Rock of Ages

Kelly Mason, age sixteen, recalls with glee a recent Christian rock concert she attended. "It was the first time I'd been to a Presbyterian church with a mosh pit," she says, "and you'd step out of the pit and there's blood on the floor. And I'm like, 'Yes! This rocks!'"

Until recently, contemporary Christian music has sounded pretty much the way it did in the peace-and-love Sixties: warbly acoustic stuff, the kind that Beavis and Butt-head's teacher tends to play during field trips. But there's a new strain of Christian rock that sounds decidedly Nineties: It's fast, aggressive, and loud as hell.

"I think God wants us to have a good time," notes Kelly's mother Sheri, who has accompanied her daughter to several concerts. "The Christian church has promoted this dull music for so long, and I think it drives the kids away. They need something stimulating."

The popular five-piece altrock Christian band Audio Adrenaline -- Mark Stuart (vocals), Will McGinniss (bass), Ben Cissell (drums), Tyler Burkum (guitars), and Bob Herdman (guitar and keyboards) -- will bring kids literally into church when it arrives in Fort Lauderdale this week for a gig at First Baptist Church. Unlike a nightclub or concert hall, the church doesn't expect to turn a profit, but it does hope to break even. "We're just providing a venue," explains Mike Jeffries, director of creative resources for First Baptist. "The building is constructed so we can hold events like this. Our main sanctuary seats 3000 people, and we expect every seat to be filled. And at this particular concert the altar will be greatly in use for prayer."

Audio Adrenaline is known for ministering directly to its audiences during concerts. Stuart, for example, talks about growing up with his missionary parents in Haiti, and McGinniss testifies about his difficult family life, which led him to become a Christian. The band used to meet and talk with fans after shows, but Audio Adrenaline's increasing popularity has forced the members to limit their time to signing autographs while encouraging teens to take questions to local youth counselors.

"They have a strong, strong message and a remarkable way of communicating," Jeffries says of the band. "There's no question that Jesus is the Lord of their lives."

The concert promoter is the local Christian radio station WAYF (88.1), known as WAY-FM. The station plays the work of various Christian rock bands during its Under Midnight show from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Saturday evening. "I think music is a real communicator to people," notes Chris Carson, the station's production director. "With Audio Adrenaline the goal is to take the music that interests those who are young and use that as a tool. I think this has been a common thread through Christian music, that this has been a way to find a medium for Christ."

The inspiration for Audio Adrenaline's first recording came from an unlikely source: the speed-metal band Anthrax. Herdman first heard Anthrax's hard-hitting metal-rap song "I'm the Man" while attending Kentucky Christian College in the late Eighties. "I thought it would be cool for a Christian band to do a song like that," Herdman recalls. So he wrote an Anthraxian tune and took it to a group of musician friends with whom he'd been playing guitar. They gave themselves a name, thought of a title for the song ("My God"), and used Herdman's savings to record the track and press a CD.

The song landed on several Christian radio stations' playlists and drew the attention of ForeFront Records, a Nashville-based Christian rock label. "They called us up and had us come down," Herdman remembers. "That was the only song we'd ever written like that. We just played plain old rock and roll songs." ForeFront eventually offered Audio Adrenaline a record deal, and the band's self-titled debut was released in 1992.

Like many Christian bands, Audio Adrenaline came across as a religious version of popular secular groups. "We did our first record like EMF and Jesus Jones," admits Herdman. "And the record company said, 'That's what we want. It's going to be the next big thing -- this is what you gotta do.' And we didn't know any different; we just thought it was cool to have a record deal. We'd do whatever! So we did that, and we traveled, and we didn't do too well. Then the next record [Don't Censor Me] we did what we wanted to do, and that one did better."

These days Audio Adrenaline's melodic rock fits squarely in the same category as that of Everclear, Better Than Ezra, and Tonic. For most nonbelievers this transformation from novelty act to postgrunge group confirms the suspicion that Christian rock bands aren't so much playing music as trying to trick rebellious teens into swallowing a dose of religion. On the title track from Audio Adrenaline's fifth and most recent album, Some Kind of Zombie, heavy guitar riffs accompany the apparently negative lyrics: "Some kind of zombie/I gave my life away/I'm obliged and obey/I'm enslaved to what you say."  

