Long before Elvis' hips or Jagger's lips, long before the Killer was luring little girls into sin from the pulpit of his piano, certain musicians have been suspected of colluding with the devil himself. And whether the accusations arose from Robert Johnson's netherwordly moaning or Paganini's demonic violin wizardry, they often had more to do with the essence of the music than with any specific lyrical content or come-hither sexual posturing.
Small wonder, then, that so many Christian rock acts today sound so limp, as if afraid to get too heavy, play too hard, or linger too long in that minor key. And small wonder that bands like Tampa, Fla.'s Underoath face an uphill battle with so-called secular music fans when they are introduced as a Christian band—even one that plays expressly heavy music.
Underoath bassist Grant Brandell understands the less-than-enthusiastic reaction of most people to the Christian label, from a musical standpoint. "I can understand that perspective, for sure," he says, speaking by phone during a break from the band's current tour. "I know when we started playing, that was sort of the perception of Christian bands, sort of this low-key, over-produced church-rock stuff. I think that's changed a lot, honestly. There's a lot of bands now who aren't afraid to say they're Christian who also have that hard-working, raw attitude and vibe that comes out of the music, making music that doesn't comes out of a church or whatever. I know I've never been afraid to play my instrument too hard, or anything like that."
The band's latest album, (disambiguation), their sixth overall, certainly seems to bear that out. It's not only their heaviest record to date, but possibly their least safe—passages of unchecked aggression broken by brief interludes of ambient mystery, wicked turns of tempo, industrial mayhem, even moments of pure chaos.
And if there's a message in Underoath's music, it's not overplayed, as song titles like "In Division" or "Driftwood" or "Paper Lung" might easily have come from any secular band's CD.
"When we started out, our Christianity, I won't say it was more in-your-face, but it was definitely a more predominant thing," Brandell says. "But just as your music changes, you grow and change in other ways, too, as the band goes on.
"For me, the best way to go about it is not to push it on people and to respect people for what they believe in. Accept the fact people aren't going to believe the same thing as you and that's okay. If it comes up in conversation, it comes up. But it's never something we try to force-feed to people. It's always been a big part of our band, but never to the point where we're preaching onstage."
Prior to the recording of (disambiguation), the band saw the departure of drummer and sometime-vocalist Aaron Gillespie, an exit that left the six-piece unit in the unusual position of having no original members remaining from its founding lineup. Brandell says that fact is misleading, though, even with previous members having been responsible for a portion of the band's recorded output.
"The thing is, the last seven years have been the most known-about era of our band, from a fan standpoint," Brandell says. "So that's really one membership change in seven years, from that point of view, which really wasn't too crazy for us. The CD before the current lineup [seven years ago] sold like 30,000, and the one after sold like 400,000, so that's what people know. We don't get a lot of people coming up and saying, ‘Oh, I remember when the band was a lot of other people and not you guys,' you know?"
That seven-year stretch has produced millions in total sales across five albums for the Tooth & Nail imprint, including two records—2006's Define the Great Line and 2008's Lost in the Sound of Separation—that debuted at #2 and #8, respectively, on the Billboard Top 200 album chart.
All the while, Underoath has evolved from a heavily punk-influenced, pop-savvy outfit—a veritable staple of the Warped tour—to one of the heaviest and most progressive units you're likely to see on the metal/screamo circuit.
Brandell puts some of that down to changes in membership, but says it's mostly a matter of time. "Members coming and going, that will affect things, obviously," he says. "But we as a band have always tried to never write the same record twice, never to stop pushing ourselves musically. We're heavier, but we also do more with atmospheric and ambient sounds. We've better refined the things we like to do. We're more cohesive, as opposed to being all over the place."