The year was 1997…
I am not sure what was going on in the rest of music at the time, but it was a banner year for Christian Rock. Most of the artists in that secularly reviled genre released their absolute best material, and if I were pressed to, I could probably find 10 albums in that year and genre that I stand behind indefinitely, even though my favorite band Poor Old Lu had disbanded in 1996. Were I to make such a list, near the top would be Grammatrain’s Flying:
Grammatrain can most closely be related to a “grunge” band, but with an emphasis on fast, driving beats (a little like a watered down Deep Purple) and distorted bass. Seriously the bass tones created for both the band’s main albums are so very good to my ears. On top of that, you have Pete Stewart, which is just a rock name, wouldn’t you say? Anyway, the dude knew how to throw down some masterful Gibson-made guitar tones, and his voice is golden for rock purposes.
The only thing really not going for this band were the lyrics. I know that I have a strict “lyrics have to be good” mindset when it comes to Christian bands, because it’s so very easy to cheese that stuff up. Thing is, the lyrics are good, but well we’ll get to that later.
The first song opens up with a lovely introduction via acoustic guitar plucking away some power chords, the kind that broadcast clearly that rock is coming. Indeed, after a few vocal lines, the full trio comes in. Not only do you have lovely clustered guitar chords, but a killer bass-line, and the whole thing drops back down to the acoustic guitar for the regular verses. If nothing else, this song is built really well. The song is called “Jonah” and it kind of follows the story about the guy who gets swallowed by a fish, except that it’s lacking the fish, or the whole resistance to redemption thing, but hey! There’s cello in the final verse portion!
Though “Jonah” is sufficiently fast, it’s brought up to an even higher tempo with “Less Of Me”, which opens up with some interesting electric guitar chords before the drums kick in with a fill and is joined by that wonderful distorted bass. This is quite possibly the best “drumming” song of the whole thing. The vocals are also pretty great, as he seems to be singing right up to the top of his register, given how croacked the highest note seems, in a good way, of course.
The next song slows it down to a slow, swingin’ beat where the guitar and bass work in harmony to bring a lovely riff to the proverbial table. The story of “Flying” is fairly straightforward, and might be based on a real “Strange, peculiar dream”. It’s all just a really quick allegory to the Jesus Christ story, where the central characters are a child and a “great bird”. Again, not the most cohesive thing ever, but it works well enough for the purposes of the song. I really dig the drums on the chorus as well, as it uses this nice tom-based fill and some rolling snare fills right at the end.
The next song kind of throws the whole “driving” thing out the window to change the rhythm to something a lot more jumpy. I actually have some trouble counting the beats in the song, but I’m not the most technically knowledgeable music person in this blog. Either way, the whole “Rocketship” thing has been done before, though I am having some trouble remembering by whome. The whole thing actually kind of reminds me of a Smashing Pumpkins song, with obviously Christian lyrics. Still, that’s a lot of thinking for a song that’s barely over 2 minutes long.
Ahhh, now the calm portion of the album, the eye of the storm, if you will. “Peace” is about as mellow of a song as you can get, even the bass is no longer distorted, and is played in the upper frets. This song is pretty wonderful, even if the lyrics are nowhere near complex, it’s just a straight Praise song with a melody that’s actually good. The video‘s kind of creepy in a subtle way, though. Maybe it’s just me.
The next song is probably the best one, I can never tell, except to say it was the only “single” I know of off the album. It’s called “Pain”, and on top of having one of the best bass grooves I’ve ever heard, is better lyrically than most of the other songs. The chorus is a fairly simple message:
I find through every ounce of pain I feel
My mind can not deny that God is real
So this is probably the part where I expound more on the lyrics. Pete Stewart, the singer/guitarist/lyricist of the group, apparently denounced Christianity some time after the band broke up close to the end of the 90′s. This kind of negates just about everything he’s written on the topic of Christianity (which is everything of Grammatrain’s discography and his own not-as-good solo project), and looking back, I kind of find the lyrics a bit contrived. It’s a hell of a thing, but I still quite like the music, but the lyrics are hugely diminished because yes indeed his mind can deny that God is real.
We then move on “Sell Your Soul”, another kind of ironic title, given the nature of the songwriter. It’s not actually a very good song either, it might have stemmed from Pete Stewart thinking for some reason that he needed to write a rock song in a major key. I almost always skip this number, so there’s not a lot I can discuss about it.
“Fuse” is much more like it. It moves only one half-step for the entire song (Em – F), save for one key-change. But there’s a lot that’s done with this 2-chord wonder, and of course he’s got the support of the very best fraternal rhythm section of all of Christian Rock music circa ’97 (quite an honor!) The lyrics are more anti-hate than pro-God (except for the line “Does anybody else see this as irony/ He tried to live for peace, we nailed him to a tree”), and for that reason it’s actually a bit tighter lyrically than the other songs. I like it a lot, is what I’m saying here.
You know, I never realized until writing all this that the last half of the album is a little less Christian-centric. The next song, “Spiderweb”, which is also awesome, is about a father’s separation from his daughter and his longing to be together with her. It doesn’t specify whether the separation is because of a divorce or because the father ran away, it’s all kind of left in the open.
“Found In You” is another song I tend to skip. It’s slow, slower than “Flying”, but doesn’t quite come together as well as “Flying”. I guess the song reeks of “filler”, though it’s right near the tail-end of the album, so it doesn’t slow the whole thing down too badly.
Acoustic guitars permeate the final track, “For Me”, and they work really well with the distorted bass the listener should be used to by now. Again, not a particularly “Christian” song, but great nonetheless. Also, where there’s acoustic guitar, there’s a cello! The lyrics are just kind of vague and about separation, in fact one interpretation of them could be a person’s separation from his faith!!!! I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into it.
So that’s it, one of my favorite ’97 Christian Rock albums, and one that could well be checked out by someone who is just a fan of music in general, if they wanted. I felt it appropriate to mention this album today because, after 10 years, the band is actually getting back together in Seattle for a concert and who knows. Fair is opening for them, too, which is kind of why I wish I lived in Seattle. However, word is they’re not going to be a Christian band anymore, fancy that!