Thursday, July 11, 2013

Oh, Sleeper - Children of Fire

More of a rant than a review here.

Okay, this is going to be a slightly different  review than normal, because it's going to be less about the music itself, and more about the themes, concept, and what the band represents.  This is also going to be kind of weird because I'm going to try and explain some of my own views of morality and religion, especially within the context of metal/hardcore/heavy music in general. 

Now, allow me to be a hypocrite here for a second and say something that completely goes against my opening sentence; the ostracizing of Christian metal bands is fucking stupid because a style of music is not a religion, and so the members' ideology and/or lyrical themes can't really go against what it "stands for" because it doesn't "stand for" anything.  It's purely audial, and unless you're one of those really fervent "black metal is a mindset, not a sound" bigots or "If you're not into metal, you are not my friend!" Manowarrior zealots, you probably can at least understand that.  If a band is made up of members who love Darkthrone but are also devout Christians, what happens?  You get Horde or Antestor or something, and then who cares?  Saying that Christian metal is an affront to the ideologies of metal because so many of the second wave black metal acts were so profoundly anti-Christian and burned all those churches in Norway and such is like saying that anybody who plays metal at all but isn't a working class white guy from Birmingham goes against what metal initially stood for because that's the demographic that makes up Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.  Hating Christians that much because they are all apparently bigoted drones is just the most staggering display of irony I've almost ever witnessed, and then despising their music that may be sonically pleasing to you simply because you disagree with their themes is just blisteringly thick.  Fuck, if I can realize that Arghoslent's themes are despicable but that doesn't suddenly make their riffs any less ear catching, then surely so many of you "enlightened" dickturds can do the same with your precious, untouchable ethos of all that is dark and evil.  Is the concept of irony really so foreign?

Okay, now that I've incinerated the shit out of that strawman (who is much less straw than I'd hope, spend some time at MA or any black metal board and talk about Christian metal and see how little of that I made up), I suppose I should get to the point here, Oh, Sleeper's third album, Children of Fire.  I'm gonna get the musical aspects out of the way first, because A) that at least gives this rant the framework of a review, giving me personal validation for publishing it in the first place and B) it's by far the least interesting part.  It's metalcore, but there's really very little metal at work here.  Bands like As I Lay Dying or For Today can lay big heaping slabs of melodeath, strong string skipping riffs, and pummeling double bass to give the music a more metallic base, but Oh, Sleeper here pretty much just sticks to the hardcore side of the equation, with very little metal influence at all.  There are tons of noisy, dissonant sections and seemingly nonsensical tapping melodies flitting away in the background at nearly all times, with a very chaotic pace and purely hardcore screams.  One thing I need to point out are the clean vocals, which (unlike most bands in the metalcore/post-hardcore genre) are really good.  They sound more alternative and powerful than most.  As opposed to the hilarious wimpiness of As I Lay Dying or the god fucking awful autotuned bullshit of We Came as Romans, what we have here are very assertive and either commanding or soothing, depending on the mood they're going for in that particular section.  The music is all very well done, though it lacks identity in spots.  I mean, there are some vocal patterns that stand out (like the "All we need is FAME FAME FAME" from "Dealers of Fame", for example) and there are excellent chugging sections and breakdowns strewn all about the album, but few of the songs really stand out for their musical content.  Normally this would be a huge problem (it is a problem, but it's very minor for reasons I'm about to explain), but there's a superfluous element of Children of Fire that make it very special, and pretty solidly one of my favorite albums in the Christian metalcore subniche.

It's the concept.  Oh, Sleeper's last two albums have been concept albums, but this second one here just absolutely nails a theme that so many of their peers completely miss.  Their previous album, Son of the Morning, is good, but it's not great.  There are a couple excellent songs like the title track or "The Finisher", but I don't think it's anything truly special.  Just an above average metalcore album to me.  But it too is a concept album, and it sets up the wonderful Children of Fire here.  The story in Son of the Morning is pretty basic, it's just about a war between God and Satan, a physical manifestation of the classic good versus evil trope.  In the end, God of course wins the battle and in doing so, severs Satan's horns (resulting the the (admittedly very cool) band logo with the broken pentagram).  Children of Fire begins right at that moment, with Satan's horns falling to the ground.  The twist, and what makes this album so interesting to me, is that when they land, both Satan and God just straight up disappear.  That's it, right there, God just died and humanity just witnessed it.  He sacrificed Himself to eliminate the manifestation of evil and now mankind is on their own.  This sets up a world where there is no fear of Hell, nor reward of Heaven, and it deals with how humanity deals with this new predicament.  It follows the idea that without these things, humanity will devolve into utter chaos (though there is a chink in the armor in the sense that it provides a universe with irrefutable evidence of the afterlife and yet completely fails to address the elephant in the room in "well, if there's no longer a heaven or hell, then where the fuck do all the people who die after that battle go?").  The story follows two characters, at first a devout religious man who now feels betrayed that he gave his life to God only to be abandoned, and his previously staunchly atheist daughter who just witnessed firsthand that the teachings of Christianity were 100% true, leaving her with innumerable questions about the nature of everything she knows, leaving her feeling confused about her previous life and where she's heading now.

