Like politics and religion (or, better yet, oil and holy water), music and Christianity are an uncomfortable mixture. Until recently, that mixture resulted in generic artists whose praises to God far outweighed the music itself, resulting in tunes as exciting as a Bible-study soundtrack. That's why Orlando's Anberlin -- a rock group with thoroughly Christian members -- studiously avoids the "Christian rock" tag.
"I think it's stale, and that's one reason why we shun the whole label," says Stephen Christian (!), vocalist for the quintet, speaking from New York City just before their first show in the Big Apple. "Christian music has never been on the cutting edge. Just because we're Christian doesn't mean you should peg us or put us in a certain market."
While fans have historically cast aside Christian rock, bands like P.O.D. and Chevelle, among others, have made fans of those who ignored it or expected Bible-thumping alongside the drums. Anberlin is not out to convert fans or throw Bibles at their audience, and -- thankfully -- are free of Stryper's hair and costumes.
Instead, Anberlin (Christian, bassist Deon Rexroat, guitarists Joseph Milligan and Joey Bruce, and drummer Nathan Young, who at 16, lives up to his surname) prefers to sway listeners through sound, not sermon. On its Blueprints for the Black Market debut, Anberlin delivers everything from punchy pop nuggets and harder-edged rockers ("Change the World"), while unveiling punk-inspired enthusiasm in "Foreign Language" and synth-driven, totally '80s tubularity in "Autobahn." (They further relive the decade with a remake of The Cure's "Love Song.") The melodic surges in "Cadence" see Christian offering inner revelations, such as "the closer I come to you/ the closer I am to finding out." Like many of Christian's lyrics, the penmanship can represent just about any kind of relationship, although steering clear of any overly secular references.
"God has a big impact in my life, and it translates into my music," says Christian, a UCF philosophy graduate and, at 26, the band's elder statesman. "But hopefully, fans can translate it to whatever joys, crises or decisions that the individual listener has."
While Anberlin has been together for only one year, most of the members floated around in various outfits. Milligan, Christian and Rexroat have played together for six years, most notably in God-punk act Sagoh 24/7, which released efforts Then I Corrupt Youth and Servants Under God's Own Heart under now-defunct California label Rescue Records. But the band slowly imploded, lost two key members, and those who remained started acquiring new musical tastes. Others, like Christian, never accepted punk music as their savior.
"I enjoyed the scene, I enjoyed the people and the philosophies, but even when I was in a punk band, I didn't care for punk at all," he reflects. "I didn't even own a punk album. The music was my least favorite part, and it's sad since that is the central theme. Now I'm into what I play and I believe in it."
To release musical frustrations, Christian started an acoustic project, which still continues. Upon hearing the songs, Milligan, also in Sagoh 24/7, suggested to Christian that he translate his new batch of songs to rock, since they didn't fit Sagoh's hardcore-punk leanings. And that marked the beginning of the end of Sagoh.
"We slowly realized that we liked playing this music better," Christian says. "We continued, and it just became fun, and [Milligan] started writing music and Anberlin was born."
Five shows together as Anberlin, the band played Christian music Cornerstone Festival last year. Writing music and looking for a label deal, the band recorded a five-song demo in Atlanta in hopes of shopping it around. Producer Matt Goldman introduced Warner Bros. to the band. While The Bunny showed some interest, the band captured the attention of the well-respected, Seattle-based "Christian alternative" label, Tooth and Nail Records, which signed the band and released Blueprints for the Black Market in May. The band has spent most of their time on the road with acts that include fellow Floridians Further Seems Forever.
"Music and traveling is something we all enjoy, and we want to pour our hearts into it," Christian says. "What other job can you wake up in a different city every morning, meet fans, play music and pay your bills? I can't think of one.
"We're five kids from a small town. We're not big time by any means, but getting this far has been a godsend."