health? How do we help others? How do we help ourselves?

These are questions rock music has always been uniquely poised to speak into as a genre that builds itself on the raw, on the brutal, on the most pure passions and pain of human experience. Rock music’s “stick it to the man” ethos attracts the loners, the outcasts, the ones broken by a society that might not know what to do with them. And especially in the terrible void left by losing some of our own last year with the deaths of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, the rock community is offered a crucial opportunity.

It’s a moment 30 Seconds to Mars, the unstoppable rock force built by actor Jared Leto and his brother Shannon, has owned fully with their new music video for “Rescue Me.” The song is part of the band’s most recent album America, a project that explores different elements of this unique cultural moment in history. Part of that cultural moment is, undeniably, a desperate sense of need to be saved from ourselves. 30 Seconds to Mars tells that story by simply showing us intimate, emotional moments with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and contexts. You can watch the video below.

 

“Rescue Me is a song about pain, a song about empowerment, a song about faith, and a song about freedom,” Jared Leto shared in the video’s description. “Freedom from the wreckage of your past. Freedom from the bondage of self. And freedom to embrace all the promises that life has to offer. It’s also a song about the brutal war so many of us wage against fear, depression and anxiety in the hope that we might, one day, live a life filled with happiness and dreams. Pain does not discriminate. It can affect us all. In our bodies. Our hearts. Our minds. And often, when that pain is emotional or mental, we are afraid to speak up. None of us are ‘ok’ all the time. And there shouldn’t be a stigma when we aren’t. Both my brother and I have had our own intense personal battles and it has, and continues to be, life changing. I try to remember that just past the darkest days await the brightest and most rewarding moments. And that change is always right around the corner.”

The reality that that perspective could be voiced by someone in Leto’s position– an accomplished actor, musician, and cultural icon– speaks to the broader reality that the desire for salvation from the worst of our fears is universal. Leto has answered that desire one way. The answer for someone else might look entirely different. But the recognition that everyone is looking for it bridges divides, reminds us to be a little kinder to each other in incredibly polarizing times.

And maybe the answers to the hard questions begin with something as simple as that: an honest admission that no one is exempt, regardless of belief system or background or social status. Ownership of our own stories and the right to tell them with vulnerability. Recognition that rescue often involves reaching beyond ourselves.

If you need immediate help, you can contact the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For more resources and local longterm support, you can visit twloha.com/find-help

RED: Reflecting on End of Silence

This interview originally appeared on NewReleaseToday.com in November of 2017.

RED’s End of Silence was a debut album that lived up to its name, breaking onto the scene in 2006 with an auditory and thematic intensity that refused to be ignored. Over the past ten years, countless listeners have found a reflection of themselves in the songs’ passion and honesty.

The now-veteran rock outfit decided to celebrate a decade of the album’s impact with a deluxe re-issue of the project and a special tour centered around the songs that first brought RED to listeners’ ears. Songs like “Breathe Into Me,” “Already Over” and “Pieces” were brought out to the stage as well as deep cuts like “Wasting Time” and “Hide.”

In early November on the last weekend of the tour, I had the chance to sit down with guitarist Anthony Armstrong to look back at where RED has been.

We’re at the tail end of the End of Silence anniversary tour. What has that experience been like, bringing out these songs and playing them again?

It’s been I’d say nine years since we’d played some of the tracks. So it’s definitely been nostalgic, taking the stage and playing the original first four songs we ever wrote in a garage before we ever got signed. It’s pretty cool.

There’s a couple things we’re doing that people don’t even realize we’re doing. There’s guitars on stage that we haven’t used in ten years, stuff that we just wanted to bring back up. Playing these small clubs with these really intimate settings has been really cool. The crowd responses have been great.

One thing I think people often don’t realize is that you have closed almost every set for ten years with “Breathe Into Me.” Why have you made that creative decision?

