My first Christian rock concert was a Nirvana-like experience for me. I sat in the stands, awestruck and starstruck, as Audio Adrenaline laid down screaming guitar tracks and furious vocals. dcTalk frontman, Toby Mac, climbed atop a massive stack of speakers and launched himself out over the crowd, hanging suspended for a brief moment before falling into the outstretched arms of those in the moshpit.
It was then that I resolved to be a Christian rock star.
After the concert, my friend Ben and I decided that we were going to form our own rock band. Eventually we did, calling ourselves “36 Grain”, which was an obscure reference to a type of bullet used in hunting (sort of a redneck hipster kind of thing). Ben got a drum set, I got a guitar, and we were off to the races. We were absolutely terrible. Like, please make them stop, my ears are bleeding and my kidney just blew out, terrible. Let me just say that I never became the rock star I dreamed of becoming.
As I think back on those days, I’m increasingly convinced that those were the glory days of Christian rock music. In fact, I think 1995 – 2000 may have been the greatest five years in Christian rock history.
Take a trip down memory lane with me.
My first experience of dcTalk was their album “Nu Thang”, which was a horrendous, hilarious parody of actual hip-hop music. They sounded like a white guy pretending to rap and two other guys providing background vocals, which was exactly what they were.
But in 1995, something strange happened. They changed before our very eyes, transforming from a hokey rap group to a musically complex rock group that mixed in the occasional rap part. Take the song “Jesus Freak”, for example. The verses were sung by K-Max and Michael Tait, Toby Mac rapped his way through the bridge, and all three of them belted their way through the chorus. It was beautiful, new, different, and pretty freakin awesome. The songs on “Jesus Freak” still hold up today.
During that same era (1995 to be exact), Jars of Clay burst onto the scene with their airtight harmonies and intense acoustic guitar parts. They were sort of like a Christian version of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Remember the chorus for “Flood”? Those harmonies were so tight that there was barely room for the Holy Spirit.
Jennifer Knapp also showed up, bringing her earthy vocals and folksy guitar parts. Yes, she has kinda gone off the rails in recent years as she has embraced a homosexual identity, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she brought some serious freshness to the Christian music scene. Her album “Kansas” released in 1998.
The Newsboys were also finally coming into their own at that time, even though they had been playing since the late 1980’s. After shedding their giant hair, spandex outfits, and blazing guitar leads, they settled on a sort of bouncy rock sound that would mark them for the next decade. The song that most embodies this cheerful rock sound is probably “Breakfast” (1996), which is perhaps the happiest song about Hell ever written.
In 1996, Third Day created a name for themselves by bringing a sort of southern flavored rock to the Christian music scene. Mac Powell, the lead singer, managed to sing almost every song without ever moving his tongue, which put him in the ranks of Darius Rucker (Hootie and the Blowfish) and Eddie Vedder. Nevertheless, Third Day was a fresh sound for the Christian music world (yes, I know, the Christian music scene is always five years behind).
Deliriou5?, Matt Redman, Darrell Evans, Phatfish, Caedmon’s Call, and a number of other folks were creating a hybrid of worship and rock.
The Supertones were riding the short lived ska movement that was being spearheaded by secular bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
The Tooth ‘n Nail label was creating an alternative sound, with bands like MxPx, Joy Electric (featuring my friend Ronnie Martin), 90 Pound Wuss, Plankeye, Stavesacre, and a host of other bands.
And we can’t forget about Switchfoot, the SoCal surfers who forged a pop-punk sound (see Chem 6A) which then transformed into a straight up heavy rock sound (see Hello Hurricane). Their breakout album was released in 1996.
And, of course, there was Audio Adrenaline, Steven Curtis Chapman, Rebecca St. James, and many other artists who were rising to the surface during those years (yes, Audio A and Steven Curtis Chapman were around before then…I get it).
Sometime around 2000, Christian music sort of jumped the shark. I don’t know exactly when or why, but I think it had something to do with Sonic Flood, who came onto the scene around 1999. Sonic Flood lived and died on the layered music sound, meaning stacks and stacks of guitar parts put on top of each other, accompanied by thick synth sounds. This sound became the standard Christian music sound, and has been passed down from one band to the next. Granted, there have been exceptions to this rule, and guys like Lecrae have brought true hip-hop to the Christian world, but the sound is relatively unchanged.
Don’t believe me that everyone is still doing the Sonic Flood sound? First, listen to “Open The Eyes Of My Heart”, covered by Sonic Flood. Note the stacks and stacks of sounds layered on top of each other, all topped off with “ear candy” (small sound effects which accent the sound).
Now listen to this song by Casting Crowns. Yet again, lots and lots of sounds layered on top of each other. A little more country influence going on in the Casting Crowns song, but it’s essentially the same thing.
It’s been quite a while since I heard a Christian band that sounded new and different to me. The last band that struck me as new was Mutemath, and even they weren’t exactly a Christian band. Kind of that “Christians in a band” versus “Christian band” deal. On top of this, many of the same bands are still headlining the Christian music festivals. Newsboys and Plumb, both of whom have been around since before the iPhone, have been part of the Winter Jam festivals. Audio Adrenaline is now being led by K-Max, from dcTalk, and the Newsboys feature Michael Tait.
1995 – 2000 were glorious years for Christian music. I miss those days. Yes, I know that there were other important bands before 1995, like DeGarmo and Key, Carman, Amy Grant, etc. But DeGarmo and Key isn’t around any more, while Switchfoot still is. Those five years were the peak.
Of course, I could be wrong. I never did become the rockstar I wanted to be.