Guest Writer Jacob Smith: A Young Man on Hymns

At Pulling On The Push Door, we love to have a wide variety of voices to provoke us to thought and discussion. Thus, we are more than happy to welcome our good friend Jacob Smith, who has written the following post on hymns, as a guest writer for the blog. Please feel free to comment with your own perspective on the issue!

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hymnsThe Church made for herself quite the divisive topic when she invented modern praise music. I doubt that many of those who pioneered the “Contemporary” movement foresaw how churches would bicker and split over their very own songs. The conflicts over worship styles definitely provide for an interesting conversation, but the so called “worship wars” of the past do not concern me today. Today, the average church goer rarely thinks about his music and that, indeed, constitutes a much greater problem. Thus, the church must return to the question of worship styles once more.

I am twenty-one and a college student, and, therefore, most would assume that nothing makes me feel more worshipful than soft synth, deep bass, and crisp lighting sets, but not so fast. As the title of this article clearly states, I love hymns. I love them quite a bit actually. This does make me an aberration I suppose, but I know that I am not alone in this. Therefore, I would like to begin with clearing an unfortunately common false assumption from the ecclesiological air, twenty-one year olds are not a monolith, we cannot agree on a uniform dress style—thus the exceptionally cliquish nature of style this day (i.e. hipsters, rockers, preps, goths)—let alone on something vastly significant such as how we worship God. So no, for all those over forty, switching to all contemporary music will not necessarily “bring in more of the young people.” In fact, if you switch and do so poorly, then you are more likely to drive off “the young people” than to draw them in. Switching styles does not send out an instant notification to all those under thirty, such that they throng to your doors in a hysterical mass bent on awesome worship. A multitude of reasons could be contributing to the older demographics in many churches, the most common of which is a generally more demographic in many smaller towns, and you should not assume that switching teams would alter your demographics any more than switching socks alters your height

Also, please stop subjecting what youth you have in your church to poorly executed worship music (or, heaven help us, worship track CDs) when you have a perfectly good piano and organ. Most of us would rather sing thirty well executed hymns—and I am not talking about Rachmaninoff concerto performance here—than attempt to sing one contemporary song with the ubiquitous struggling praise band. Furthermore, some people seem to have the alarmingly foolish formula in their minds that traditional = insincere. There are few more logically deficient assumptions as this. I am sure that anyone who lived before 1978 would love to discover that they along with the nineteen hundred and seventy-eight years’ worth of faithful Christians who preceded them were worshiping God insincerely this whole time. What a foolish thought, but I digress.

1. Hymns are simpler

This may not seem quite right. You might point out that modern praise music operates by a much simpler chord system and has more commonplace words in its lyrics, but these both miss the mark on this point. Do you recall how I was talking about churches poorly executing praise music earlier? Well, the reason for this is not because non-professional musicians are all terrible, but because executing a praise song well requires quite a few more people and the addition of people equals the addition of multiple possible points of failure. You see, to do modern music well you must have a full praise band, a sound technician, and a light/projection crew. This provides for quite a few opportunities for things to go wrong. We all know how irritating it is when the man working the slides gets lost or the guitarist plays in the wrong key, and it happens all of the time.

Hymns are a totally different story. They are simple. They require no more than three people to execute them well. When was the last time any of us were distracted while singing a hymn because the pianist accidentally lapsed into the wrong key? Furthermore, organs and pianos are both acoustic instruments, so no sound technicians are required. As far as people’s voices go, the church got along quite well for 1800 years without any electrical amplification, so I imagine we could still pull it off. Also, hymnals work quite well, in that they never get lost mid song and give you the wrong lyrics. They always work and even give you more information than slides do anyway.

2. Hymns are more musical

I am sorry, but the continual progression of the same chords kills modern music for me. Furthermore, most all of it is in major keys, which may seem like an advantage, but a minor key is a powerful thing and should never be excluded from any kind of music. Sure, praise music is much more emotional, but, just as a passionately pained road stripe does not equal Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” in artistry, this is a poor comparison. This carries over into the realm of beauty as well. How many of us want “10,000 Reasons” sung at our funerals? Few if any, I would guess. It is a nice song, but ultimately not a beautiful work. I ask you, what contemporary song is as hauntingly beautiful as “I Wonder as I Wander” or as jubilant as “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”? None, I would say.