It’s obviously always the song that we revert back to. It’s the song that put us on the map, it’s the first song where anybody really got a taste of what RED was all about. Songs just have a way of making it for years to come, of being in the forefront of people’s’ minds. “Breathe Into Me,” this being the tenth anniversary tour, we still wait til the very end of the show to play it.

We don’t play the whole record in its entirety back to back and then play different stuff. We play through each record, two or three songs from each record, obviously all the songs from the first record. And then end with “Breathe Into Me.” Like I said, it’s just a lot about nostalgia, and it’s something we’ve always done.

One of the songs that you’ve brought out at a couple of the shows is “If I Break,” which was the one new song on the End of Silence tenth anniversary re-release. Do you want to talk about the evolution of that song, how it ended up where it is now?

Yeah, we started writing that song for the first record. It’s one of those songs that we just kind of threw in the vault, that didn’t make the cut. There’s only so many you can put on a record before you have to say “OK, maybe we can use this for another time.” And that was just one of those songs.

It already had some lyrics to it, the strings had actually been cut for it and all the other instruments had been done already. So we went back in there and added a little bit of programming, some cool elements to it. And then we basically rewrote the lyrics, because where we were then and where we are now, we’re trying to find the happy medium between those two. We’ve just become better writers. So we put that one on the record.

The other one was “Circles,” which was a demo. We literally just turned on record and started tracking. It’s seven minutes long, and ideas just kind of poured out of us and we put them all together in one long, huge track. And obviously it would have never ended up being that way on an album, but just to give people a taste of how we sometimes write, we put it all in there.

A consistent theme in how you write, from End of Silence to now, is that you have a tendency to dive into the darker parts of the human psyche. Why has that been a consistent theme? What makes that a priority for you?

We just don’t like the cookie cutter stuff, you know? There’s a lot of that out there, and it’s not something that speaks to us. When we were kids, the cookie cutter stuff didn’t get into our souls as deep as this does. Because we’re talking about real life things. And you’ve got the worship bands that do what they do, and do it well, but there’s still a huge demographic of people that that’s just never going to speak to. And we’re those people, and this is a form of worship for us–and therapy, and you name it. It’s the kind of music that we want to write, and we know that there’s obviously lots of people out there that like it too.

The first record was called End of Silence. In our experience growing up, a lot of people are very quiet about their problems because they’re afraid of judgment, they’re afraid of people walking away from them if they find out that there is something dark about them, something that they may not necessarily like at first. A lot of people abandon their friends when they find out, even when you’ve been friends for years. And that’s just really hard for people, so they tend to be quiet and reserved and reclusive about the things they do. And music is a way for people to open up and speak and talk and get through those situations.

You guys have somewhat gone on record saying that you might be moving away from the album model after this, looking at other ways to do things. What necessitated that shift, and what it would look like?

It’s just fans not buying music. The paradigm shift that’s happened with music consumption has changed the game for a lot of musicians and artists. There’s just no value in buying a record anymore, people stream everything. So we have to adapt to survive, figure out a way to get our music out there, but still make a living so we can have the ability to travel and tour and perform for people. You know you make a record, and it doesn’t stop there. You’ve got to be in front of people with it. They don’t want to just hear something that you made in the studio, they want to see you and appreciate it live too.

A lot of bands are having a really difficult time financially. We’ve made it onto the radar. When we first came out, music hadn’t quite made that huge shift yet where people were downloading everything. And that’s why records just aren’t selling anymore. The bands that are coming out now have such an uphill battle to make it, and that’s why, that people don’t consume music the way they used to.

So we’re looking at doing things a little different. Maybe not releasing entire records, maybe feeding people slowly–do ten or twelve tracks for a new record, feed them one at a time, every couple weeks release a new song kind of thing. Do something different, something where it keeps you in the front of people’s minds.

