Saturday, September 11, 2010

Concert Review: The Ember Days, Cedars Return, and some Thoughts about Modern Worship Music

Back in the summer, when I went to go see Abel, there was another band lined up to play after Abel's set: The Ember Days. This group was said by many witnesses to be amazing, but they didn't show up. The story was that "they had van trouble", although there was a rumor going around that they were really Russian spies on the run from the CIA. Actually, there wasn't a rumor to that effect, but it would have been really cool if there had been. To get to the point, when I found that The Ember Days were playing at Trinity-and for free, no less-I had to come and see what the buzz was about.
It was a dark and stormy night when I went up to Trinity Baptist Church. After sloshing across their front lawn to find an entrance, I finally came to the door with a piece of paper marked "Concert" taped on it. The door opened up into a creepy stairwell, which made it feel like I was attending some secret gathering, and made the concert twenty-percent cooler.
Once I reached the top, I found that there was no one wearing a "To Write Love On Her Arms" T-shirt, the obligatory garment for a Christian indie rock concert. (There's usually at least one person wearing one at a concert, just like how in college propaganda there's always a guy wearing a Dropkick Murphys T-shirt.)
This startling omission made the gathering ten-percent less cool, and it was probably due to how few people there were. In all I think there were only thirty or forty people (maybe less), and that's counting the bands.
The room of the concert had a big backdrop at the back of the room with Christian slogans written on it with glow-in-the dark markers. (My favorite was the Latin inscription "Sanctus Est".) Eight or nine rows of chairs were set up, with few people filling them. And for some odd reason, no one sat on the front row. Maybe it's a Baptist thing.
After a few minutes of listening to the weird indie music that always plays over the loudspeakers at I Love Evelyn concerts, (This time it sounded like a Christian version of Coheed and Cambria) Cedars Return took the stage. This band has a personal interest to me, as its lead singer is my Latin teacher's son-in-law. After they took the stage, lead singer and acoustic guitarist David Farren of the amazing goatee (Prime cause of the sin of envy among other youth pastors.) invited us to come up here and "just worship." A small crowd gathered in front of the stage, and the band began an obligatory feature of the "ambient worship" band concert-the prayer accompanied by some ethereal guitar part that seems lifted from one of those New Age-y 80s Celtic albums. After the prayer, the band segued straight into their first song. David Farren has a pleasant vibrato voice, like a higher pitched Eddie Vedder, and the female lead singer, Kaitlin Rogers, has a nice Christian pop feel to her voice. On the downside, the song lacked any good structure, sort of falling apart instead of ending, the drumming was uninspired, and the chord progressions sounded like every other worship song. The next song had an interesting concept, (“Before this note rings out…have I forgotten you?) but any chance of milking it into an intelligent song was ruined by it launching into one of those epic, neverending, eternal worship choruses. It ended with a fairly cool guitar solo by Ryan Danger Rainer, but why do guitarists in these worship bands stomp on the floor to keep time? And what is it with Christian bands and chubby guys. I know that you can’t change the body build you were born with, but Rainer looks like he could use a few trips to the gym. Andrew Beaujon, in his insightful book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside The Phenomena of Christian Rock, amusingly suggests that because Christian men are married to the same woman for life (hopefully), they think it’s OK to chow down the extra hot dog.
All weight related comments aside, Cedars Return left the stage, and they were followed by The Long Delay. This band had a long set, consisting of dead silence drowned out by the Sanctified Coheed and Cambria sound-alike playing on the loudspeakers. After The Long Delay, The Even Longer Soundcheck took the stage and played their set.
After The Even Longer Soundcheck left the stage, to no applause, New Zealand rock band The Ember Days took the stage. Unlike the pitifully normal Cedars Return, The Ember Days were in full musician garb. The drummer, who’s arm was about as skinny as his drumstick, was decked out in huge glasses and suspenders. (10% Cooler) Their lead guitarist looked a bit like Drew Shirley from Switchfoot, and their bass player had an unseemly resemblance to David Bowie‘s turn as the Goblin King in Labyrinth. (20% less cool) The best look-alike of all, was their rhythm guitarist and singer Jason Belcher, who with his mustache and unmusicianly barrel-chested figure, looked like he could become a Mario imitator if the band ceased to be an option, which made this event 50% cooler.

