For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke.—Isaiah 59: 17
For the uninitiated, the words “Christian metal” may conjure vague images of Stryper prancing about on MTV in black and yellow spandex, but to a massive number of listeners (and believers), the music is a way of life, with a complex family tree of subgenres, bands, labels and networks that has blossomed mightily since the 1980s. There are even specific ministries that serve the Christian metal crowd, like Pastor Bob Beeman’s Sanctuary International, formed in the mid-‘80s, just as bands like the aforementioned Stryper, Louisville’s long-running band Bride, Living Sacrifice from Arkansas and Chicago’s Whitecross began combining the metallic musical aesthetic with lyrics that extolled their faith in Jesus.
Living Sacrifice’s thrashier approach would presage the veritable explosion of Christian metal, metalcore and post-hardcore in the ‘90s, with bands like Underoath, Zao and P.O.D. finding rabid fans not just amongst the faithful but in secular audiences as well. At the same time, the unblack metal movement was spinning off as a spiritual alternative to black metal; groups like Australia’s Mortification and Sweden’s Admonish preserved the musical qualities of extreme metal, furnishing it with evangelical lyrics.
Later, Norma Jean, August Burns Red, The Devil Wears Prada, Demon Hunter and a plethora of other bands would swell the ranks and keep the Christian metal movement vital.
Crossover appeal and musical authenticity distinguishes Christian metal from the more insular and commercialized CCM movement, and suggests that while the bands are fueled by missionary zeal, their basic chops and love for the music seem genuine enough that it doesn’t jar on a playlist next to Killswitch Engage.
Isaac Cabrera, 18, a student at University of Arizona and an avowed Christian metalcore fan says, “I know many Underoath fans who aren’t Christians. In fact, a lot of the kids at these concerts don’t know that they are Christian until Spencer Chamberlain (lead vocals) announces that they stand up in front of everyone in the name of Jesus Christ.”
He adds, “They don’t intend to force their beliefs down anyone’s throats, they just want to share what has saved them through various challenges…”
Though preachiness isn’t the main goal for most Christian bands, the lyrics that abound in the genre have a tendency towards the righteous that perfectly meshes with the musical aggression. Underoath’s “In Regards to Myself” exhorts listeners to “Wake up! Wake up! My God!/This is not a test!” while Devil Wears Prada chides, in a voice that combines King James primness with emo brimstone, “mass chaos is our weapon of unification/Tied are you by the scarlet thread./Eternal merciless eyes./Death harmonizes with your walk.”
Zao’s “Pudgy Young Girls with Lobotomy Eyes” observes the emptiness of consumerism, lobbing the accusation that “your life is a shallow fleeting trend.” P.O.D. comes right and states, in their song of the same name, “Abortion is murder.” This ain’t “Kumbaya” or “…smile on your brother, now,” but a spirited if not outright strident call to the faith that reflects an active and engaged approach to spirituality.
August Burns Red
In 2009, August Burns Red’s album Constellations entered the Billboard charts at Number 24, and As I Lay Dying’s documentary DVD went platinum. This kind of mainstream success augurs well for the acceptance of Christian metal, although it has also ushered in a predictable backlash, as expressed on countless online music forums. So where will the genre go from here? God only knows.
Underoath’s new album Ø (disambiguation) on Solid State/ Tooth & Nail drops November 9, 2010.
By Paula Carino
Paula Carino is a musician and writer based in New York. She’s written for AMG, American Songwriter and contributed to the Encyclopedia of Pop Music. She’s also a yoga teacher and authored the book Yoga To Go.