We’ve been doing it ten years, and a lot of bands call that a career, a lifetime. It just doesn’t happen for everybody. We’re very blessed and honored to have been doing this for ten years, and we want to do it for ten more years. So we’re trying to do all of the things that we can think of to keep that relevance.

So with End of Silence having hit that ten year mark and the fact that fans are still singing along to those songs every night, what are qualities that you think has made it enduring, or that makes any album enduring?

Being in the band, it’s hard to say this without sounding a bit narcissistic. But good songs just rise, the cream rises. Good songs will live on forever. And we’ve received emails and messages and letters from people for the last ten years about where they were when they heard that first record, how the songs have lived on with them in their hearts and minds and in their ears for ten years.

It’s funny to hear when someone says “I was ten years old when that first song came out,” and now they’re graduated and they’re at a college and they’re super excited to come see our show again. The last ten years have gone by so quickly since we’ve just been doing nothing but touring and making music.

For some people, maybe they only ever hear one record, maybe they only ever hear one song, but when you remind them of that, it takes them back. And it may not necessarily take them back to a place they want to remember, but it also takes them back to good places. And I think both are good. I think if you can take them back to a dark place, they can be reminded of how they got out of that dark place. And if it was that song, that experience, that did that, people are excited and they want to experience it again.

As somebody who has put in the time grinding it out to get where you are now, what would you tell artists who are starting out now, with as much as things have changed in the past ten years? Would you have advice that you would give them?

I would say be vigilant about what’s happening with music. Pay attention to the things that matter, and pay attention to the things that work. Starting a band now, like I said, it’s an uphill battle, more than it ever has been. There are thousands of bands out there that will never see a record deal, that will never see the inside of a tour bus, that will never see another country. They just won’t have the means or the music to make it happen. And that’s just the reality. It’s a fact.

But if it’s something you truly want to do, and it’s something that you’ve got your heart set on–we believe, like anybody that’s done this, that we were the same way. We were dreamers, we wanted to do this for a living, and we stopped at nothing to make it happen. And we did. And it all boils down to the music. Like I said, if the music’s there, the cream will rise. You will find a way to be in the forefront of people’s minds and maybe sign a record deal, or maybe run independently like a lot of bands are doing now, and have a career.

Technology allows people to do so many more things without having a state of the art studio. You can record on your own and do some pretty amazing things with some new technology that helps people who didn’t even go to school for music make a record.

 

Sheep Among Wolves: A Conversation With Project 86’s Andrew Schwab

This interview originally appeared on NewReleaseToday.com in December of 2017.
Project 86 has been around for twenty years now–enough time to learn how to do things right. And with Sheep Among Wolves, they have done exactly that. Spending a full year in the recording process and involving fans at every step of the way, the seasoned hard rock band finally released the resulting full-length album on December 5, 2017.

As the album was approaching release, I had the chance to talk with Project 86 founder and frontman Andrew Schwab about this project’s creation, the crucial role of the listeners and what has kept them going for two decades.

Could you start by catching me up on the PledgeMusic process that you’ve been in for over a year now and the ways you’ve utilized that platform to connect with your fans?

Yeah, it’s been a unique situation. We had two previous crowdfunded albums, one through Kickstarter and one through Indiegogo. And the first one we did with Kickstarter did moderately well, and the second one did quite a bit better, and this one has done great. The PledgeMusic platform has been cool because it allows you to really customize every part of the experience with fans. We’ve been able to do what I think are some pretty unique things to up the engagement and up the investment on the part of the fans. And not just the monetary investment, though that’s great and helps us pay for what we do, helps us do this in general. But also the emotional investment, which is what you really want at the end of the day.

So what we have been doing and the way that we’ve structured the campaign we think is a win-win. Fans get, in exchange for pledging at even the bottom level, a five song EP to download right off the bat. It’s some of our favorite songs that we’ve covered. We’ve never done cover songs, but we’ve had requests for that over the years. We’ve gotten a good response on that.

