Rock of Ages

Kelly Mason, age 16, recalls with glee a recent Christian-rock concert she attended. "It was the first time I've been to a Presbyterian church with a mosh pit," she says, "and you'd step out of the pit, and there's blood on the floor. And I'm like, 'Yes! This rocks!'"

Until recently, contemporary Christian music has sounded pretty much the way it did in the peace-and-love decade of the '60s: warbling acoustic stuff, the kind that Beavis and Butt-Head's teacher tends to play during field trips. But there's a new strain of Christian rock that sounds decidedly '90s: It's fast, aggressive, and loud as hell.

"I think God wants us to have a good time," says Kelly's mother, Sheri, who's accompanied her daughter to several concerts. "And the Christian church has promoted this dull music for so long, and I think it drives the kids away. They need something stimulating."

The popular Christian band Audio Adrenaline will literally bring kids back into church when the five-piece altrock group -- Mark Stuart (vocals), Will McGinniss (bass), Ben Cissell (drums), Tyler Burkum (guitars), and Bob Herdman (guitar and keyboards) -- arrives in Fort Lauderdale this week for a gig at First Baptist Church on Broward Boulevard. Unlike a nightclub or concert hall, the church doesn't expect to turn a profit, but it does hope to break even. "We're just providing a venue," says Mike Jeffries, director of creative resources for First Baptist. "The building is constructed so we can hold events like this. Our main sanctuary seats 3000 people, and we expect every seat to be filled." He adds, "And at this particular concert, the altar will be greatly in use for prayer."

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Audio Adrenaline is known for ministering directly to its audiences during concerts. Stuart, for example, talks about growing up with his missionary parents in Haiti, and McGinniss testifies about his difficult family life, which led him to become a Christian. The band used to meet and talk with fans after shows, but Audio Adrenaline's increasing popularity has forced the members to limit their time to signing autographs. These days the band encourages teens to bring their questions to local youth counselors.

"They have a strong, strong message and a remarkable way of communicating," Jeffries says of the band. "There's no question that Jesus is the Lord of their lives."

The concert's promoter is the Christian radio station WAYF-FM (88.1), known as WAY-FM. The station plays the works of various Christian-rock bands during its Under Midnight show from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday nights. "I think music is a real communicator to people," says Chris Carson, production director at WAY-FM. "With Audio Adrenaline the goal is to take the music that interests those who are young and use that as a tool. I think this has been a common thread through Christian music, that this has been a way to find a medium for Christ."

The inspiration for Audio Adrenaline's first single came from an unlikely source: the speed-metal band Anthrax. Herdman first heard Anthrax's hard-hitting metal-rap song "I'm the Man" while attending Kentucky Christian College in the late '80s. "I thought it would be cool for a Christian band to do a song like that," Herdman recalls. So he wrote an Anthraxian tune and brought it to a group of musician friends with whom he'd been playing guitar. They gave themselves a name, thought of a title for the song ("My God"), and used Herdman's savings to record the track and press it into a CD.

The song landed on several Christian radio stations' playlists and drew the attention of ForeFront Records, one of the larger Christian-rock labels based in Nashville. "They called us up and had us come down," Herdman recalls. "That was the only song we'd ever written like that. We just played plain old rock 'n' roll songs." ForeFront eventually offered Audio Adrenaline a record deal, and the band's self-titled debut was released in 1992.

Audio Adrenaline became, like many Christian bands, a religious version of popular secular music. "We did our first record like EMF and Jesus Jones," admits Herdman. "And the record company said, 'That's what we want, it's going to be the next big thing, this is what you gotta do.' And we didn't know any different; we just thought it was cool to have a record deal. We'd do whatever! So we did that, and we traveled, and we didn't do too well. Then the next record we did was what we wanted to do, and that one did better."

These days Audio Adrenaline's melodic rock fits squarely in the same category as that of Everclear, Better Than Ezra, and Tonic. For most nonbelievers, this transformation from novelty act to post-grunge group confirms the suspicion that Christian-rock bands aren't so much playing music as trying to trick rebellious teens into swallowing a dose of religion. On the title track from Audio Adrenaline's latest album, Some Kind of Zombie, heavy guitar riffs accompany the apparently negative lyrics, "Some kind of zombie/I gave my life away/I'm obliged and obey/I'm enslaved to what you say."  

