Several years ago, while cheerfully performing my filial duty, I attended a morning service with my mother at the First Baptist Church in Euless, Texas. It is a monolithic megachurch in the sprawl of Dallas/Ft. Worth and features a replica of Jesus' tomb — complete with a roll-away stone. At one point during the service, stewards in ornate robes and tall white hats brought out a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. I whispered to my wife, "If the lid falls off that thing, avert your eyes. Bad face-melty things will happen."
During the sermon of this already memorable church visit, the pastor began talking about his daughter, who had recently started college. After bemoaning the high cost of textbooks, he stated that all college students, or any of us for that matter, need to read one book, and one book only. (I'll give you a hint: It wasn't the vegan advice book Skinny Bitch.) I left the church feeling miffed, silently crafting a defense of Western literature. However, there was still a part of me that wanted to peek inside that faux Ark and try to roll the replica stone away.
The Christian church has been aware of the value of entertaining the masses ever since Michelangelo got a crick in his neck painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It may seem a long way from the art of the High Renaissance to the concussive sounds of Christian metalcore, but the bands of today understand the evangelical value of theater and, more importantly, how to appeal to that most desirable of demographics: the kids.
Thankfully, two of the more popular Christian metal bands of the moment have not followed the bibliophobic advice of the goodly pastor from Euless. In fact, they've both taken their names from works of fiction. Other than cribbing the title from Faulkner, As I Lay Dying seem to have little connection to Yoknapatawpha County. I suppose that it just sounded hard, heavy, and suitably morose. The San Diego quartet's fourth full-length, An Ocean Between Us, debuted at #8 on the Billboard 200 chart. That's impressive for any metal band, much less a Christian one.
Without prior knowledge that As I Lay Dying is a Christian band, it would be difficult to determine their beliefs. The word "Christian" doesn't appear once on the band's promotional materials. The closest we get is the fact that "the band always has something thoughtful and positive to say while still playing a combustible, aggressive style of music." They've played the decidedly not-Christian Ozzfest and Sounds of the Underground tours. No offense to vocalist Tim Lambesis, but his indiscernible words could just as easily be espousing a belief in the Baha'i faith. Even the addition of a visual element doesn't necessarily help clarify As I Lay Dying's faith. The video for the album's lead single, "Nothing Left," features a sci-fi dystopian theme but no overt symbols of Christianity.
Thank God, then, for printed lyrics in CD booklets. "Nothing Left" contains the lines, "If all my sorrow has led me here/Then I would cry all of my tears/To have this chance again/And know there's more than this." It's a little clearer that As I Lay Dying is talking about the limitations of the material world and Christianity's promise of a life beyond. If that's still not overt enough for you, try these lines: "For what use is there in praying/If you only hear what you want to hear?" from "The Sound of the Truth." The words, though simple, are actually thoughtful and profound, careful to sidestep the pitfall of preachiness. Those who continue to doubt As I Lay Dying's devotion are directed to the liberal use of the reverentially capitalized second person "You" in the album's last song, "This Is Who We Are."
The music on An Ocean Between Us is leaner and more direct than on previous releases. Gone are the galloping, Maidenesque twin-guitar solos. However, there is a sense of urgency in the new, stripped-down sound. The two guitarists, Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso, still get to showcase their chops on occasion. "Forsaken" has a brief, drama-building intro before the pair of ax-men launch into a propulsive riff. Lambesis alternates between singing and growling, with more emphasis on the latter. Those qualities are certainly nothing new in the world of metalcore, but Lambesis does it well and knows when to get out of the way of the rest of the band.
As I Lay Dying's motivational lyrics offer a faith-based twist on the positive words found in many emo, screamo, and metalcore songs. It's easy to see the band's appeal to kids who feel isolated, as if there were, indeed, "an ocean between" themselves and others. Judging from record sales and all the young folks in As I Lay Dying T-shirts, it seems that they have found a perfect formula of understated Christianity and musical severity.
The Devil Wears Prada took their name from Lauren Weisberger's 2003 novel, not necessarily the resulting blockbuster movie. (We can only suppose that another band had dibs on The Nanny Diaries.) Plagues, the band's second album, comes less than a year after its debut. To be fair, the Devil Wears Prada also had a respectable showing on the Billboard 200 chart, debuting at #58 with Plagues.
The members of the Dayton, Ohio, sextet are barely out of their teens, but they have shown considerable musical growth in the short time between their first and second releases. However, in comparison to As I Lay Dying's professionalism, the Devil Wears Prada are amateurs. Song structures are random and cobbled together. Chugga-chugga guitar solos get ambushed by James Baney's epic, swooshing keyboards. Andy Trick's bass licks trip over themselves. On "Goats on a Boat" and the following songs, the band uses two vocalists to achieve the scary-screaming/anthemic-singing dynamic. Primary lyricist Mike Hranica is the bad cop, and guitarist/vocalist Jeremy DePoyster is the good one.
The Devil Wears Prada is much more obvious about its Christianity than As I Lay Dying. Apart from the biblical wrath of the album's title, the band's Web site and MySpace page are very up front about the band's beliefs. Hranica has defended the band's much-derided name by stating that the band rails against the rampant, un-Christian materialism of our culture. Hranica really does have it out for the fashionistas. On "Number Three, Never Forget," he yells, "You've surrendered yourself to fashion/Come back to your faith/Come back to grace." I hate the thin and rich ones too, but a lot of people deserve Old Testament wrath more than Vogue's readership. Remind me not to invite the dudes from the Devil Wears Prada over for a Project Runway marathon.
Chalk it up to youth, but the lyrics of "The Scorpion Deathlock" are straight out of Teenage Self-Pity 101. It's hard to imagine anyone being converted by this lyrical gem: "In this moment I am helpless/Why is it so difficult to see ourselves?/No poem I've wrote, nor song I have sung/Can halt the army of wrath."
The religious spectacle of these bands may pale when compared to a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, but at least they are promoting literacy, and, no matter what your faith is, that's a good thing.