3. Hymns are More Theological

This is a pretty classic argument, so I will not belabor my point here. I will say that modern praise music often doesn’t get the props it deserves on this front. Your average praise song tends to have more straight scripture than your average hymn (unless you use a psalter), but even then that does not truly resolve this question. Most hymns will teach you more about Christianity and the truths in scripture than your average contemporary song could imagine, and hymns also tend not to have a heavy proliferation of that great theological term “oh.” What does singing a single meaningless syllable communicate about faith in Christ? Substitutionary atonement? Incarnation? The consubstantiality of the Son with the Father? This non-theological bend becomes especially evident in how modern praise music so often relies on giant musical mood swings to whip its listeners into some kind of a worshipful frenzy, rather than actually engaging them in the lyrics. Needless to say, hymns are powerful theological works in their own right.

4. Hymns are Holier

This might get me in trouble, but I think singing hymns is a holier pursuit than singing praise songs. Now, am I saying that those who sing hymns are holier? No, and do not construe this as self-righteousness. I have always felt holier while singing hymns. I know this is very much a personal feeling, but this is a blog post, it is all personal opinion. Anyway, Hymns have a far greater air of holiness to them; you feel like you are doing something sacred. I think that this feeling actually roots itself in some facts though. Firstly, the fact is that Hymns are inescapably sacred. Sure, some have a colorful past, but no one remembers them as bar songs or whatnot. Their defining influence has been as a hymn. People often decry a sacred/secular divide, but to do so, I believe, is shallow. Yes, Christians should integrate their faiths with the lives out in the world, but something should be different from the world when believers get together to worship. I am confident that most people want to feel like they are somewhere different, somewhere better, than the outside world when they are at church. Modern praise music is too akin to the popular music of our day to effectively be sacred. It is like claiming a 2011 Chevrolet Aveo really is the same thing as a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. It may be produced by the same company, but it really cannot share the stage. Contemporary music is sacred, but only in name. Little, other than a lack of creativity perhaps, sets it apart from this world. Hymns have always been clearly distinguishable from the secular world. Since the meaning of holy is “to set apart for God” it is clear from this angle that hymns are holier, since contemporary music fails to fulfill this above listed definition.

Secondly, there is a tradition to hymns. Hymns are how the Church has facilitated worship for nearly eight hundred years. We cannot just deny that. People have sought Christ with the very some words you are singing for hundreds of years, which connects you to a long tradition. While many spurn tradition these days, I contend that it should always play an important role in the activity of the Church. When singing hymns you are in-line with not only those older than you in the church, but countless others who have gone before you. Furthermore, churches are more cohesive bodies when they embrace hymns. They remain together, forming strong bonds held together with the firm glue of tradition. I will emphasize this with some anecdotal evidence. I recently attended a joint service between a church’s traditional and contemporary services and in this service we did not sing one hymn. Everything was modern. Do you know what that did? It created division, because those who love hymns were told by the worship leader that their feelings did not matter. They were told that it was more important that the folks used to the contemporary service not be inconvenienced with their old-fashioned musical tastes, than it was for them to feel included and comfortable. It was divisive and disappointing.

In conclusion, I think we have cast off hymns too quickly, as if the music that replaced them was impossibly superior, and alienated our elders. Furthermore, in embracing modern praise music we have taken what was a simple and effective system and introduced so many points of failure that few churches can execute a worship service well. Too many distracting errors are possible in contemporary services. Somewhere along the way, we decided to throw out beauty with simplicity. Sure, complex things are often beautiful, but this is not that easy. The praise music of today is rarely, if ever, beautiful to hear and has little musical complexity. In keeping with this motif, we replaced hymns that were both beautiful and thoughtful in lyric with praise songs which are often poetically and theologically lazy and, it is almost as if modern lyricists prefer to blunder about in a rhyme making app on their phones more than they prefer to compose. Finally, hymns set the music and worship of the church apart from that of the world. I want my praise to God to be different in every conceivable way from the culture’s praise of sexuality, fame, or money. I want that difference to stretch even into the form of the music. After all, that is what holiness is: set-apartness. Furthermore, hymns link you to a tradition that not only unifies individual churches, but the Church as a whole throughout time.