They also get to listen to the music as we write it and record it. We recorded the album one song at a time in their entirety throughout the process of recording. So we essentially released one song per month to all of the people that have pledged up until recently. And then they’ll get their download just prior to the album release.

So this album is called Sheep Among Wolves. A lot of your albums in the past have been very concept and imagery driven. What are some of the concepts that were behind this record?

While it’s not a concept-heavy record in terms of there being one message or theme from song to song, it’s pretty diverse, I would say the common thread throughout became the album title this time around. The idea of “sheep among wolves” is a little bit of a vague or mysterious concept. There’s a quote in the Bible about Jesus saying to the disciples that he’s sending them out as “sheep among wolves.” Whenever I use biblical references in our music, I always put a severe twist on it. So it’s not just a Christian reference, it’s more a commentary that’s completely a spin on the original concept without contradicting it.

The idea of sheep among wolves here in a modern context as compared to the original intent is the idea that there are sheep among wolves, both in culture at large and in the faith-based culture, but we don’t know who is who many times. And people who claim to be sheep are actually the wolves, and the people who are labeled as wolves are actually the sheep. So there’s a lot of ambiguity in our art, but it’s very striking and bold and contrasted.

That’s kind of the way the album is presented too. There’s a lot of really stark, almost harsh lyrics on this record. It’s meant to make divisive statements to make you think, “OK, who are the sheep and who are the wolves?”

Does that get reflected musically as well? Where does this sit in the broader context of Project 86’s discography?

We’ve always put a lot of effort into having diverse records. So on this album there are some songs that are pretty aggressive while still not being metal or metalcore, and then there are songs that are a little bit more moody and melodic. And the intent there is that we want you to listen to the whole album, not just one song, to sort of chart emotions through a scale, through ups and downs and highs and lows. So there’s a lot of contrast, and I feel like that’s kind of the concept in and of itself: this idea of contrast, but it’s like an exercise in critical thinking in terms of the lyrics. I like to try to give people something to think about.

What does that process of creation look like for you when you’re writing lyrics? Is it lyrics first, then music?

It’s usually the opposite, music first, then lyrics. Nowadays I’m super involved in the music creation, but I’ll have a vocal idea or a thematic idea in the back of my brain as we’re writing. But it’s pretty spontaneous in terms of the music. Then I sort of allow the emotion of the music to dictate where the song needs to go lyrically.

There are some examples of that on this record. Track 4 is called “Freebooter,” and it’s one of my favorites. It’s definitely more a rock song, it’s mid-tempo, it’s haunting. For whatever reason I just thought of being adrift at sea because of the music that we wrote. So I developed a theme for the song around the idea of defining your life by living on the open ocean. Not necessarily like a pirate, but the idea that you’ve put all of your eggs in this basket of being at the mercy of the waves of life. So you can be defined by the highs of that, but eventually probably you’ll hit the low point, which will be not a good ending.

Did the other band members write with you? What did the creative team look like in the studio, at the writing stage?

It was all written by myself and our guitarist Darren King, just us two. We collaborated on some of it over skype and some of it in person as he lives in Nashville and I live in California. So I flew out to Nashville four times to record and write, and we kind of just made it happen. There were a couple other studios involved with tracking vocals and drums. Nowadays technology allows you to share ideas and files, and we made it work.

Part of the thing with this project is that you’re celebrating 20 years as Project 86. And that’s a huge rarity right now, that a band can hit that kind of milestone. What are some of the things that you think have enabled you to have that kind of longevity?

A death wish, for the most part! [laughs]

Playing music for a living and doing it full time is something that every musician dreams of. But once you attain it, you realize “this is challenging.” It’s not work in the sense that you don’t have to go to an office for 8 hours a day, but it presents totally different types of mental and emotional challenges along the way.