All the extraneous lights were turned out, and the stage lights bathed the band in an eerie purple glow. The Ember Days asked everyone to stand if they wanted to, told us that they would be playing a lot of instrumentals, and invited everyone to sing their own song during the instrumentals. (No one did.) The band then proceeded to play “The Never-Ending Song”, as made famous by the Glorious Unseen. This song featured lots of choruses with simple, repetitive guitar parts, an unchanging, unsyncopated beat, and copy-and-paste vocals, interspersed with slow, ethereal, guitar instrumentals. Lead singer and pianist Janell Belcher’s voice sounded reminiscent of Leigh Nash, and, strangely enough, Katy Perry, but she was afflicted with the common curse of women singers-having to sing over the rhythm section. As a result, her voice lacked the soft, airy quality it has in studio. Jason Belcher (Isn’t it great when both the vocalists in a band are named Belcher.) had a voice which sounded like central casting Christian Pop/Rock-not amazing or strikingly unusual, but fortunately not breathy or effeminate.

The Ember Days introduced one of their songs by talking about how they loved to feel the presence of God, and asked us to feel the presence of God, but I just wasn’t feeling it. In fact, I feel this way at about every Christian worship concert I go to. I begin to worry if I am afflicted with a lack of piety, but I like old Southern Gospel music. Modern Worship music, especially “ambient” worship like The Glorious Unseen or The Ember Days, seems to have several serious problems.
1.) Repetitive, Uninspired Music. Most of the songs by the Glorious Unseen or The Ember Days have long choruses or sections consisting of an unvarying drumbeat and two or three chords on the guitar repeated in a loop. While this may create a nice crashing effect, it is, to put it bluntly, boring, and is not good musicianship. Every Ambient worship band also has the same sort ethereal guitar effects. I assume it is supposed to sound like U2, but most Christian bands that try to sound like U2 end up sounding like lame U2 rip-offs. And why do Christian bands try to copy U2 all the time. Why not The Cure or Counting Crows or Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or a myriad of other bands?
2.) Repetitive, Uninspired Lyrics. Hymns have intelligent, theological, lyrics. Southern gospel songs can have insipid lyrics, but they can also have lyrics that are intelligent, theological, and even witty. Worship songs take a lyric line-”Jesus, I love you.”, for instance-and spread it like butter over an epic chorus. Bob Dylan can take a three or four minute song and squeeze some poetry into it. Why are Christians afraid to do the same? Which is God most glorified by, a song with intelligent lyrics in a poetic structure, such as “Be Thou My Vision”, or a seemingly endless repetition of an phrase which, however true it is, is said over and over again until it has lost all its force.
3.) Lack of song structure. There’s a reason why the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure is used so much in music: It works. A love of structure is built in to the human psyche. Songs must have good structure in order to be good songs, just like a building must have a good plan to be a good building. A song or building without good structuring is pitiful, no matter how many embellishments it has. Listening to “Ambient Worship” is like watching a fish out of water-the songs tend to flop around and go nowhere in particular. The songs have no sense of movement or progression, just an excited sense of not going anywhere, which is what worship music is doing right now. Take a cue from Mozart.
4.) Overwhelming Expectation. Many Christian Ambient bands compare themselves to Sigur Ros. This is unfair. Sigur Ros has beautiful, angelic vocals, and a subtle ear for music. Christian “Ambient” bands usually take their vocal cues from Coldplay or Switchfoot, and feature bombast instead of finesse. In other words, they don’t know how to write a song without a heavy, power-chord driven chorus. And why are these bands categorized as “ambient” when there is almost nothing ambient about them? Sigur Ros’ futuristic, layered soundscapes ambient. I do not see why a loop of repeated power chords on the guitar is any more ambient than a song by Switchfoot or Coldplay or Matchbox 20 for that matter. The guitarists in these ambient bands play around with all sorts of cool sounding guitar effects. In the hands of great musicians such as The Edge from U2 or mewithoutYou, cool guitar effects can be musical poetry. Your guitar effects are only as good as your songwriting, and here it seems like the cool pedal effects are wasted on mediocre songs.
5.) The Unsuitability of Rock Music for Worship. Nothing against rock music. I love it, from The Beatles to Sufjan Stevens to Air Supply. (Yes, I like Air Supply.) But I feel, as a Christian, a musician, and a rock music fan, that rock music as we know it is unsuitable for worship. What I expect from worship music is something that is meditative, and conducive to a worshipful state of mind. Rock music makes me want to dance or headbang, especially when the guitarist breaks out into an awesome solo. (Kudos to Ryan Danger Rainer for the awesome solo.) Headbanging, though, is still frowned upon in worship circles, so I guess I would have to close my eyes and lift my hands up in the air or something. I don’t intend this to be a slam upon all worship songs or hymns written after 1500. There are plenty of new songs that are good and God-honoring and plenty of older hymns, which, musically speaking, I can’t stand. (Does “The Church ’s One Foundation” ring a bell.) I am not necessarily advocating a return to only old music, I am just saying that I don’t believe rock music is appropriate for church. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it-I believe that other genres, such as jazz or some types of classical music are inappropriate for worship, but not for simply listening to. This problem could be resolved if the bands weren’t promoted as “worship”, but instead as “Christian entertainment”, like many Southern Gospel groups.
The Ember Days finished their set and their guitarist began to give his testimonial. My inner Presbyterian began to cringe in fear, hoping that it was not going to be corny or sappy. However, his testimonial was actually quite good and theologically right on. Plus he had an awesome New Zealand accent.
After the show I bought two albums for the generous price of five dollars-that’s right, two for five dollars-and picked up some free download cards to give to my friends. While I may not be a fan of the Ember Day’s music, I appreciate their passion for God and their generous approach to music. I realize that God can use imperfect music to accomplish his will, and while much of the Ember Day’s music may be sub-par (In my opinion), it is heartfelt. Just don’t call them Aussies.