But Herdman explains that the lyrics actually celebrate the master-slave relationship between God and His subjects. "The Bible talks about how we are slaves," he says. "And we're just saying that you're owned by God. You're a slave to God, you've been killed, and you've been brought back up as a new person."

Perhaps the first Christian group to couch religion in the "music of the Devil" was mid-Eighties heavy-metal band Stryper, which looked and sounded like Mstley CrYe but distributed miniature Bibles at their concerts. For secular listeners Stryper was difficult to take seriously: Was this really a band or just a group of proselytizers in costume? Yet Stryper successfully crossed over into the secular music market, enjoying a Top 40 hit with "Honestly" and a platinum album with To Hell with the Devil in 1987. But when metal went out of fashion, Stryper changed its stripes and pursued a mainstream pop-rock sound. However firm the band's religious commitment, its musical integrity was questionable.

Today many religious bands take pains to present themselves as rock musicians first, Christians second. Jars of Clay, which is on the secular label Silvertone, avoids overt preaching in public and maintains what one publicist has called a "low Jesus-per-minute ratio" in its lyrics. The strategy has worked, and in 1995 Jars of Clay's single "Flood" made its way to alternative radio and MTV.

But many Christian bands would rather not restrain their religious zeal to gain mainstream success. Herdman insists that Audio Adrenaline -- whose overtly religious songs have titles such as "New Body," "Lighthouse," and "Superfriend" -- has no intention of breaking into the secular market. "It would be nice," he admits, "but it's not one of our concerns. That's basically a record-company thing, and ForeFront is not into that. Their thing is Christian music, staying on the Christian side. They don't really know that much about secular radio and all that stuff.

"We'd never change our lyrics to be more abstract," he continues. "We'd never do that. But if someone wants to listen to us the way it is, that's fine."

Such an attitude may seem like preaching to the converted. The Broward-based hardcore band Strongarm -- led by Chris Carbonell, a 25-year-old youth counselor at Calvary Chapel in Pompano Beach -- rarely performs in churches or at Christian venues. "The whole point of the band was not just to play for Christians," explains Carbonell. "On-stage I don't sit there and give big, long, preaching sermons, but I never get on-stage without telling people what we're about, what the songs are about. And if you want to talk to us afterward, we're more than happy to answer questions. I'd say almost every show somebody comes up to us."

The five members of Strongarm have a reputation for playing heavy, sweaty, furious hardcore; in fact many of today's Christian bands play with as much intensity as their secular counterparts. The tattooed-and-pierced members of Puller, for instance, play hard rock that recalls the band Helmet, while Blindside's growling vocals and heavy guitars earn comparisons to the thrashy Korn. Sheri Mason allows that she appreciates the "intensity" of the music but still feels the need to monitor her daughter's listening habits.

"Everything that's labeled Christian isn't genuinely Christian, and we've learned to distinguish," she says. "To me the Devil can quote Scripture. And some of these groups are there under the guise of Christian groups that I think are just infiltrating." She cites as an example the outspoken punk band MxPx. Its song "Teenage Politics" scolds parents: "Never do what we're told/Well that depends on you/Are you doing the right thing?"

"The effect of listening to these groups is not positive," Mason contends. "They put over a rebellious feeling and a negative feeling, even though the words are Christian."

The idea that the Holy Spirit might be evoked by guitar-wielding kids with goatees and shaved heads may seem ridiculous to some. But the Christian rock genre is definitely gaining widespread acceptance. Albums can be found everywhere from Christian bookstores to mainstream retail outlets. Audio Adrenaline's and Puller's videos have debuted on MTV's new music channel M2. Locally, Strongarm has developed a large following among secular hardcore fans, especially the drug-free straight-edge crowd.

For Kelly Mason, the message comes through loud and clear: "Once you find Christian bands that sound a lot like secular bands, I'd rather listen to Christian bands."

Audio Adrenaline performs with the Supertones on Friday, March 6, at 7:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church, 301 E Broward Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 800-881-1929. Tickets cost $17.  

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