I think the enduring motivation for this band really lies in the hands of the people who support us. And I don’t even really like the word “fan,” for the most part, because I think the association with the word “fan” puts such distance between the artist and the person who appreciates our music. And for us, it’s almost like the Green Bay Packers, like the people who support our band are the direct owners of the band. Without being directly involved in the creative process, we try to get them as close as possible. So I think the people who love our band stick by us because they’re invested in it. And we try to go out of our way to make that part of the experience of following our band.

Throughout your history, you’ve entered both Christian market and mainstream spaces indiscriminately. Was that a philosophical choice you made from the beginning? Do you have an ethos behind that?

I think when we started out, we were such young people. We’d come up inside this music scene in southern California going to shows and seeing some real authentic movements in the underground, indie and heavy music world that we lived in, this little subculture that kind of revolved around some of the early bands and record labels that started the faith-based scene in southern California. We weren’t really being intentional about anything, we were just doing what came naturally, which is reflecting our belief system through music that we wrote and liked. And at the time, the kind of music that we played had not hit yet, so we were kind of on the leading edge of a movement I guess.

As we evolved and sort of grew up as a band, we realized “oh, we’re good enough that we don’t have to only play for Christian people.” Well, this opened an entirely different can of worms and presented some challenges that maybe if we would have thought about it a little more intentionally when we were younger as a band, we would have been able to have some different opportunities. But everything happened as it should, you know?

Thankfully, we put out some records that were pretty exciting early in our career, and that provided some opportunities to do a lot of things in the general market. We were on Atlantic for a couple of records and toured with some really well-known bands, Linkin Park, 30 Seconds to Mars, bands like that, who were at the beginning point of their careers who came to know us as a band who had been around a little longer than them. There was some rapport there that was gained.

But our experience has always been that you have to be very intentional in the way you market your band and in what other people will perceive. So very early in our career, we were a little more overt about our belief system, and as we evolved we sort of made that a little bit more ambiguous. But it’s interesting how people respond from album to album in thinking that somehow if the material is different, or if the lyrical content is a little more challenging or ambiguous, that somehow we’ve changed as human beings in what we believe. And that never has occurred.

I think you have to be intentional about what type of perception you try to create, what audience you try to appeal to. And while the band isn’t perfect in that sense, I think we’ve been at our strongest when we’ve allowed the music to speak the loudest.

At this stage, after all the things you’ve accomplished, is there anything you still want to do in the future with Project 86?

To be honest, something that I’ve been hungry for really from the beginning, something that I don’t think we’ve completely accomplished as a band just because opportunity has not presented itself, is to play with more of the heavy bands of the day in a live setting. More in the general market side, proving that our band is legit. I think we can compete with anybody, I think we’ve been given the gifting to do that. And I just would love more opportunities before this thing will end, and I have no idea when that will be, but to hop up on stage with bands that have sold millions of records and play for their audience and show that we can crush it live, that we’re a real band who deserves to be in the conversation of some of the more prominent rock bands out there.

I’m not saying we’re going to hop on stage and show up with the Foo Fighters or something like that. But I think that we deserve to be more in the conversation than we have been, and it’s just been more marketing politics that have kept us from that, because our live show is really strong.

You have kind of referenced some of this with the fact that you made your Influences EP, which is covers, but are there other bands that are feeding and inspiring you creatively? We live in this world where everyone says rock is dead.

It really is. But there are a few bands that I listen to and who do influence me in one way or another. Circa Survive is one of my favorite bands, and I was just listening to them before I called. There’s another band called Thrice that I like a lot. I’ve known those guys for a little bit, great dudes, great musicians. There’s another band called Oh Brother that I really like, a band from the southeast. So there are some bands out there that are cool, doing some unique things that doesn’t sound like everything else that’s been put out.

And that’s the hard thing in rock music, and I think that’s why people are over it. It’s all been done before. [laughs]

In our opinion, all that’s left is songs. If you write a memorable song, any other variable doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what genre of music you play. If you write a memorable song with a great chorus, people will like it.