The Ember Days Official Site
You can download their music for free here

Monday, September 6, 2010

Classic Reviews-Led Zeppelin IV

Transcript of Music in Review Volume 1: 9-6-2010

Me: Hello and welcome to another exciting episode of "Music In Review". Today we'll be reviewing the exciting Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin, which is-.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: The Best Album Ever, by the Best Band Ever. No mortals ever walked the earth who could compare to the gods of Rock. Not even Steven Seagal!
Me: Thanks, that's nice.
Enthusastic Led Zeppelin Fan: They were the greatest band ever. Just listening to their music makes you awesome. Just looking at their records, even, makes you awesome.
Me: Yes. Anyway, Led Zeppelin's fourth effort starts out with a bang with "Black Dog"-
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: Which is the greatest beginning to an album ever! Just look at the amazing Lyrics.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, ah, ah, ahh.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, ah, ah, ahh."
That is genius. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Bob Dylan-they were all just Robert Plant rip-offs.
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Dude, what are you talking about. Robert Plant sounds like some girl when he's sings this. The song sounds like it's staggering out of bed to get some hangover pills after last night's binge.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: Exactly. It's one of the greatest rock-and-roll moments ever.
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Ever Heard of "Helter Skelter". It's like this song, only it has rhythm, and the singer doesn't sound like some namby-pamby girlyman.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: The Beatles are horrible-worst band ever. Led Zeppelin is the greatest band ever. Never doubt that truth.
Uninformed Music Critic: What the heck? What is this music? It doesn't sound like Linkin Park.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: Nothing Sounds like Led Zeppelin. The Bandmembers weren't born: They just suddenly appeared from the cosmic vibrations.
Me: Thank you for that opinion. The second track.
Anorak: You know, there's this band called Vanilla Fudge, and they were like Led Zeppelin, only they were around before Led Zeppelin, and they were better.
Me: Anyway, the second track, "Rock and Roll"-
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: is the definition of Rock and Roll. It is the ultimate Rock and Roll song! Led Zeppelin invented rock and roll.
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: No, you fool, Elvis invented Rock and Roll.
Anorak: Actually, Xavier D. Elmsley invented Rock-and-Roll twenty-two years, three months, and two days before Elvis began his musical career.
Uninformed Music Critic: Dude, I thought, like, Guns and Roses invented Rock and Roll. And Nirvana, and stuff.
Me: The question of who invented Rock and Roll is still up for debate. Anyway, the song is propelled by Jimmy Page-
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: The Greatest Guitarist Ever! Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Van Halen-they were all talentless losers. Jimmy Page invented the guitar.
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Are you crazy? All Jimmy Page did was steal music from black people and play it through his static-y sounding amplifier really loud, and people thought it was cool. Hendrix is a great guitarist. Jimmy Page is a lousy, rhythmless white guy.
Uninformed Music Critic: Have you guys ever listened to Atreyu? That guy is a good guitar player. Or Slash from G'n'R. Or the guy from Breaking Benjamin.
Me: The third track, The Battle of Evermore-
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: The soundtrack to my Life. I listened to that whenever I was getting ready to have an argument with my girlfriend.
Me: Your girlfriend?
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: Yeah. She broke up with me, because she didn't like how I would kiss the first four Led Zeppelin albums every night before I went to bed.
Me: That is a bit disconcerting.
Enthusiastic Led Zeppelin Fan: If I was gay, I would write Love Letters to Jimmy Page. But I'm not gay, I swear.
Me: OK, then. Back to the song-
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Robert Plant switches from a high-pitched feminine whine to a stomach virus growl on this track, which is the most boring, slow, acoustic track ever written. Other than that White T's song that all the chicks like a couple of years ago.
Anorak: "Hey There Delilah."
Oversensitive Beatles Fan: Yeah.
Anorak: It was written for:
