Listen to the new album from Elias Dummer!
Listen to the new album from Elias Dummer!

JFH Staff Blog | August 2013

Thursday, August 29, 2013

If I Were A Musician

I’m not a musician. I played bassoon in high school band and took four years of piano lessons, but that is the absolute extent of my musical career. Well, I guess I did technically write a song in 6th grade (as a school assignment). I called it “Mark’s First Symphony,” and it was a 45-second long ditty on the piano (that I was unable to play).

But that doesn’t stop me from making mental masterpieces. Every once in a while, I feel a particular moment of inspiration, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to make an album like (insert whatever my inspiration was)?” Sometimes I even wish I could climb up on top of a mountain and scream out whatever my idea was in the hopes that some talented musician with a like mind could see the genius to the idea and carry it out. But I digress…

My most recent masterpiece was inspired by CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which I read earlier this month. Amazingly, I had managed to survive for these twenty-something years of my life without having ever read it before, but even that made me appreciate the book more. As I was reading it, the thought crossed my mind, “You know, as much as I love Heath McNease’s gorgeous CS Lewis-inspired The Weight of Glory album, he really needed MUCH more than one song dedicated to Screwtape.” Indeed, even one CD would not be enough. No, it would need to be a double-album, with one song dedicated to each of Screwtape’s 31 letters. What type of music? Well, I can’t really say. It would really depend on the tone of the specific letter. Hard rock seems the most appropriate seeing as we’re dealing with dark and serious subject matter. I’m sure metal could sneak in there somewhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the letters would demand a heavily electronic, hip hop/rap, or even light acoustic treatment. In any event, the music would have to be progressive. In keeping with the spirit of the book, the song titles would simply be the same as the chapter titles in the book, and possibly a short subtitle to hint at the general theme of the letter (“Letter 1: Art of Distraction,” “Letter 2: Using Christianity,” etc…). Much of the lyrics would probably be direct quotes, and such quotes would probably be presented in a spoken-word style similar to meWithoutYou, but it would also have to have sung verses too (most songs would probably be absent a chorus). There would need to be no fewer than three vocalists, I think; one male, one female, and one rough vocalist. And if Wormwood were to ever speak/sing, he would need to be a child.

This is just one of the ideas I’ve had, and not even one of the more ambitious ones. Once, I conceived of making a band with some Greek name that I can’t remember (something to the effect of “Theology,” only in Greek), which would make a trio of album trilogies, one trilogy theme around the events of the bible, one themed around the history of Christianity, and one around famous theologians (and heretics). But all that aside, I know I can’t be the only one who has ever mentally conceived an ambitious musical masterpiece with no means of making it a reality.

So let’s hear it! If you could make any musical project, what would you make?

-- Mark Rice

Featured Fan - Jon Rink

Jon Rink with Justin Cordle of We As Human

Favorite Band/Artist:  We As Human
Featured Fan: Jon Rink
Location: Columbus, OH
When/Where Was The Above Photo Taken: Spirit Song 2013
What About This Artist's Music Speaks To You: They aren't afraid to go out of the comfort zone that most rock bands nowadays are producing music in. They aren't ashamed of their faith and don't hide it in their lyrics. 
Favorite Album by This Artist:  We As Human
Favorite Song by This Artist:  "Dead Man', "Sever", "I Stand" or "Zombie"
Favorite Live Show Experience: When they played "Dead Man" at Spirit Song
Number of Times Seen This Artist Live:  1
Favorite Piece Of Merch/Item You Own From This Artist: An autographed copy of "We As Human" signed by Justin
Website: N/A

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What Are We Supposed to Expect?

The other day, I was doing some reflecting. Specifically, I was reflecting about the album which our very own Roger Gelwicks declared was "set to frustrate, enthrall, and polarize in 2013." Even more specifically, I was reflecting on the highly combative response to this website's published thoughts on said record.

Yes, I was reflecting on Skillet's Rise.

In particular, there was one commenter that stood out among the dozens of people that voiced their... thoughts... on the record and on the two reviews. I perused all of the comments and saw that this person had asked the same question no fewer than five times in his various posts and comments, in defense of the criticisms against an album that he obviously held in a much higher esteem than the reviews did.

"What were people supposed to expect?"

