Monday, 29 August 2011

Top 5 Christian Rock Albums: #4

#4 - So Natural, Salvador

I first came across Salvador at a Christian music event in Stoke called Passion. I'd never heard of them, and din't know what to expect, but they totally rocked my socks off. As you might have guessed from the name, Salvador are fundamentally a latin-pop-rock Christian band. Quite an ensemble too, with eight musicians credited on the CD sleeve. The Salvador sound is funky, driven by two percussion players and the best bass player I've ever seen, fleshed out with both delicate and meaty guitar sounds, rhythmic piano and a grooving horn section.

These guys are serious musicians, and their 2004 album, So Natural, is a feast for the ears. There's a lot of variety packed into 12 tracks, with songs appearing at most points of the pop-rock continuum. We kick off with Can You Feel (The Supernatural), a raucous party of a track that sets the up-beat tone of the whole album. Before too long, however, Salvador recline into This is My Life, something more reminiscent of a boy-band hit, with a cameo chorus of How Great Thou Art.

At around track five, It Comes Back to You, the serious rocking gets underway, which comes to a climax during the insane funk of For More Than Ourselves, which shows off the bands musicianship with reckless bars of 7/8 in the verse (it, like, sounds like they just missed a beat out). The contour of the album continues into some deliciously smooth pop tunes before winding right down to the title track (and, in fact, my least favourite) So Natural.

But then, suddenly, as a glorious finale, a live recording of La Palabra kicks your stereo back into action. This is the most purely latin track on the album, and is the only one sung entirely in Spanish. Having heard several infectious Spanish tunes at Passion I was slightly disappointed not to hear more on the CD, but at least I can understand the rest of them.

There is almost as much variety in the lyrical content as there is in the music. Nic Gonzales is most often heard singing about his personal relationship with God. There are moments of real tenderness and surrender amongst the partying. Heaven is a song about someone getting tired of life on earth, who keeps asking God from the back seat of a luggage-filled car "how far is heaven?" It Comes Back to You is a tuneful reminder to the listener that you reap what you sow.

So Natural is the most unique Christian album I own, and the band is quite possibly the most talented. I'd really love to see them live again at some point. Anyone fancy a trip to Nashville?

Friday, 19 August 2011

Top 5 Christian Rock Albums: #5

So, whatever you define "Christian music" as, I'm a fan.

Q. What's better than music?

A. Music about Jesus.

Now I wouldn't say I was an ardent follower of the Christian music scene, or totally submerged in Christian culture, but I've listened to a fair amount of the stuff and now the time has come to blog my Top 5 Christian Rock Albums.

Note that by 'Christian Rock' I'm not talking about Creed and other vaguely-Christian-philosophy-based-heavily-distorted-guitars-screaming-yeah-yeah music, but I'm talking generally about music by Christian bands. And I'm doing a post on each, so here is...

#5 - The Beautiful Letdown, Switchfoot

This is probably the least explicitly Christian album in my list. I'm not sure the word 'god' is sung very much, if at all, which is strange for Christian rock. This is intentionally a very accessible piece of work. It's also very wonderful. If you want proof of both it's mainstream popularity and high quality, look no further than the Spiderman 2 movie soundtrack (UK version), which features Switchfoot's epic tune Meant to Live.

Meant to Live is my favourite track on this CD. The lyrics, whilst not explicit, are probably more powerful than most modern worship songs. The music is equally powerful; your speakers will turn themselves up if you don't, out of respect for the rockin'. As an opening track, Meant to Live sets the bar high.

The album challenges the listener throughout. If you imagine Jon Foreman is singing at you, it can be quite stirring at times. In This is Your Life he asks "are you who you want to be?" And the suddenly more laid-back groove gives you some space to ponder the question, if you don't get distracted by lots of ethereal, electronic noises.

The challenge becomes more direct in track 5, Dare You to Move, a song that should be played in the background every time an altar-call is made. Again, this is a powerful track, almost epic, in fact. Despite the gravitas, it is probably also one of the more uplifting tracks.

The crown of feel-good on this album goes, remarkably, to Switchfoot's song about death; Gone. The epitome of catchiness, Gone tells the story of a life spent of possessions and excitement, only to find it is all absolutely worthless. While the lyrics only briefly reveal the antidote to materialism ("every second that we borrow brings us closer to a God who's not short of cash"), the overwhelming cheerfulness of this song leads you to suspect that losing everything you ever owned is actually a good thing.