If you could summarize what Project 86’s mission statement is right now, how would you do that? What is driving you guys as a band?

I would say to continue to push ourselves something that we’ve never written before, something that’s different, not repeating ourselves from album to album, giving fans a new experience each and every time that we create something. And just trying to write honest music from a lyrical perspective. I say honest, just reflecting my emotional experience without having to cater to the expectations of anyone else. So if I’m having a bad day, I will write about having a bad day. I’m not going to pretend that I’m having an awesome day if I’m having a bad day. That’s the beauty of music and the beauty of the kind of music we play is that it’s therapeutic, and I think that that’s an underlying premise to everything that we do. We do write music that we like for ourselves first and foremost. And if we like it, and it’s unique and it’s cool, then other people will like it too. Maybe that’s very simplistic, but that’s the thought process.

 

Unleashed by Skillet: Reinventing and Roots

When you have two platinum albums, Grammy nominations, a massive worldwide audience, a legacy spanning over 20 years and one of the best-known names in both Christian and mainstream rock and roll, it would be easy to rest on your laurels and play it safe. However, playing it safe has never even been on the agenda for Skillet, and long-awaited album Unleashed proves it.

The band spent over three years following the release of 2013’s Rise perfecting a new batch of songs. The result is a sonic shift that some fans may consider something of a rebirth– while for others, it will harken back to the early 2000s, Alien Youth and a very different Skillet. Unleashed’s ferocious lead single “Feel Invincible” establishes out of the gate that the band has scaled back the symphonic rock blend that propelled Skillet from slow-burning success on Comatose to overnight worldwide recognition with Awake. The crucial role of providing texture and dynamic that a string section once filled is now shouldered by electronic elements, giving Korey Cooper’s long underrated programming abilities well-deserved prominence.

Rest assured however that these synths are worlds away from slick, cliched pop constructs. On “Burn it Down” the synths scorch a path underscoring hefty guitar lines, adding to rather than detracting from the song’s aggressive punch. On “Saviors of the World,” the back and forth between guitars, synths and John Cooper’s gritty vocals feel like a reference to the best of the 80s. The old symphonic elements do make at least one cameo on “I Want To Live,” the track on the album that most keenly reminds of Awake.

Lyrically, fans are likely to notice a subtle shift as the songs steer clear of deep water and coast through more celebratory and even worshipful territory. Following forays on the last three albums into topics like suicide, violence, eating disorders and self injury, John Cooper has said he wanted to create something a little different. “I wanted to make a record that made people feel the music– an album that would connect people to the music as well as to each other,” John Cooper has explained. “An album, like some of my favorites, that’d be like a party to listen to, where people could sing along together.”

That perspective is crucial to have when approaching Unleashed. “Undefeated” is an infectious sports-ready anthem much more likely to cue fist-pumping than introspection. “Famous” is one of the album’s more pop-leaning cuts, built from the widely used concept that we are here to make God famous. “Watching for Comets” is a wistful summer love song, a ballad worthy of lighters (or cell phones) raised high.

This is not to say that the album is devoid of Skillet’s trademark deep devotion to the gospel, however. “Stars” puts Skillet’s longstanding passion for worship on center stage with a moving affirmation that the God who holds the stars also holds every moment of our lives. One of the darkest and most lyrically intriguing tracks, “Out of Hell,” voices a desperate plea for God’s redemption over Seth Morrison’s blistering guitar riffs: “I’m suffocating waiting for you, because the angels don’t fly down here / I need you because no one else can get me out of hell.”

Inevitably, we can anticipate that some fans will boil down this album to one question: “is this album heavy?” That would, however, be the wrong question to ask when evaluating Unleashed and sifting through this sonic shift that has both brought Skillet closer to their roots and propelled them forward at the same time. There are certainly moments of both thunderous guitars and more delicately constructed melody– often closely juxtaposed (see “The Resistance” for an example of the spectrum). A perhaps better question I have asked myself when listening to Skillet’s ninth studio album is “did they accomplish what they intended to?”

