Holy Rollers

New compilation spotlights the growing underground force of the local Christian rock scene

Geoff Brown is a junior-high science teacher. He's also a dedicated Christian. He has short, dark hair and is dressed conservatively in slacks and a green short-sleeve shirt. Though he's only 30, he somehow seems much older. It's not that he's aged badly, really, but just that he speaks with the mature, authoritative tone of a parent.

But Geoff Brown also knows his punk rock. Like many people of his generation, he grew up on loud, fast, three-chord anthems of anger and frustration. Unlike many people of his generation, however, Brown found those anthems in the underground Christian- rock scene. So when he and his stockbroker/musician brother, Ryan, moved to Phoenix six years ago, they were disappointed to find that a Christian scene hadn't coalesced yet.

"The Phoenix market's kind of weird, it's kind of soft when it comes to Christian music," he says. "In the Midwest, especially out east, Christian music shows, and Christian music in general, does real well.

"When we first came out here, attendance for shows was real low, shows weren't getting promoted and promoters were falling on their faces. So we decided that we were gonna go at it and just not worry about the cash and just go for it."

Five years ago, the Brown brothers started B-Spot Productions, with the aim of bringing more Christian shows to the Valley. After slogging through some tough early days, B-Spot has managed to attract as many as 1,200 kids for its shows, with its smallest attendance figure of '98 being a pretty robust 500.

Along the way, the Browns also hooked up with Scott Roman, a singer for local Christian-rock icon No Laughing Matter who 10 years ago had founded the Christian label Worthless Records. The label became a partnership between Roman and the Ryans, releasing No Laughing Matter CDs as well as solo and band projects by Ryan Brown. But Worthless recently made its most ambitious move with the release of The Rage, Volume 1, a 15-band compilation of Arizona Christian music, which takes its name from a huge youth rally held in Phoenix every August.

The CD chronicles the new face of Christian music, which for many people still carries the stigma of being wimpy, pious and sanctimonious, à la Steven Curtis Chapman or the pre-crossover Amy Grant. Even when Christian acts tried to prove they could rock, as in the case of '80s bumblebee-spandex band Stryper, the gap between their holier-than-thou messages and cliched cock-rock posing was positively laughable.

Well beneath the radar of popular tastes, however, a new type of Christian music has emerged. In a way, it's just as angry, rebellious and uncompromising as the secular indie-rock scene has ever been. It also shares many of the same trappings.

Like the secular indie scene, the Christian movement operates on an underground network of 'zines and word-of-mouth promotion. Christian-rock shows also tend to include crowd moshing and gobbing from the stage, traits that tend to make church leaders fearful about housing these shows. A deeper concern for churches in recent years has been that much Christian rock furiously attacks what it sees as the hypocrisy of the church. It's a sentiment expressed years ago by Roman in his song "Religion Sucks."

"I can remember playing at churches and after the show they'd come up and say, 'You guys are evil,'" Roman says. "We were kind of a cross between U2 and Bauhaus, musically, and it wasn't perceived well in churches. The kids would love it. It just took a while for people to realize that where we were coming from was not what they thought."

It's easy to be dismissive about Christian rock because it's still a young movement and much of it is fairly derivative. But those who insist that Christianity and rock don't mix haven't done their homework. For one thing, early rock 'n' roll's sense of rhythm grew out of gospel music, and most early rock heroes were devoted--if somewhat confused--Christians. As rock matured, George Harrison, Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan all used their music as a pulpit at one time or another, and U2 actually built much of its early popularity on the Christian ideals it expressed in its work.

These days, beyond the growing success of acts like DC Talk, MxPx, The Newsboys, and Skillet, you have the less-obvious Christian influence of a band like the newly reformed Sunny Day Real Estate, whose singer Jeremy Enigk is so devout that he temporarily gave up music four years ago to devote his life to Christ.

Thankfully, many of the bands on The Rage express their faith in subtle, metaphoric ways that don't exclude nonbelievers. Also, they don't try to pretend that being a Christian guarantees an angst-free life with no problems. Rock listeners will find more than a few musical corollaries here: Sprigz vocalist Heather Wall sounds more than a bit like the Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan, while 11:59:59 opens its punky, lo-fi "I Call Out" with a guitar pattern directly descended from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." RYI could pass for a typical West Coast hip-hop act, except that its MCs tend to rhyme about the crucifixion and meeting Jesus in the hereafter. Elsewhere, various acts even offer ska and techno for Christ.

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