The title track, Beautiful Letdown, expands on the theme. This is a ballad about a personal experience, and I would venture a guess that the "letdown" frontman Jon is singing about has something to do with wealth, fame and success. Switchfoot are, after all, a very successful group. "Easy living", sings Jon, "you're not much like the name". Instead, he is determined to "carry a cross and a song where I don't belong".

The rest of this album is great, but those five songs make it number five in my list. Go on Spotify and give them a listen. Or just buy it. In summary, these guys are like rocking sages who cram a truckload of godly wisdom into some banging tunes. What could top it?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

What is Christian music?

So in my last post I responded to the question "can you worship God to secular music?"

I didn't try to define what secular music actually is, or, for that matter, what Christian music is. But that sounds like a fairly significant issue. The author of one of my favourite worship-leader-blogs made the decision to limit his music-listening to entirely Christian material (and has also written a fantastic post on whether rock music is acceptable to God). 

So what is Christian music?

Matt Blick has set a quiz over at his blog. Read the song lyrics and then decide whether they are taken from a Christian song. It's harder than you'd expect. Then check the answers.

Here are some possible definitions of "Christian music":
1) Music written by a Christian
2) Music written primarily for use in worship
3) Music with religious lyrics that make reference to God/Jesus
4) Music that expounds Christian theology
5) Music that is written to God
6) Music that is sung by a gospel choir

Would you agree with one or more of those, or add your own?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Can you worship God to secular music?

Vicky Beeching has written (4 months ago) a piece on whether non-Christians should play in a worship band (HT: Phil (I recently found out that 'HT' means 'hat tip' - mystery solved at last!)).

Whilst that issue begs a post for itself, I was more compelled by some of the comments below. Atkins5614 (clearly a fan of diets) asks the question
What if I told you that I feel very close to God when I am listening to music played by non-Christians? Essentially, they are leading me into worship by their amazing skill. I find myself basking in the glow of God because of what they are playing. 

To which Vicky B replies
I agree... some of my most powerful times with God have been when listening to U2 or Sigur Ros. Interesting eh?? 

Very interesting indeed. Most rock-loving Christians would be quick to point out that a fair few of U2's songs are in fact about Jesus. And Sigur Ros just sound like they're singing in tongues, but that's because the frontman is, in fact, singing his own made-up language most of the time. But can their music really lead us into a 'powerful time with God'?

I'd like to answer that question in the most annoyingly helpful way I know; by asking another question...

What is music?

Music is an amazing product of human beings harnessing properites of the physical world, i.e. Physics and Maths. If I create a sound wave with a frequency of 440 Hertz and stop that sound at equal intervals I am actually playing the note A repeatedly. The most beautiful symphony can be stripped down into waves, vibrations, frequencies etc. just like a rose is actually a combination of different types of atoms.

What I'm trying to say is that music is a part of God's creation. As such, it has the ability to stir our spirits to worship Him, much the same as seeing incredible views out of your airplane window. <This is a link you really need to click by the way.

Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring can be just as soul-stirring as that view across the Himalayas, even if the orchestra playing it are out-and-out atheists. So yes, I'd say that 'secular' music can lead us to worship God.

However, I haven't yet mentioned Music's long-time companion - a certain Mr. Lyrics who likes to show up almost anywhere Mme. Music makes an appearance. Many times I've asked myself "Why do I like In Christ Alone so much? Is it because of the tune or the lyrics?" Never has the answer to any question been so obviously 'both' since the whole Preach the Gospel Vs Acts of Kindness discussion.

So, yes, while a particular harmony might stir your heart to worship God - a stirred heart has to overflow (like a too-vigorously-stirred mug of coffee), and that overflow is more likely to be a chorus of How Great is Our God than a rendition of Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Fox-eye view of London Riots

I've been devouring a lot of the BBC's content on the recent riots in London and other English cities. There are a lot of comments and opinions swirling round my head, but for now I'd just like to point out a few things that struck me while watching this report from Fox News.

1) Fox News is using dramatic footage that I haven't seen on any UK-based website. Where did they get that? Why hasn't the BBC got that video of a protester getting whacked?

2) Fox plays all the clips with sound. And at times shows two clips simultaneously - with sound, behind the reporter's prattle. Lots of noise heightens the appearance of utter chaos.

3) Fox shows a small-girl-crying clip.

4) Fox refers to the shooting of a man in London on Monday night as "The 1st death of the riots". This is either depressingly pessimistic, or is just insensitive sensationalising.

Thank goodness the BBC isn't like Fox, or half of London would have fled for their lives by now.