Mabybe Jesus Christ invented hard-core. Christians, after all, believe the man from Nazareth died for our sins with nails through his hands.
It just doesn't get much hard-core than that.
Perhaps that explains why the Christians who release their music through the independent punk label Tooth & Nail Records have been successful. The bands on Tooth & Nail -- mostly hard-core bands and ones whose melodic hard rock is being called emo nowadays -- found their calling through one of the only companies that was willing to give them the forum until the past couple of years. The Juliana Theory, Project 86 and MxPx -- standout names for sure -- all passed through Tooth & Nail, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2004, starting with a national Tooth & Nail Tour that begins this week.
But here's a major catch with Tooth & Nail: With a few exceptions, no one involved with this label is going to go all evangelical on your ass. Most contemporary Christian rock draws from a narrative that resembles prayer, like a conversation with God. (P.O.D.'s crossover hit "Alive," with lines like "I can't deny you/I feel so alive," is a prime example.) Some of it boils down to an explicit plea for forgiveness: "I beg of You to please continue showing me/All I'm meant to be," goes one line from the song "Escape" from intensely devout metal band Justifide, originally from Arizona.
In contrast, MxPx's most popular song is a little hymn called "Chick Magnet." Meanwhile, Starflyer 59, among the most popular Tooth & Nail bands, broods as depressively -- and as generically -- as Soundgarden in its emo compositions. Ask label artists about this, and they'll tell you they'd rather leave the "show me the light" stuff to folks more comfortable with being so open.
"There's a fine line," says Jason Martin of Starflyer 59, an original Tooth & Nail signee that remains on the label roster. "For me personally, for me to take the holy name of Christ and throw it into a song to look spiritual, I can't do it. I'd be blasphemous."
Consequently, Tooth & Nail bands like Starflyer 59, Further Seems Forever and Thousand Foot Krutch can pass for pure mainstream rock bands on first listen. Does all this mean, then, that Tooth & Nail, in its arc toward success, has officially become "not Christian enough"? Or that there's trade-off between being less cheesy (label founder Brandon Ebel labels a healthy percentage of Christian entertainment as such) and earning punk credibility?
"We're almost like the founders of that question, to be honest," Ebel says.
The hyper Ebel talks on a cell phone from a Starbucks in Seattle. He says he started Tooth & Nail as a way to give a thriving underground scene for Christian punk and hard-core in Orange County, California, a chance to spread the musical gospel and make a few bucks in the process. In numerous cases, those Christian bands could more aptly be called silly rock guys who also happened to worship the Lord in their spare time, according to Martin -- kind of like Ebel, who befriended many of those musicians.
"Basically, it's cool. Dealing with a friend is better than dealing with a boss," Martin says.
Within a few years of establishing a grassroots following for Starflyer 59 and other bands like the ska-influenced O.C. Supertones and pop group Wish for Eden, Ebel moved the label to Seattle and earned a national deal with Caroline Distribution, an indie powerhouse that distributes acts on Astralwerks, Definitive Jux and other progressive labels.
Tooth & Nail had arrived as a national punk player, and that's where it found itself caught up in the expectations games of other Christians. In a recent online discussion titled "Christian ---> Mainstream= "Huh?" on a popular Web site called CCMBuzz.com, users engaged in a spirited back and forth on whether God truly wants Christians making mainstream music or whether mainstreaming erodes the faith.
"Have you even been paying attention to what [Christian pop singer] Stacie Orrico has been doing lately? She's been wearing some pretty revealing clothing and crud like that," wrote one poster with the ID "HeReigns."
That discussion is tame compared to a Web site like www.corruptchristianmusic.com, where the proprietor declares bands evil just for signing with Virgin Records -- home to Super Bowl boob Janet Jackson -- and uses Bible verse to argue that music isn't necessarily a gift from God.
"It can get to the point where it's a tirade," Ebel responds. "For people to nit-pick that much, I think it just means they have too much time on their hands."
Ebel says he leaves the decision as to whether a band wants to double as a ministry -- which O.C. Supertones has done -- to the band. But even then, certain Tooth & Nail bands' behavior reeks of ambiguity.
Examine Anberlin, now headlining this coming label tour thanks to the sudden defection of Further Seems Forever lead singer Jason Gleason (hey, it worked for Chris Carraba, that Dashboard Confessional guy and Further's original front man). On its debut record, Blueprints for the Black Market, the Orlando, Florida, band covers The Cure's sublime "Love Song" and builds its song on a straightahead romantic pop structure driven by crashing guitars. In its biography, Anberlin uses traditionally vague sentences that refer to "traditional rock goodness with Southern charm and an experimental edge." Yet the words "spiritual" and "Christianity" do not appear at all, and Anberlin's pinup-quality band photos and album art also relegate the religion to the periphery.
"It's an unissue," says bandleader Stephen Christian -- note the ironic (and yes, it's real) last name. "I try to make a line between my profession and my faith."
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Listen to the record, though, and Anberlin's allegiance to Christ becomes obvious and unavoidable. By "Cadence" near the album's close, he's explicitly thankful for the "miracle" of being led to God.
"Because I'm a believer, it does eat through into my lyrics," Christian explains. "As far as going around telling people what they should believe or should not believe, that's not my thing."
As long as people are buying the records (a respectable 30,000 copies of Black Market have been sold to date, says Ebel), Christian can keep it all as "unissue" as he wants.
"My music is being sold at Wal-Mart and Best Buy," he says. "I'm getting placed right next to Aerosmith and Tori Amos, and I'm right there next to Andrew W.K."