Finally, how, then, are we going to change this? If you think I am asking you to form a mob, go beat down your music minister’s door, and demand more hymns in your church services, you are wrong. Such an act would be profoundly disrespectful to a man who, as a pastor, is in spiritual authority over you. What I would suggest is for many of you to begin thinking seriously about how worship is carried out at your church and quietly bring your individual concerns to your music minister, because coming as a group automatically sets you up as an opposing party. No one wants that. At the end of the day though, as long as a church is unified it is in far better shape than one that is disjointed, regardless of worship style. The last thing I want is for there to be disunity in a church. So always seek unity and always display love, for these are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and that, indeed, is what Jesus would do.

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Steven Curtis Chapman: “The Glorious Unfolding”

329487I might be a bit late to the party, but after finally getting the chance to listen to and reflect on Steven Curtis Chapman’s latest album, The Glorious Unfolding, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to give the Contemporary Christian music veteran’s latest effort a resounding endorsement. I confess, this post is less of a review and more of a full-blown recommendation, for Chapman once again makes a very strong case for being the finest artist that CCM has to offer. In a genre too often saddled with repetition, cliché, and blandness, The Glorious Unfolding is a musically engaging, theologically provocative and deeply emotional ray of creative hope.

Chapman has carved quite the niche for himself in the modern soundscape, and The Glorious Unfolding is another solid progression of his distinct brand of pop rock. The classic Steven Curtis Chapman energy and exuberance is evident on the infectious “Love Take Me Over” and the delightfully resilient “Take Another Step”, hammering home its message of perseverance with percussive force. “Something Beautiful” would be right at home on past Chapman records like Declaration or This Moment, riffing with a consistent but never unwelcome sense of style.

Gang vocals , synth, and stomp-claps are new additions that help to keep Chapman’s signature style fresh throughout the album, but work to particularly great effect on the title track. “Finish What He Started”, easily the highlight, marches relentlessly forward with primeval backing vocals and powerful drums, lending the song tangible potency. Those who enjoyed Chapman’s recent acoustic project, Deep Roots, will be pleased to find that stripped down and earthy feel permeating the record, keeping “Sound of Your Voice”, “Michael and Maria” and “Feet of Jesus” delightfully intimate. “Feet of Jesus” is sonically haunting, moving from acoustic guitar, to flute, to strings, then to a remarkably emotive electric guitar solo, ensuring Unfolding ends on a strong note.

Aside from the simple musical pleasure of the album, it is this aforementioned intimacy that lends Unfolding its greatest strength as a piece of art. Chapman is a man who has stared death in the face, having his beloved adopted daughter snatched from this life in a tragic and heart-wrenching fashion, and it shows. The entire album is an exploration of clinging to the sovereignty of God in the midst of a dark and fallen world, refusing to allow the despair that evil confronts us with to impede our divine call to live the love of Christ in this world, and Chapman’s songs are therefore littered with encouragement. The title track exhorts the listener to “lay your head down tonight, take a rest from the fight”, and realize that life is a “glorious unfolding” that only One can understand and lend meaning to. Chapman is also to be commended for calling Christians to meet both the spiritual and physical needs of the poor and destitute in “A Little More Time to Love”, making the kingdom of heaven manifest while looking forward to creation’s eventual perfection. “Sound of Your Voice” is remarkable when heard with Chapman in mind, as he struggles to listen for God to speak in the midst of trials, and freely admits that he is still listening, not necessarily that he has heard. The distinction is refreshingly honest.

