Since debuting on the contemporary Christian music record label Squint in 1999, the Chicago-based alt-metal trio Chevelle has continually been the subject of one question among believing fans: Is this a Christian band? It surfaces on Christian message boards and in letters to Plugged In. It's a query Chevelle's members have addressed clearly in interviews, but the lyrical content of their albums has provided a murkier response. So it remains the logical starting point as we consider the band's latest release.
Chevelle's fourth studio album, Vena Sera, inhabits the same brooding, haunting, pounding rock groove that has deservedly earned comparisons to Tool. It also provides more evidence of the band's apparent comfort with shedding any lingering vestiges of connection to the inside of a pigeonhole it never wanted to climb into.
So, Is This a Christian Band?
"It was really an accidental thing." That's how Chevelle drummer Sam Loeffler describes the Christian-rock label that initially got attached to his band. Shortly after Chevelle's debut on Squint, that fledgling record company ceased to exist when its parent corporation, Word, was acquired by Warner Bros. An 11-month legal battle ensued between Chevelle and the new owners of its record contract. An out-of-court settlement freed the band to migrate to secular label Epic Records.
Sam says of the band's lingering association with the Christian music scene, "It's something that's probably going to follow us around forever, and that's fine." But lead singer, guitarist and lyricist Pete Loeffler (Sam's brother) adds, "We honestly didn't want to be a part of [the CCM scene]. ... I'm not into that music industry whatsoever."
Regarding Chevelle's noncontractual spiritual convictions, meanwhile, Sam once told an interviewer that he and his bandmates were "recovering Catholics." And a few cryptic allusions supporting that claim could be found (by those looking very carefully) on the band's last album, 2004's This Kind of Thinking (Could Do Us In). "The Clincher," for example, perhaps refers to Christ's crucifixion ("Could we have known/Never would I helped to nail down/With nothing to gain/Here's the clincher/This should be you"). For some fans, lyrics like those have sustained the idea of Chevelle's Christian connection.
Rage Against ... Well, Almost Everything
Which brings us to Vena Sera (a title the singer says means "vein liquid"). Listeners cuing up Track 1 will immediately notice two things that are generally true of the album as a whole. 1) Grinding guitar work is matched by Pete's grinding anger; 2) but only in occasional moments when the lyrics are coherent enough to understand.
Album opener "Antisaint" begins with virtually indecipherable gibberish: "Visit again white elephant/Who sent you to loom?/Shall we sever everything?/Ponder this while we ponder why/He's starting to follow crows." This is truly "down the rabbit hole" stuff, except Alice is nowhere to be found. And most songs on the album display similar head-scratching lyricism ...
... as well as Pete's aforementioned anger. On "Antisaint," bitterness and sarcasm mingle as the singer offers mock sympathy to a former friend. "You poor little antisaint," he taunts repeatedly, "The cleverest acting was the lying by you." Other targets of his sneering disgust, it could be argued, are more deserving. "Straightjacket Fashion" seems to comment—though it's hard to know for sure—on celebrity culture's superficiality. "Well Enough Alone" laments a world where evil numbs us to the needs of those who are vulnerable. "The Fad" critiques a nation driven by vacuous trends and gluttonous consumerism.
And while we're on the subject of venom: Since Chevelle's last album, Pete and Sam have parted ways with a third brother, ex-bassist Joe Loeffler. According to Pete, who hasn't spoken to Joe in two years, the bandmembers settled with their estranged sibling (who sued them) and "gave him lots of money to move on." That may explain the first line of "Humanoid," a song on which Pete vulgarly vents, "I paid you, squeaky wheel/... That said, you're full of s---." Another couplet accuses, "So ill, so ill/Sorry your soul's so f---ing shallow." An opaque lyric possibly hints at death ("Fade out next to lazy/End it all within").
"How Did You Come Up With That?"
Clearly, anyone looking for allusions to Christianity on Vena Sera won't find anything as apparent as those on "The Clincher." Instead, spiritual and moral ideas seem jarringly at odds. A song called "Brainiac" could be interpreted as condemning abortion ("We know him as one cell/... How 'bout I teach him to crawl/Lift up the head so proud/Imagine this"); but it also includes the ominous line, "Each of these men holds a pentagram/So ease up on the slurs." "I Get It" nihilistically dismisses notions of right and wrong in the face of death ("Whether we're right or wrong/We're doomed"). And "Paint the Seconds" suggests our personhood is destined to meld into everyone else's, à la Buddhism's conception of nirvana ("The sooner we enter/The sooner we'll blend/Ease into another endless abyss").
Suffice it to say confusion and contradiction reign here. It's telling that even Sam's understanding of some lyrics differs drastically from his brother's. On the band's Web site he writes, "When I listen to the songs, I am sure that I have a different idea of what they mean than what Pete actually was writing about. I suppose we all do, but it's funny to me when I ask him if something means something, and he looks at me like I have something on my face. 'How did you come up with that?' he asks. 'Is that what it sounds like I'm saying? I have to start drinking less, man!'"
Considering everything you've just read, you'd have to go out on a pretty thin limb to even say—as I want to—that Chevelle deserves credit for critiquing some decadent aspects of our culture. Less fragile is the fact that Pete's anger is the most identifiable thematic thread on Vena Sera. And most solid of all is this assertion: Chevelle is veering into an increasingly vulgar and spiritually incoherent place.
A postscript: Further muddying the spiritual waters, one bonus track on the Best Buy version of the album lashes out at church leaders' hypocrisy while a second bonus song derives hope from clear allusions to Moses' trip down the Nile as an infant. Hmmm...