Norma Jean / War of Ages
Redeemer / Pride of the Wicked
B / B
l' J.C. doesn't get much love in metal, and with good reason. After all, a genre that drew life from Black Sabbath, and whose musical linchpins are the tritone (known in olden times as the "Diabolus in musica," or "Devil in music") and the flatted second (an interval uncommon in Western music but frequent in Middle Eastern music), doesn't seem to jive with, say, church. Indeed, some argue that Christianity has no place in metal. For a while, this seemed true. It was always unclear whether hair farmers Stryper were doing the Lord's work or Lucifer's, and aside from scattered names like Tourniquet, Trouble, and Horde, "Christian metal" seemed oxymoronic.
However, in recent years, Christian metal and hardcore punk bands have, to put it bluntly, gotten less wussy. Groups like Zao, Underoath, As I Lay Dying, and Place of Skulls now hold their own with secular colleagues, and labels like Facedown, Solid State, and Blood & Ink have sprung up to cater to Christian music's heavier side. This growth is not without issues, though. There's the thorny, "Are you a Christian band, or just Christians in a band?" question. Is it Christian to mosh? And, most importantly, can Christians "throw the goat" (metal's signature devil horns salute)?
Norma Jean will say they're a Christian band, but that's about as overt as their ministry gets. Their lyrics are abstract, and their sound comes from the angular, dissonant hardcore punk of Botch and Converge, with traces of Helmet and Pantera. Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child was the band's sprawling, visceral debut. 2005's O' God, The Aftermath added more structure, but otherwise preserved the band's signatures—chaotic songs, pummeling syncopations, and scorched-earth vocals, with occasional melodies and ragged singing rising from the squall.
Redeemer keeps the same formula; even the artwork's font scheme is similar. The songs are tighter, though, with none of the ten-minute, to-hell-and-back epics that anchored previous albums. There's more clean singing, too. However, it's not the blatant sell-out chorus kind that plagues modern metalcore; it's more of a strained yell arising from musical dynamics (think Fugazi's "Waiting Room"). The increased concision and melody result, for the first time, in songs that are more than just beatings. "A Small Spark vs. A Great Forest" explodes from tinder sticks of dry, serrated chords, with imagery to match: "I've earthed this seed so many times / Deeply held in this skin of bark / Branches made of ash and forests born aflame / Restless and full of poison." "No Passenger: No Parasite" rides melodic crests and troughs en route to a crashing, cathartic finale. The band has come a long way since it was a nu-metal outfit called Luti-Kriss.
War of Ages is one of the thousands of metalcore bands doing Swedish riffs, hardcore breakdowns, twin harmony guitar leads, and so on. This sound has been absolutely done to death, yet the band has honed it to a level that's frankly quite enjoyable. Just when the band seems out of tricks, it always whips out a catchy riff or melody to hook one back in. Thankfully, the band never succumbs on its second album to metalcore's typically sugary clean singing. "Rise from the Ashes" has classy power metal melodies, and "Aftermath" has tantalizing hints of dissonance. The production is heavy and clear, the solos are tasty and fluent, and in general it's hard to hate this album. It's technically flawless—and dear Lord, please don't let there be any more like it.
Lyrically, the band is fairly blatant about its faith: "Hear me / Take my hand / Lead me from this place / Guide my heart / I am yours / I give myself to you." The album trades in the platitudes of so-called "posi" (short for positive) hardcore, yet the band's sound fits its message so well that the whole package is uplifting. And aren't metal and hardcore punk about standing up for one's beliefs and tastes, no matter how unpopular they are? Pentagrams and upside-down crosses have become so orthodox in metal that being Christian in metal may actually be more subversive.