Chapman’s uplifting spirit is no cheap and sugar-coated belief that God works out man’s problems, but instead the result of a hard-earned and mature faith that often doubts. Chapman is baring his heart for us, reaching out to those experiencing darkness in their own lives and saying “if it wasn’t for God’s mercy and His grace, there’s no way we’d be standing here today” (as he sings to his wife in “Together”). And, try as we might, we cannot brush aside his encouragement as mere sentimentalism or simple religious fervor, for his is a faith that has weathered the fiercest of storms, a faith that acknowledges confusion and tragedy and wrestles them rather than fluffs over them (the fact that Chapman has the strength to both pen and perform “Michael and Maria” is miraculous). The Glorious Unfolding is the artistic testimony of one man who clung to the feet of Jesus through the most ferocious of storms, who is lying there broken, bruised, and drenched in both rain and tears, but is clinging tenaciously all the same.

That, my friends, is a glorious picture worth unfolding.

Hans Zimmer: “Rush”

RUSH2013 has been a good year for Hans Zimmer fans like myself. The renowned German composer has scored the music for four major films this year, three of them already released, with one more still to come. His score for Man of Steel was met with a storm of both positive and negative press, dividing listeners between those that hailed it as a bold and modern reimagining of Superman’s musical identity and those who lampooned it as yet another minimalistic, over-synthesized formulaic soundtrack in the vein of The Dark Knight’s famous two-note motif (I have found myself occupying somewhat of a middle ground). Next came The Lone Ranger, which elicited a far more positive response, overcoming the same tonal inconsistencies the film suffered from with some individual moments of musical ingenuity, a few tributes to Ennio Morricone, and a fantastic adaptation of the William Tell Overture.  And now we have Zimmer’s rock soundtrack for Rush, the Ron Howard F1 racing film, and I am happy to report that not only is it Zimmer’s strongest album of the year, but it may provide some of the best music the we have heard from the composer so far this decade.

One of the critiques often leveled against Zimmer is the fact that his thoroughly modern style of scoring (electronically driven, structured similar to rock music, simple progressions relying more on powerful and sonically deep performances rather than technical nuance) is applied too often to contexts it is not suited for. This is most certainly not the case with Rush. It is hard to imagine that another composer in Hollywood today would be more suited to score a 70’s racing drama, as the source material plays right into Zimmer’s strengths. A product of late 70’s/early 80’s rock himself, in which he started his musical career, Zimmer’s compositional style has always been rooted in guitar based chords and structure. Classic guitar riffs, pounding percussion, and a dash of synth-powered orchestra is exactly what this film needed, and Zimmer delivers.

The album opens with the muted whoosh of racecars in “1976”, which broods for a minute or so with eerie atmospherics and synthesized strings interspersed with delicate piano. Eventually a guitar joins the mix, building a sense of anticipation with a simple repeating pattern (what will become a racing theme of sorts) before a majestic cello piece surfaces, heralding the main theme’s arrival on brass along with a sudden and energetic blast of guitar and percussion. These elements make up the backbone of the rest of the score. The racing theme supplies a pleasantly simple and uplifting sense of excitement and eagerness, getting its best performance on “Stopwatch”, one of the finer pieces of music to come out of Remote Control Productions in recent memory and easily the highlight of the album. The sense of hope and passion on that track flows almost seamlessly into the heavily percussive and guitar driven “Into the Red”, capturing perfectly both the adrenaline-pumping intensity of such a competition as well as the natural swagger and arrogance of the racers themselves.

“Into the Red” is but one of several action cues that prove to be standout tracks, racing forward with a propulsive energy driven by both guitar riffs and excellent percussion. The drums in Rush prove far more effective than the much hyped 12 piece drum orchestra Zimmer assembled for Man of Steel, for here they do not simply hammer the listener into submission, but rather utilize interesting rock techniques in “Watkins Glen” or accompany a powerful discordant guitar wail prominent in “1976”, the transition between “Stopwatch” and “Into the Red”, as well as the beginning of “Car Trouble”. Guitars chug menacingly under synthesizers during “Nürburgring”, before sharp, rapid percussion joins in. “Car Trouble” proves to be the most engaging piece of Zimmer action music since “160 BPM” from his 2009 Angels & Demons score, racing forward with perfectly blended drums and guitar, and becoming particularly poignant thanks to the guitar riff from 0:57-1:23 and reprised on strings later in the cue. Never does Zimmer fall prey to the minimalist droning and pounding he has become known for recently. His action music for Rush is instead nuanced, weaving the racing theme in and out of these and other tracks, as well as incorporating the main brass theme on “Reign” and prominently throughout the majestic “Lost but Won”.