But Herdman explains that the lyrics actually celebrate the master-slave relationship between God and His subjects. "The Bible talks about how we are slaves," he says. "And we're just saying that you're owned by God, you're a slave to God, you've been killed, and you've been brought back up as a new person."

Perhaps the first Christian band to couch religion in the "music of the devil" was Stryper, the heavy-metal band that appeared in the mid-'80s. The band looked and sounded like Mstley CrYe but distributed miniature Bibles at its concerts. For secular listeners Stryper was difficult to take seriously: Was this really a band or just a group of proselytizers in costume? Yet Stryper successfully crossed over into the secular music market, enjoying a platinum album, To Hell With the Devil, in 1986, and a Top 40 hit, "Honestly," in 1987. But when metal went out of fashion, Stryper changed its stripes and pursued a mainstream pop-rock sound. However firm the band's religious commitment was, its musical integrity was questionable.

Today many religious bands take pains to present themselves as rock musicians first, Christians second. Jars of Clay, which is on the secular label Silvertone, avoids overt preaching in public and maintains what one publicist has called a "low Jesus-per-minute ratio" in its lyrics. The strategy worked, and in 1995 Jars of Clay's single "Flood" made its way onto alternative radio and MTV.

But many Christian bands would rather not restrain their religious zeal to gain mainstream success. Herdman says that Audio Adrenaline -- whose overtly religious songs have titles such as "New Body," "Lighthouse" and "Superfriend" -- has no intention of breaking into the secular market.

"It would be nice," he admits, "but it's not one of our concerns. That's basically a record-company thing, and ForeFront is not into that. Their thing is Christian music, staying on the Christian side. They don't really know that much about secular radio and all that stuff." He adds, "We'd never change our lyrics to be more abstract. We'd never do that. But if someone wants to listen to us the way it is, that's fine."

Such an attitude may seem like preaching to the converted. Yet the hardcore band Strongarm -- led by Chris Carbonell, a 25-year-old youth counselor at Calvary Chapel in Pompano Beach -- only rarely performs in churches or Christian venues. "The whole point of the band was not just to play for Christians," says Carbonell. "On stage I don't sit there and give big, long, preaching sermons, but I never get on stage without telling people what we're about, what the songs are about. And if you want to talk to us afterward, we're more than happy to answer questions. I'd say almost every show somebody comes up to us."

The five members of Strongarm have a reputation for playing heavy, sweaty, furious hardcore; in fact, many of today's Christian bands play with as much intensity as their secular counterparts. The tattooed-and-pierced members of Puller, for instance, play hard rock that recalls the band Helmet, while Blindside's growling vocals and heavy guitars earn comparisons to the thrash band Korn. Mason's mother says she appreciates the "intensity" of the music but still feels the need to monitor her daughter's listening habits.

"Everything that's labeled Christian isn't genuinely Christian, and we've learned to distinguish," she says. "To me, the devil can quote Scripture. And some of these groups are there under the guise of Christian groups that I think are just infiltrating." She cites as an example the outspoken punk band MxPx. Its song "Teenage Politics" scolds parents: "Never do what we're told/Well that depends on you/Are you doing the right thing?"

"The effect of listening to these groups is not positive," says Mason's mother. "They put over a rebellious feeling and a negative feeling, even though the words are Christian."

The idea that the Holy Spirit might be evoked by guitar-wielding kids with goatees or shaved heads may seem ridiculous to some. But the Christian-rock genre is definitely gaining widespread acceptance. Albums can be found everywhere from Christian bookstores to Uncle Sam's; Mason says she finds a lot of her favor-ites at Best Buy. Audio Adrenaline's and Puller's videos have debuted on MTV's new music channel, M2. Locally, Strongarm has developed a large following among secular hardcore fans, especially the drug-free, "straight-edge" crowd.

For Kelly Mason the message comes through loud and clear. "Once you find Christian bands that sound a lot like secular bands," she says, "I'd rather listen to Christian bands."  

Audio Adrenaline performs with the Supertones at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 6 at First Baptist Church, 301 E. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $15. Call 800-881-1

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