I would offer a resounding yes to that question. The album is simply an enjoyable listen, even when the lyrics are lighthearted and flashy. Skillet shows complete mastery of the electronic elements they have chosen to introduce, seemingly effortlessly nailing a balance countless other bands have tried to achieve in the past few years.

However, longtime fans should approach this album understanding that for them, it may not be much more than that: an enjoyable listen. And for fans who found their home in the Panhead world because of brutally honest yet redemptive masterpieces like “Savior,” “Whispers in the Dark,” “The Last Night” and “Monster,” this album might not land in quite the same place in their hearts.

With Unleashed, Skillet reveals an unapologetically enjoyable foray into electronic-infused hard rock as the Christ-centered core of their mission continues to hold steady. Although this may not be your favorite Skillet record, it’s a record very worth buying and cranking up in the car with your friends– and it proves Skillet’s continued ability to successfully reinvent themselves.

Related Artists: Shinedown, RED, Papa Roach

Farewell to Midnight by As We Ascend: A Perfect Storm

Although Farewell to Midnight is technically As We Ascend’s debut, it would be difficult to categorize it in anywhere near the same league as your usual hard rock freshman fare.

As We Ascend is a trio formed by guitarists and vocalists Justin Forshaw and Jake Jones, both formerly of We As Human, and drummer Robert Venable, best known for his work as a producer (his impressive resume includes work with diverse names like twenty one pilots, Kelly Clarkson, Megadeth and Disciple). The three veterans create a special kind of musical chemistry on Farewell to Midnight, proving out of the gate that their work ethic, passion and dedication to the craft of rock and roll are unparalleled.

As you might expect from a group formed by guitarists, songs like “Hatchet,” “We Fight” and “Watch the World Burn” display full-bodied riffs paired with searing solos. The fact that these songs are so grounded in the guitar presence is refreshing for those who might have been missing that element in recent years. The guitar work never strays into self-indulgent territory however, with songs like the addictive album highlight “Tell Me” showing off As We Ascend’s ability to balance guitars with percussion and vocal hooks to serve the needs of the song. Similarly, punchy “When the Gun Goes” features hefty guitar riffs that carry the song without overpowering it.

Justin Forshaw and Jake Jones both hold their own in their new roles as joint vocalists of As We Ascend, their voices transitioning back and forth seemingly effortlessly. Vulnerable ballad “At My Door,” which also features a guest vocal from 3 Doors Down vocalist Brad Arnold, provides a canvas for the full range of As We Ascend’s vocal dynamic to be displayed. “At My Door” also captures a subtle but poignant message of hope in Christ as the bridge sings “will I let go of the past and live for tomorrow / will I curse the hour glass as it bleeds through the night? / Can I sing for the memories without words of sorrow / sing for the hope I have when Jesus comes?

“Insulate” is another track that shows clearly that the heart of this album lies in providing hope and offering a call to listeners to move out of their own personal darkness. The searching lyrics sing out “The love that’s gone inside left a hole in your heart so wide, but hold tight: God will make you whole.” The elements of a redemptive Gospel found here are presented without apology or gimmick, woven into honest pictures of the often heartbreaking complexities of life.

The sound As We Ascend presents is developed and dynamic, boasting a unity between the three members that forges Farewell to Midnight as a tight, coherent unit. Although it could be tempting to listen to this album entirely in light of the past, As We Ascend is so much more than their We As Human roots, and they display promise that could easily carry them on a meteoric rise far beyond what their last band achieved.

With their dual guitarist and vocalist dynamic, tight songwriting and technical mastery, As We Ascend has created the perfect hard rock storm. Farewell to Midnight is a frontrunner for the best rock record of 2017, proving undeniably that for As We Ascend and their listeners, the best is yet to come.

Related Artists: Disciple, We As Human, RED

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