This brass theme is a fairly simple and standard construct for the composer, but it effectively communicates the self-perceived importance and significance of victory for these F1 rivals, and it is weaved beautifully and subtly throughout the score, twisted and contorted throughout the disturbing “Inferno”, and reprised triumphantly on “My Best Enemy”. It does not hurt that Martin Tillman’s cello performances of the theme on “1976” and “Lost but Won” are chilling in their gravity and nobility. Zimmer is not afraid to let rip with the period rock vibe either, and “I Could Show You If You’d Like”, “Oysters in the Pits” and “20%” will all be standouts for those who enjoy that era, along with the several rock songs from the time that are seamlessly included on the record. It is a credit to Zimmer and his production team that their original music is mixed and composed so authentically to the period that it is easy to lose track of which songs belong to Zimmer and which belong to the likes of Thin Lizzy, David Bowie and others.

In short, Rush showcases Zimmer at his best, adapting his style sonically for an era it is perfectly suited for. Rush is a must-have for fans of the composer, showcasing a truly hopeful and uplifting guitar motif, some of Zimmer’s best action music in recent memory, and a noble brass theme all presented in a classic and accurate period context. Rush will thrill and excite every bit as much as the F1 race cars it is intended to represent.

Red: “Release The Panic”

Release The PanicFor years, Red has been a pillar of my musical library. In fact, one could say that this hard rock band launched me on the musical journey of my life, and though I have for the most part moved on from their angst-ridden genre, I still find much to laud about Red’s music. Innocence & Instinct still holds its ground as the band’s defining work, seamlessly melding melody, aggression, massive guitars and haunting strings in a stimulating and moving exploration of the duality of man and the “Fight Inside”. Their debut, End of Silence, still rides the emotional weight of the prominent orchestrations and Michael Barnes’ powerful vocal ability, while Until We Have Faces, though a weaker overall album, still contains moments of genius with a dash of social commentary. It is with high hopes and high standards that I approached Release The Panic, but the effort of the band on its fourth record is far more mixed, complicated, and ultimately perplexing and disappointing than anything previously released.

In advance of the album’s release, Red, along with new producer Howard Benson, hyped that they were trying something new and different for the new record. Significant to note is longtime producer Rob Graves’ complete absence from the production and songwriting. Clearly the band wanted to move forward in a different musical direction, and so it is no surprise that the formerly prevalent string and piano accompaniments that defined Red’s sound are only occasionally present. Instead various electronic elements replace them. Lyrically, as well, the band changes face, diving into more substantial social commentary, akin to that present in “Feed the Machine”. Unfortunately, the sonic changes prove far less effective than the lyrical shift, and the album flounders because of it.

Red continues, for the most part, their competent lyricism, and turns their focus away from specifically personal struggles, and broadens the focus to encompass greater societal and human issues. “Perfect Life” is a scathing indictment of modern popular American culture, bluntly calling out materialism and sensationalism for the lie that it is. “Damage” and “Same Disease” examine the fallen human condition, laying the blame for disaster at the place it belongs: at man’s own feet. “Glass House” eloquently describes how God sees through the facades we are so prone to put up, and how, in fact, He alone, because of it, can “take away the pain”, and “break through the glass house of our souls”. “The Moment We Come Alive” is a satisfying anthem for change. “Love Will Leave A Mark” examines how true love will change a person, and also how it is not always a pleasant experience. The mournful poetic imagery used on “As You Go” is also particularly stirring and moving.