Me: That concludes the discussion of that song. By the way, guys, can we use abbreviations? The guy who's typing all this out is getting kind of tired.
ELZF: Sure thing.
Me: Thanks. Side one ends with Led Zeppelin's master piece, Stairway to Heaven-
ELZF: THE BEST SONG EVER WRITTEN! Listening to that song is heaven! It's just proof that The Led Zeppelin bandmembers are the most powerful beings in the universe, even more powerful than Apocalypse from X-men.
OBF: You are certifiable. That song is one of the worst, most annoying songs ever written.
Me: That's a little harsh.
OBF: After you've heard it for the 14,876,765th time, you'll feel the same way.
Me: Well, it's not my fault you listened to the classic rock station too much.
Anorak: You know, if you play Stairway to Heaven backwards, you hear Highway to Hell by AC/DC.
UMC: Dude, I didn't even get to interject my opinion on the last song: I thought it was too slow. Staind has better acoustic songs. And this Stairway to Heaven stuff is stupid. It's not the Best Song Ever Written- There are better songs by Good Charlotte, or FallOutBoy, or Linkin Park. And It's so long! I mean, even that one song by Avenged Sevenfold isn't that long.
ME: And with that...interesting thought, let's move on to side two
The Doorbell Rings
Me: It's the Pizza Delivery Boy.
Pizza Delivery Boy: Hey! This will be $20.43
Me: David Grohl?
David Grohl: Yeah.
Me: But...Why?
David Grohl: The recession, man.
Me: I'm feeling you. What's your opinion on Led Zeppelin.
David Grohl: I can't say anything against them-I'm in a band with their bassist.
Me: Oh Yeah. What's that on your belt.
David Grohl: That? That's a lock of Kurt's hair. I take it out ever night and venerate it, and ask the Spirit of Kurt that he might lend me some of his amazing songwriting talent. Amen.
Me: Umm....Interesting.
David Grohl: This is strictly off-the-record.
Me: Of course.
Me: Thanks for the Pizza. I think I'm going to have to go finish this. Anyway, the next side of the album features "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Four Sticks".
ELZF: AMAZING SONGS! THEY ARE THE-wait, I don't have to use all caps. Forgive me, John Bonham. I was saying, those songs are amazing.
OBF: No they aren't. No intelligent person wants to listen to Misty Mountain Limp, and that awful Four sticks garbage.
Anorak: Vanilla Fudge-
UMC: Have you heard that new song by Kings of Leon. Awesome!
ELZF: How could you say that? Those songs are classic. They are essential. Every kid should listen to them from the time that he's three through the rest of his life.
OBF: Are you advocating Child abuse?
Me: Actually, I haven't really listened to those songs, so I'll skip to the next song, Going to California-
ELZF: It's so Beautiful. Robert Plant is even cooler than a Corvette. That song inspired me to move to California.
OBF: I would go to California if it meant I would never have to hear that song again.
UMC: That song was lame. That Katy Perry California Gurls song was better. That's my jam.
Me: That leads us to the final song, When the Levee Breaks, a cover of..of...
Anorak: Memphis Minnie.
Me: Yes, Memphis Minnie. The song features a wailing harmonica, driving guitars, and Robert Plant's screaming vocals. What drives this song the most, though, it John Bonham's drumming-
ELZF: JOOOOOOOOOOOOHN BOOOOOOOOOOOONHAAAAAAAAAAMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!I'm shaking with delight!
OBF: You sick man.
ELZF: I'm crying Tears of Joy!
OBF: You are a disgusting loser.
Me: Anyway, that wraps up the album and-what happened to the Led Zeppelin Fan?
Anorak: He collapsed. I think he's crying.
ELZF: John beautiful....I love you.
OBF: He's Hopeless.
UMC: Kanye's got some pretty sweet jams.
Me: Led Zeppelin, comprised of Robert Plant, Jimmie Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham-
Me: Produced several successful albums, wrote Stairway to Heaven, and are credited with inventing Heavy Metal-
ELZF: Jumping off the Floor You are right. Led Zep invented heavy metal. Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Iron Butterfly-They were all posers. Led Zeppelin was the BOMB!
OBF: You loser! The Beatles invented Heavy Metal.
Anorak: Actually, Vanilla Fudge invented Heavy Metal before Led Zeppelin.
UMC: Dude, Guns 'n' Roses invented Heavy Metal. And Like, Motley Crue and Nirvana, and Disturbed.
Me: Thank you. This concludes this episode of Music in Review. Tune in next time to see me square off against a legion of 50 year old weed smokers-in other words, Grateful Dead Fans. Good night and good luck.
UMC: Dude, Breaking Benjamin is better than any of this band's stuff. Led Zeppelin isn't metal, Linkin Park, and Devil Wears Prada, and Disturbed- Now That's Metal. What about Korn? Does anybody here listen to Korn. Hello? Hello? Where is everybody? Oh well, at least they left the pizza.