|"My parents say my music is satanic. I listen to Christian hardcore/screamo bands like Underoath, Project 86, Spoken, Demon Hunter, Haste the Day, The Showdown, Living Sacrifice, Showbread, Emery and Dead Poetic. I figure, what difference does it make if someone is singing 'Praise the Lord' in a whispering voice or screaming it at the top of their lungs? I just prefer the screaming way. I think it's okay for worship to be fun and cool, not just slow and boring. Do you think that's wrong?" —Samantha, Reseda, Calif.|
We've been getting that question a lot in recent years. Maybe it's because, more than any other musical style, the guttural screams of these bands' lead singers sound anything but Christian. Or teens' growing curiosity could be a reflection of this ear-splitting genre's explosive popularity. After all, Underoath's Define the Great Line debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's mainstream album chart—an unprecedented feat for a Christian act. Whatever the reason, fans such as Samantha—not to mention their concerned parents—deserve a thoughtful response. So let's take a closer look at The Holy Growl, the most divisive Christian music on the market.
Living on the Edge
Christian metal has evolved a great deal since the mid-1980s. Not only do these new acts enjoy a burgeoning fan base, but their sound makes even the edgiest stuff from Shout, Whitecross or Stryper feel like Yanni. Distorted electric guitars notwithstanding, the most defining element of hardcore is that lyrics aren't so much sung as screamed or growled, giving them an undeniably sinister sound. Add cacophonous double-bass drumming and lower guitar tuning and you get a soundscape that redefines the word heavy. Hardcore music and its subgenres of metalcore, thrashcore, rapcore and deathcore are extraordinarily visceral … like being socked in the stomach.
Distinguishing between secular and Christian hardcore acts can be a challenge. The line is blurry. For one thing, many faith-based bands shun the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) label. They seek mainstream success out of the gate and are just as likely to play secular tours, such as Vans Warped or Ozzfest, as they are Christian festivals like Cornerstone or Creation. Underoath has led that charge, followed by a brigade of Christian metal bands including As I Lay Dying, Project 86, Still Remains and Demon Hunter.
Why do they blend into the mainstream so well? Sound, for one. But also because they wade through the same gut-wrenching themes, from melancholy introspection to an infatuation with death, darkness, despair and depression—the four horsemen of this often apocalyptic genre. Some Christian hardcore bands settle for lyrical ambiguity and graphic metaphors that could be mistaken for the problem rather than the solution. The better ones, however, trudge through that morass in order to point a way out. They mention God by name. They allude to redemption. In short, the angry, grim style becomes a means to an end.
A Study in Darkness & Light
Indeed, if most CCM celebrates spiritual triumph, Christian hardcore fleshes out the shadowy side of faith. Imagine Old Testament lamentations as prophets cry out in anguish, longing for an answer from God … only with guitars that sound like chain saws. Underoath, for example, describes the internal battle between light and darkness on "Moving for the Sake of Motion" ("Someone please turn the lights back on/I've been wandering here for days, disconnected and in search of new air to breathe in … My God/I hate the me that I've become"). On "Cherished," Still Remains says, "The shadows are dark with loneliness, and in them we are searching/It's all we've ever known … Heaven help us."
Lament isn't the only sentiment in play. As I Lay Dying poetically describes God's redemptive work in the song "Illusions." Many of Demon Hunter's tracks emphasize our conflict with the flesh, the world and the devil. On "Undying," Demon Hunter boldly reminds young fans of the price Jesus paid to secure their souls ("I know what lies beyond this life for me is already won/No one can take away that blood that covers my fall/Without the blood of perfect life, I know I'm nothing at all").
"How Do I Know They're Christian?"
Still, this wedding of gothic, often violent imagery to biblical concepts creates confusion. The way some bands describe how their faith and music merge doesn't clarify matters. Still Remains, for example, believes its music speaks for itself and doesn't call attention to spiritual themes in concert. Frontman T.J. Miller says, "We don't really consider ourselves a Christian band because we don't preach or talk about our beliefs from the stage. We leave that up in the air, and most people know where we are coming from." With statements like that, it's no wonder teens ask where their favorite hardcore artists stand, spiritually.
But others, such as Demon Hunter, are upfront about what they believe. In a 2004 interview, Ryan Clark said unabashedly, "We're all Christians. We aren't going to dance around that." Yet he also admitted a penchant for penning obscure lyrics. "I like to write in a more poetic and metaphorical style. I'm not one for straight-ahead lingo in songwriting." Nevertheless, he believes, "If anyone takes time to really dive in when they read the lyrics, the message will be clear." Clearer still is the band's web site, which features sections addressing faith issues, as well as a place for fans to post prayer requests.
Similarly, references to spirituality on Underoath's Define the Great Line CD are subtle, but the group's web site isn't. Underoath guitarist Timothy McTague wrote in an online journal, "I have been realizing what a duty we have as Christians to treat our friends and family and strangers with love and respect. To say we love Christ, who is love, but then turn and forsake our brothers is probably one of the greatest contradictions we can do as physical representatives of Christ and His teaching."
How Should Parents Respond?
Knowing that a snarling vocalist's heart is in the right place may be small consolation to parents whose teeth have been set on edge by a shrill screamo track. Nice guys? Great. Mom and Dad are still hunting for pentagrams in the liner notes. If that's you, be careful not to overreact. Instead of relying on an instinctive, wholesale approval or disapproval of Christian metal, prayerfully work through lyrics, examine images, and browse bands' official web sites with your teen. Even more important, help adolescents see how the music might affect them personally. Ask questions such as:
• What do this band's lyrics teach you about who God is and who we are?
• How do you think this music affects your overall mood or attitude toward others?
• How is this music influencing your relationship with God?
• How do you connect emotionally with a particular band or song? What lyrics do you identify with?
• If a certain band's music includes darker themes, what are you consuming that will provide balance—lyrics that offer hope or a bigger perspective? Which message do you prefer, and why?
There's no substitute for communication. Parents who have put forth this effort usually earn the right, in a teen's eyes, to express their own concerns and opinions. And provided your teen responds to this quest for understanding with more than just apathetic grunts and shoulder shrugs, a profitable dialogue could lead to some sort of trial period.
"Our son developed an interest in Demon Hunter when friends at church introduced him to it," said one parent, who doesn't want to be legalistic but refuses to yield ground on the things that matter most. "We decided to let him listen, but made it clear that we'd be monitoring his attitude. If his disposition changes, or he shows a quicker temper, the music goes away. It's a privilege, not a right."
Meanwhile, other families are thrilled that such bands even exist. Underoath and their peers provide a sonically grating but lyrically benign alternative to the self-destructive messages being dumped into the culture by secular acts such as Slipknot, Deicide, Trivium, Lamb of God and Atreyu. When a metal lover is filling his mind with thoughts of revenge or suicide, any step in a positive direction is welcome.
Screamo. Thrashcore. Deathcore. No matter what you call it or where you come down on the edgiest, most divisive music playing on kids' iPods today, do your best to preserve an open, respectful relationship. The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:12, "Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me, but I will not be mastered by anything." As you seek to answer the question "Is this genre healthy?" be careful not to let a negative, knee-jerk reaction to the holy growl drive a wedge between you and your teen.
Published September 2006