There are a few misfires though. The title track, “Release the Panic” is shockingly vague in its aggressiveness, with repeated shouts of “release the panic, oh, release the panic” that could be a call for just about anything. “Die For You” has a cringe-worthy inclusion of “I ain’t gonna change”. “So Far Away” features generic lyrics throughout. However, what damns the track is the bridge, in which Barnes pretentiously demands “yeah give it back to me”. One wonders if these flaws have something to do with the producer, Howard Benson, who has a track record of trivializing lyrical content (Skillet’s Awake anyone?). In fact, it has been reported that Benson wanted to limit the band to eight words on the song “Damage”, an inexplicable move that would have robbed the song of most any meaning.

Overall though, the lyrical and thematic material is satisfactory. The musical content itself, however, is far inferior to any previous Red release. The primary culprit is the substitution of strings with electronics. Now, I would like to make clear, I am not condemning Red simply on the fact that they moved away from their former established “sound”. My issue is that the replacement is not done well. Formerly, string arrangements accompanied the songs to provide melody, contrasting the heavier and harsher elements of the music with delicate beauty. The electronic elements that replace the strings do little to contribute to any melody or emotion. In fact, the electronics do not even have a significant enough presence to truly affect most songs in a meaningful way other than to provide general static and distortion.

Compare “Release the Panic” to “Feed the Machine” from Until We Have Faces. Both songs are, at their core, extraordinarily heavy and hard-hitting tracks, but “Feed the Machine” proves far more powerful thanks to a genuinely beautiful contrast in melody to the screams and industrial discordance. Without the string and choral elements underpinning the clean vocals, “Release the Panic” is robbed of its emotional impact and becomes simply a cacophony of angry noise. Similarly, “Same Disease” does nothing necessarily wrong, but the electronics appear only for a brief moment at the outset, and otherwise disappear, providing nothing unique to the number. “Damage”, likewise, contains one of the most interesting and complex riffs Red has ever crafted, but the song’s anger and frustration only beats the listener repeatedly over the head, as it contains no delicate finesse. Only so many emotions can be evoked through distorted guitar tone, and the window-dressing electronics do little to fill the void throughout the album. Brief piano bits, though, show up on several songs (“Hold Me Now”, “The Moment We Come Alive”) but are too generic and not impactful enough to make a significant difference.

The vocals however, continue to only improve. Barnes’ vocal prowess carries the otherwise mediocre “Die For You” into infectiously catchy territory, blends magnificently with the strings that make their sole prominent appearance during the powerful chorus of “If We Only”, and takes on an achingly ethereal form on “As You Go”, which closes out the Deluxe Edition of the album. “Glass House” also briefly features strings, and proves one of the stronger numbers.

Ultimately, Release The Panic proves to be a disappointing album, and another step down from the band’s pinnacle reached with Innocence & Instinct. Red takes another step towards generic hard rock. The band should be commended for taking a risk and moving away from the string and piano based melodies. However, the replacement electronics prove to be insufficient to carry the load once so adeptly handled by the orchestral elements.

These are not only words to a song…

Music. It is the one common factor that unites almost all humanity. All cultures share a common thread: each has, in one form or another, some type of music. Times have changed, civilizations come and gone, but one thing remains constant: the curious ability of music to bring people together. From the flute and lyre of ancient times, to the bard of the Middle Ages, to the modern day rock star, music and the makers of melody hold a special place in the human existence.

Why though? Why does music hold such significance to us as humans? What defines “good” music? Humans hold this form of art in such high esteem for one simple reason: it puts into audible form emotions and feelings that cannot be described with mere words. Why is the group singing along to a guitarist around a fire, laughing all the while, so enticing and desirable? Certainly it could not be an appreciation of incredible musical talent. No, it is rather the heightening of emotions; in this case generally feelings of joy. The classical composers understood this: Bach, Beethoven and Mozart composed music that did not always require lyrics to make its point. Their symphonies relied simply on the emotions and passions they would invoke in their listener. Why are these classical artists still revered today? Because of the indelible emotional impact they made on their listeners, making audible what could not be verbalized.

