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


  1. 1) "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.)"


    2) Wouldn't you love to hear a Counting Crows worship band? I mean, I love Joshua Tree as much as the next guy, but I'm getting tired of Jesus Tree Karaoke Night. Plus, I think early Counting Crows stuff would work much better in the south...or maybe some early Train...either way.

    3) Have you heard the band "Sounds of Water?" Listen to their song "Willow." That is a Christian band who actually gets the "ambient" sound, although they do have a repetitive chorus...likely the reason they only have one song with words.

    4) the front row thing...definitely Baptist.

  2. Sorry, "Songs of Water" is the band name.