By David Rolland
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The guys of Underoath love Jesus, make no bones about it, and want you to know that. But the St. Petersburg-based quintet isn't about that hands-in-the-air, holier-than-thou proselytizing stuff. Theirs is a mission of integrity and respect.
"Something we try to do is be a real band for kids that care," says Spencer Chamberlain, Underoath's 24-year-old frontman. "We're a Christian band, but with all our mishaps, we're like, 'Look, we screw up too. '"
Despite a history fraught with lineup changes and imploding tours, the group released its third LP, Define the Great Line, this past summer. The disc proved to be one of the most innovative and wrenching in recent history. The 11 tracks boast the dark bombast of hardcore, the screeching riffs of classic metal, and jarring passages of expansive ambient. The rhythm section is wildly propulsive, but the mix also includes the skittering, burbling fills of keyboardist Christopher Dudley.
Then there are Chamberlain's vocals, both jarring and nuanced. He's a striking physical presence as well slight, with shoulder-length dark hair and a patchwork of impressionistic tattoos. He could be Anthony Kiedis' underfed kid brother. Which is why the howling modulations he coaxes from his voice box are so startling. Chamberlain can deliver a piercing peal of notes, then suddenly shift gears to a bottom-of-the-belly growl that induces goose bumps.
Most surprising of all? Define the Great Line entered the Billboard charts at number two (just behind Nelly Furtado), selling more than 98,000 copies in the first week after its release. And this with only the backing of an independent label the Seattle-based Tooth & Nail.
All of which means the new disc is light-years away from the band's earlier work, such as its lauded 2004 release, They're Only Chasing Safety. The switch from that album's melodic, more conventional loud/soft exercises in emoting might have scared off some fans.
Chamberlain grew up in North Carolina in a hardcore scene that freely cross-pollinated with metal. So as he sees it, there was no other possible direction. "We had to write stuff that was more fun for us and challenging," he says. "I mean, the last stuff we wrote, some of the dudes couldn't even play it at first. But we wanted to raise the bar with this record."
Chamberlain wasn't around when Underoath formed in 1998. The band was the brainchild of the original vocalist, Dallas Taylor. In 2002, the group signed with Tooth & Nail. The gently Christian label has launched the careers of popular crossover rock acts such as MxPx, Further Seems Forever (which begat Dashboard Confessional), and more recently, Anberlin and Emery.
But then, as so often happens, things began falling apart. What should have been a triumphant first outing on the 2003 Warped Tour ended when Taylor abruptly quit halfway through. Chamberlain was recruited to fill in after his own band broke up.
"I wasn't sure, because I was into heavier stuff than they were writing at the time," he recalls. "They were way more pop-oriented. They had choruses and singing. I wasn't doing stuff like that at the time, and I wasn't used to having to change everything I did." Chamberlain's appearance thus marked the beginning of the band's new sound in fact, Chasing Safetyrepresented a kind of aural transition.
By the time Define the Great Line came out, the band had won enough fans to storm the headline stage on the Warped Tour. But again, things went sour. They left the tour in disarray (again) and decamped back to St. Petersburg, where their future seemed dubious.
"It was kind of over a period of time, dudes growing apart, dealing with things mentally," Chamberlain says. "I was battling a drug addiction really bad for a while; things were getting better when we left for Warped Tour, but then I had to figure stuff out again. It got to the point where we weren't even talking."
But the pull of friendship and fellowship proved strong, and soon the bandmates were hanging out as friends again. They reunited late last year and hit the road nationwide again but on a smaller scale. "I think some of us thought it was the end, and others didn't. I definitely didn't," Chamberlain says. "Sometimes, it takes a slap in the face to realize what you're doing wrong, why you're pointing the finger at everyone else."
The lyrics on Define the Great Line form a picture of this struggle toward realization. Rather than blunt or even subtle Biblical references, Chamberlain's Christianity functions here instead as a paradigm his lyrics are about personal struggle and exorcism. On the scorching opening track, "In Regards to Myself," he wails, seemingly at himself, "Pull yourself together man/ On your back, you're sleeping in a bed of shame."
"Just what are you so afraid of?" he shrieks later, before the guitars slowly crescendo. It's a sublime and frankly terrifying moment that forces the listener to ask the same question of himself.
The inherent search for meaning and honesty proved resonant with fans of all kinds, not just Christian bangers. Yet Underoath plans to stick with the kind folks at Tooth & Nail rather than head off to a faceless major label.
"Our fans are very loyal, and they appreciate the fact that we're not like everyone else," Chamberlain observes. "We write songs because it makes us happy, being honest musicians. That's our main goal. That's who we are and who we want to be. I'd rather not be a part of it at all than be a part of something I don't believe in."