The preacher at first expresses his utter disdain for what just happened, fearing for the future without his God and blaming him for whatever comes.

You can't just up and leave, abandonment is the thumbprint of that cur who just hit the ground

He pretty much declares this the end of humanity, and embraces the new world of chaos as a means to continue the teachings he had spent his entire life abiding by, telling the world that God is now dead, and it's because we as a collective have failed in His teachings, and now He's left us and we're on our own and must survive in this new wasteland.

Well if all that remains is our avaricious wit,
Then an eye for an eye is the only law that can exist.

What sets him off is finding his daughter raped.  In a rage, he finds the offender and kills him, taking his head in the process.  Once he does this, he finds a new calling in avenging the victims of unspeakable crimes, and eventually gathers followers in his quest.  They spend the next couple songs taking out some real-life murderers in the name of justice (like Samir Kuntar's murder of a family in 1979 in "Hush Yael" and the 3guys1hammer kids in "Dealers of Fame"), and in the end coming to blame humanity as a whole for these people becoming what they were.

But we measure their doses and give them a flame
So the charge is on us; we are the dealers of fame

Eventually, his daughter begins to see the hypocrisy of what he's become by standing for God and becoming something so opposite in the process.  The teachings of mercy and love were completely lost on him and his followers, who were shown to merely have a shallow understanding of God, instead focusing on the personal gain to be had through vengeance and violence.  One of the basest views of Christianity I've been able to see in my life is "God creates, Satan perverts", and here are a group of men and women who have so thoroughly perverted the initial message of the teachings and yet are completely oblivious to the fact, instead further perpetuating the chaos in the aftermath of God's departure. 

Beware for there's a zealot unleashed and sighting the end
Through a scope of righteousness that's blinded by blood on the lens

And now this daughter, while everybody else has lost their faith, is just beginning hers, trying to make sense of this new world where it was proven that her beliefs were wrong and that those who are supposedly following the teachings of what was right are in turn so evil.  She searches for a reason, anything to help guide her to the light that her father is so desperately missing.  She yearns for a means to believe, unable to let go of her previous scrutiny due to the hell on earth in which she now exists.  She eventually does find a group of believers, who help answer her questions and provide her with some clarity, teaching that even though God is dead, his message should not be abandoned, and that love and mercy are still the pillars by which one should base their life on in order to spread peace and wellbeing throughout the world.

Spread wide your wings
Let the draft lift you up
You've heard the call of the future flock
You're coming home

The daughter begins to grow more resentful of the perverted teachings her father is perpetuating, enraged by his hypocrisy, and despite her newfound faith in mercy, she finds herself in a moment of weakness and succumbs to opportunity and murders her father in his sleep.  

He's got the voice of a con, the same one
Who cut down in the name of his God,
Who took on the robe of a judge,
Without a license to kill without cause.
He's not worth it.
Remember what he did that made you question all the words he cited

This is the only part where the narrative seems to slip up a bit, because she seems to be forgiven for her crime extraordinarily quickly, but it may also have something to do with the fact that she's truly remorseful for straying from the path and succumbing to the same eye for an eye mentality that her hypocritical and misguided father had been living in.  She prays for forgiveness and realizes her folly, vowing to become a beacon for what His teachings truly meant.  True virtue and love, mercy and understanding.  She learns through guilt that it is not man's place to judge another's worthiness of existence.  It's not mankind's place to remove those who aren't fit, it's up to God.

But... there is no God anymore, what good does this revelation do her?

Well psyche!  I'm gonna quote Tommy Lee Jones here and say "Elvis is not dead, he just went home".  The closing title track shows the skies opening up and God raining down his judgment on the world.  Yeah, apparently God dying just sends him right back to Heaven, fucking durrrr.  Cleansing rain falls from the sky, healing and lifting those believers (like the daughter) up to salvation in Heaven for spreading love and mercy (apparently she repented juuuuust before the deadline), while zealots of her father are showered in fire. 

It's so far from rain, the lot will feel pain.
As it singes their skin but for you it will soothe

And thus the world ends, the good are saved and those who took everything the wrong way are punished.  The end.