Today, though, music tends to include and incorporate lyrics, verbalizing along with evoking feelings. Again, we see music taking mere words, that may not hold much meaning by themselves, and putting emotional weight and authority behind them. The combining of music and lyrics is the meeting of the concrete, precise art of language with the emotional, abstract art of melody. Combining the exact and the abstract creates a complete and full art form; one that fingers precisely the issue at hand, while also building an emotional framework that cannot be verbalized, but merely felt.

What attracts certain individuals to certain music is more complex and hard to grasp than why people gravitate to music in general. Each person grabs a hold onto a genre or artists that mirror and portray the emotions they most identify with. It is remarkable just how much you can learn about a person simply by noting the music they enjoy. Look at the lyrical themes and the emotions the music stirs within you. Listen to the feel of the music: is it upbeat, downcast, serious, light-hearted? Each genre of music has its own distinct emotional feel. Country, for example, typically takes a nostalgic, lighthearted romantic feel. Hard rock evokes feelings of loneliness, an almost constant melancholy and desire to rise above. Metal, quite obviously, possesses a ferocious anger, while pop music displays a wild, reckless state of mind.

It is interesting to note that even music chosen for “simply entertainment” or “just for the beat” still reflects the state of mind of the listener. Sometimes just the fact that an individual chooses music just for the beat, and in no way related to lyrical content or mood in any situation can speak volumes about the person themselves. The fact is that all people, consciously or unconsciously, choose their music because they identify with it somehow. In order for music to truly be enjoyable there has to be an emotional or topical connection. Without this bridge, there can be no empathy, and nothing compelling for the listener in the music. People choose and latch onto music that reflects their current state of mind and circumstances. Musical moods, in which a person may favor one musical artist or style over others temporarily, are caused by changes in a person’s mood or circumstances.

Music and shared musical tastes bring people together in a unique way, as they are drawn together to a type of music for quite possibly similar and related reasons. The driving force behind people using technology to share their music with others is often because they are grasping and searching for those they can identify with. Many a friendship has been born or strengthened when a common interest is discovered, because it reflects often times greater similarities between two people. Music also is a way that people attempt to express their feelings about the world and others. Once again, we see the unique ability of music to express the inexpressible. Often, when with others, a person will choose specific songs, knowingly or unknowingly, because they hope deep inside that someone will catch on, will take note of the emotional underpinnings, and hear the subtle messages. It is in the nuances of music that the loudest screams are heard. Are the songs of a friend drenched in sorrow and longing? Are they songs of joy, contentment? Of praise? Or are they filled with lament and mourning?

No person listens to a song, or enjoys a tune, simply for its own sake. Listen to the words, or the feeling and mood of the music, the flow of the notes. Does it soar to incredible heights, or dwell in the depths? Pay close attention especially if someone shares a song with you, or with the world. More likely than not it is their silent scream to be heard in a world that simply assaults us with a wall of noise. Examine your own music: what does it say about yourself, your hopes, your struggles? If you truly want to understand a person, know their music. Music is a key to understanding the heart, soul and dreams of a person. Don’t neglect it.

Disciple: “Horseshoes & Handgrenades”

My absolute favorite instrument is the violin. Nothing quite captures me like the sound of that emotional stringed instrument. It should come as little surprise to those people that know me best that the best way to get me interested in a band or piece of music is show me a song with prominent violins. In this way, I was led into my latest album purchase: Disciple’s 2010 release Horseshoes & Handgrenades. When a friend played me the lead single “Dear X, You Don’t Own Me”, after only a few notes on the cello I determined this was something I would have to buy, and I was not disappointed.

 Disciple, for those of you who are not familiar with the band, has become a mainstay of the Christian brand of hard rock. Disciple is best known for their ferocious, energetic performances, with songs dabbling in metal at times, and a band that despite numerous lineup changes has always had the emotional, impassioned vocal deliveries of lead singer Kevin Young. Having owned Disciple’s previous release, Southern Hospitality, I more or less thought I knew what to expect: a rough around the edges style of rock, upping the intensity to metal levels occasionally. What my ears received were instead many pleasant surprises.