That got me thinking; how much do our expectations shape what our thoughts of an album are? I could expand the question to encompass even more of the philosophical landscape of life beyond music, but for sake of simplicity and length, I'll leave it at that. Take Skillet as the prime example: to most fans, Rise was either the third or fourth (or, if they were really late to the bandwagon, only the second) Skillet album that they had heard. They knew Skillet as a modern symphonic rock band geared mostly towards difficult problems and life situations of youths and comforting them with nostalgia and encouragement, sometimes even directing their worries and fears towards God. So, of course, they would expect Rise to sound like that! And since they became fans during that era of Skillet's life, they were obviously fans of that "sound" for one reason or another, and so their excitement was directed towards a Skillet album that had generally similar themes (which Rise did). So the final result is an album that, with a little variance here and there and without doing anything too unexpected, satiated the appetites of their biggest fan base (much to the chagrin of the "original panheads" that grumbled about Skillet retreading old ground from Collide and Comatose in Awake and Rise).

But what if Skillet would have made some drastic changes? What if they felt that they wanted to stretch themselves musically and personally? What if they went against all expectations to make the piece of art that they truly felt led to make? What if they would have made a Project 86-like hard rock album instead? Or, what if they made an Anberlin-like alt-rock album? Or they went the Relient K route and made a random pop album? Or a rap album? Or metal? Or folk? That would have surely put a damper in the expectations of those fans, wouldn't it? Especially if their voyage into new territory resulted in floundering. Would any fans buy that album? Would they even still be a fan? Well, many might, but I think most would feel like they had been "betrayed" and leave the bandwagon.

But here is the kicker: what if Skillet had made drastic changes and the resulting album was simply phenomenal? Profound lyrics (if there were any at all). Completely original. Impeccable musicianship. A complete masterpiece in every respect, and far superior to anything they had ever done before. But would the fan reaction be any different?

Of course not.

Maybe some critics would recognize that album for what it is, but the critics have their expectations too. They can feel betrayed too. Same with record labels and others in the music business. The fans and critics and businessmen that recognize the brilliance of the album will stay. The rest will probably move on to things that are more... profitable... in some way, shape, or form. It doesn't matter in the end what the final product is if expectations are not met. In the music business, it is dangerous not to meet them, and can even mean financial suicide. It is the reason why people like Adam Young can take his dazzling project Owl City and turn it into just another pop act. Or why artists like Sanctus Real and Hawk Nelson are now inevitably pigeonholed into one melting pot of contemporary sound. Or even, conversely, why so many more artists nowadays are leaving record labels and record deals and going independent.

So what do we expect bands like Skillet to do?

Make an album that the fans are satisfied with. That is the bottom line. In many cases, particularly with a band as popular as Skillet, it is even the only line. The fact is that so much of music criticism nowadays is simply judging how well a band or album or song met, exceeded, or failed to live up to expectations. I'm guilty of it, and I doubt there is even one person on the JFH staff that also isn't at one time or another.

But it ought not to be this way. The fans don't own the music. Record labels don't make the music. The artists are fully accountable for what they make. There is a reason musicians are called "artists" in the first place; they make art. Art does not include expectations. Expectations are what originally caused Stryper to lose popularity and break up. Art does not include money. Rich Mullins' worldly possessions after he died fit into 80 cubic feet. Good art has a value far beyond money or expectations. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Mozart died penniless and was buried in an unmarked mass grave. Larry Norman didn't even have an audience for his music!

At JFH, we try to make it our sole expectation of the artists we review to make great art with creative integrity. We therefore judge and critique music in that light. We believe that by making great art for God, the artists are giving greater glory to God than by simply making something that is merely marketed to glorify God. Yes, these artists are making their living through music. Yes, the songs can potentially be ministry tools, or help someone personally get closer to God. We don't judge that. We can't judge that. If we expect anything else from the artists we review, we will not be fair to the artistic integrity of either that particular artist or other artists.

So what do we expect Skillet to do? Or Relient K? Or Casting Crowns? Or Chris Tomlin? Or For Today? Or (insert your favorite artist name here)? We expect them to make great art with creative integrity, whatever that may look like for that particular artist. And if we don't think they did, it will be adequately reflected as such.

-- Mark Rice, Jesusfreakhideout.com Writer