You notice something different about this from most typical preachy Christian bands?  Not once are non-believers addressed.  At no point are those who don't believe punished, not once are followers of other religious ideals portrayed as villains.  Sure, it's implied that they died in the apocalypse as well, but it's never stated explicitly; this entire story focuses on the beliefs of Christianity itself and paints half of it's own members in an antagonistic light.  Where I, the Breather and For Today go for an "if you're not with us, you're against us" mentality, Oh, Sleeper instead lets be those who don't impede on their lives or spread evil.  They turn the other cheek and let people be people, knowing that there are naturally good folks who don't support the destruction of humanity purely for not expressly praying every night.  If somebody comes seeking answers, they'll point them to what they believe is right, but their message is not to convert all the non believers, lest they perish on the same level as those who seek to destroy what they believe.  No, they provide a guiding light to those who seek it, and their efforts are otherwise spent on trying to purify those who pervert the initial message of their faith.  This is a thinly veiled criticism on people like the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, the entire point of Children of Fire is that true evil comes from those who use something holy and righteous as a vehicle for violence, bigotry, and hate.  It's essentially the musical manifestation of the old saying "God prefers a peaceful atheist to a hateful Christian".  Children of Fire acknowledges that not all Christians are perfect, and that many can indeed sin in the name of God, entirely missing the point of what they're supposed to believe in.

There's even an interview where the vocalist, Micah Kinard, explains the concept behind the album, and then caps it off by saying that not all experiences with God are going to be the same, and they're not here to preach to you about how those who haven't seen the light are wrong and horrible sinners.  Everybody has their own thing and the point of Christianity is not to aggressively convert everybody.  It's exactly like the zealots in the album, wanting to lead as many people to salvation as possible is one thing, but becoming a forceful, hateful, arrogant person in doing so is entirely the wrong way to go about it.

In short, bands like I, the Breather and For Today (as much as I like some of the latter's albums) just don't get it.  Oh, Sleeper freakin' gets it, and I, as a non-believer, respect the absolute shit out of them for recognizing the folly of so many of their peers and just trying to be good people for the sake of being good people, instead of hating and antagonizing in the hopes that people will follow their views through sheer attrition.  Children of Fire has a great message that many bands in this little subcircle need to take notice of.  Musically, Children of Fire is very good, but conceptually it's something else entirely.  It's very refreshing as a guy who has an interest in this scene despite not necessarily following the beliefs many of the bands so fervently wish I would follow to see a band taking the message of love and mercy to heart, and not spreading hate and anger for those who aren't on their side, instead showing that the path is here if they so choose, but first they need to expunge the poison within themselves before worrying about everybody else.

I love you Oh, Sleeper.  Please continue to be awesome people in addition to making really good metalcore.  And metal fans the world over, if you don't like Christianity, that's fine, but don't be a fucking cock about it, the irony in such a mindset is so thick that it could kill a canary.  That's really just me scratching an itch more than anything, but goddamn, seriously.

RATING - 85%


  1. This is Against Such Things from the MA. I just wanted to drop a comment to say that I really appreciated and concur with your comments throughout this review. Also, thanks for reminding me that this album exists.

    I don't think, though, that For Today at least is trying to spread hate. They are very bold and forward about their beliefs, but I can't recall them spreading hate against anyone.

    1. It blows my mind that I can still manage to miss the "reply" button on my own fucking blog so consistently.

  2. My main beef with For Today has been them saying in interviews that music comes second, and message comes first for them. To me, that seems backwards. Just become a preacher then, don't half ass your music. I realize they probably feel that way about the opposite viewpoint (they don't want to half ass their message), but it makes their music a mere vehicle for propaganda instead of just being good music with a particular moral in mind. Their lyrics are typically very "you're either with us or against us and we show no mercy", which admittedly works great in the context of metal, but knowing that it's less about theatrics and more about passion for them is a little unsettling at times. That said, I do like them and have positively reviewed Breaker in the past.

    They had that controversy a year or so ago with the bassist saying something on Twitter about "Don't be fooled, homosexuality is still a sin", and then the whole hardcore community just lashed back about the backwards, ignorant thinking on display. He wound up leaving the band later that day. It smelled less like "You're a hateful douche and we don't want to be associated with you" and more like "Dude, you're making people hate us, we need to run some damage control". I like their music well enough, but their attitude rubs me the wrong way is all.

  3. Well, their vocalist IS a preacher. He does tours and has released two (soon to be three) spoken word albums, so I think for his part, as the main ideological driving force of the band, it's another avenue for that.

    Lyrically, yeah, it does get really old. I'm really only familiar with Immortal, but still can't recall any particularly aggressive lyrics (except as against Hell/Satan/whatever). It's more just beating to death every concievable way of quoting Romans 12:2 ("And do not be conformed to this world..."). Ekklesia and Portraits had rather varied and decent lyrics, as far as I recall; it wasn't until Breaker that they jumped for the current path.

    And yes, their former rhythm guitarist (Mike Reynolds) left shortly after making comments along those lines. The official story was that he wanted to pursue Bible college and mission work; Mattie (vocalist) subsquently reached out to anyone who wanted to speak to him, as well. However, I don't see what is hateful about making a moral statement; there is a distinction to be made between a person and their actions. Even though the issue at hand is one of those things where that distinction is rarely made, doesn't mean it never is.