 Horseshoes opens up with the mid-tempo power ballad “Dear X”, which is an odd choice for an opening number, as it possesses a radio friendly feel, with the strings, emotive but not overpowering chorus, and lack of the in your face intensity that is a staple of Disciple’s music. An odd choice, but still a excellent song, the strings and guitars soon fade out, before a quick drum flourish accompanies the start of what we’ve been waiting for: intense riffage. “Watch It Burn” is a headbanger in every sense of the word, from Young’s desperate delivery of the verses, to the incessant pounding of the guitars and drums, to the pinnacle chorus shouts of “set it off, set it off watch it all burn down!” Of all the songs on the album, “Watch It Burn” proves to be the strongest, as this is certainly the music Disciple was meant to play. Coming in a close second is the equally, if not more aggressive “Shot Heard ‘Round The World”, a pure fight song that dabbles with metal, showcasing almost constant screaming vocals, though Young does gives us a brief respite on the bridge. “The Ballad of St. Augustine” is another strong heavy number, with an enjoyable departure from typical song structure as it tells the story of salvation. “Revolution: Now” has an urgent call to action with a large scale feel. “Battle Lines”, however, is a mixed bag. With an intensity equal to “Watch It Burn” and “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” the curious choice of using crowd clapping effects on the verses detracts from another furious assault on the senses in the chorus.

 Disciple also slows the album down (though not quieting it) with “Collision”, “Remedy” “Eternity” and “Worth The Pain.” Of the slower tracks, “Remedy” and “Worth The Pain” leave the greatest impression, “Remedy” with a surprisingly chilling delivery by Young and “Worth The Pain” thanks to an excellent pairing of piano and layered guitars. Unfortunately, not every song is perfect, as the made for radio rocker “Invisible” is a simply incredible and uplifting song, if you can get over the fact it sounds extremely similar to many things Skillet has already done. “Eternity”, though being a well crafted song lyrically, feels too much like a compromise between heavy and soft, and does not grab you with any compelling hooks the way “Dear X” and other mid-tempo rockers on the album do.

 The most compelling thing about Horseshoes & Handgrenades, though, is that accompanying the satisfying musical performances are urgent, Godly and heartfelt lyrics. Each song, in the liner notes, is accompanied with scripture references that the band drew inspiration from when writing the track. Essentially, Disciple has created an excellent way for each listener to turn their favorite songs into short topical Bible studies. Each song deals with a specific spiritual issue, and the album as a whole focuses on spiritual warfare and coping with times of trial and temptation in your Christian walk. “Watch It Burn”, “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” and “Battle Lines” all serve as exhortations for Christians to be strong in warring against sin, with defiant cries of “to all the anarchy inside we can’t escape: set it off, let it all burn down! To all the hell inside that’s been controlling me: set it off, set it off, watch it all burn down!” “Dear X” is an encouragement to those dealing with guilt over past mistakes, while “St. Augustine’s” lines of “ashes celebrate, washing me, consuming me, as I’m falling on Your sword, washing me, branding me with grace; innocence reborn” are refreshing to all of us in need of new life. “Worth The Pain” encourages us all that “God’s in the rain, so hold on tonight” and “Revolution: Now’s” scolding tone exhorts believers to “tear these idols down” and tells us that “the tide has broken out, flooding till they all fall down.” Frankly, to hear any band proclaim truth so unashamedly is a real treat, and takes a musically solid album and makes it great.

 Horseshoe’s title comes from the saying “almost only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades.” After listening intently to Disciple’s latest album, I can safely say they are calling for Christians to take up arms against sin, knowing that we have authority in Christ, and surrendering ourselves completely to Him and to the struggle. “These battle lines were drawn since the beginning” Young reminds us all, and it is a message not told too soon. Horseshoes & Handgrenades is highly recommended to all fans of rock music, and especially to those who may be facing struggles in their spiritual walk or in need of encouragement.