Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Top Albums of 2009

Ok, this is hard for me to do, since 2009 was actually a pretty darn good year for music. Still, here goes nothing.

10. Alice In Chains- Black Gives Way To Blue

What else can I say really? I already blogged about this album. AIC are back, baby.

9. Porcupine Tree- The Incident

Fell short of their normal standard a bit for me, but it is still a darn amazing album. There's a blog on this one to, so go read that for more.

8. Nile- Those Whom The Gods Detest

Pure, crazy, unbelievable Egyptian-themed death metal from SC. I have no idea how these guys play like they do, but this is one of the most technical records of the year. One thing is for sure; Ancient Egypt is brutal.

7. Mastodon- Crack The Skye

Concept album about a paraplegic who experiments with astral projection, only to fly too close to the sun and burn the golden umbilical cord that connects him to his body, sending him on a wormhole adventure that somehow ends up having Rasputin battling Satan to bring him back to his body. Enough said.

6. Pelican- What We All Come To Need

The Chicago-based instru-metallers have outdone themselves with this album. Some of their fiercest and most beautiful material. Choice cuts include "Specks of Light," "Strung Up From The Sky," and "Final Breath," which features the first sung vocals in the band's history.

5. The Swell Season- Strict Joy

There's a blog on this one as well. I'm not saying anything more than I need to, although I'll add to what I said before by saying that "High Horses" is an awesome song.

4. Russian Circles- Geneva

This instrumental trio, similar to Pelican in style and geographical origin, have also created the best album of their career. Good year for instrumental music.

3. Isis- Wavering Radiant

Isis have once again blown me away with this album that, according to Aaron Turner, is based on his dreams. I had the chance to see them live this year as well, and the new material translates wonderfully. Isis can do no wrong in my book.

2. Between the Buried and Me- The Great Misdirect

If Colors was BTBAM's Dark Side of the Moon, then this is their Wish You Were Here. An amazing follow-up and possibly better than its predecessor. Technical insanity at it's finest. "Disease, Injury, Madness," "Fossil Genera- A Feed From Cloud Mountain," and "Desert of Song" are personal favorites.

1. a) Thrice- Beggars
b) The Avett Brothers- I and Love and You

Yes, it's a tie. I honestly couldn't decide. The experimental punkish energy of Thrice and the newgrass tinged Avett's have dominated my stereo this year. Probably more to come on both of those albums.

Thanksgiving "break"

To preface, I put "break" in quotes because I got little to no sleep, and still had a lot of work to do. It was interesting, to say the least. I spent it with the extended family on my mother's side, in a cottage at the Outer Banks. I'm gonna put this pretty bluntly: They are all a cross between redneck and hippie, and they like to drink. ALOT. I mean, there was an entire table devoted to liquor. This is aggravating for me, being someone who was against drinking even before I grew to better know God. After Thanksgiving dinner, one of my distant uncles shouted something along the lines of "Time for the good stuff!" and proceeded to unveil, rather theatrically, a large pickle jar with "666" written on the side filled with homemade strawberry moonshine. I had to laugh at this. Overall, it was strange for me. The last time I hung out with them all was last October, before I grew in my faith, and all the same stuff was going down, pretty much. Almost everyone was drunk, it was loud, I heard stories of family on drugs and in prison, as well as in custody battles, and I jammed with my uncles on a few songs, including a few my uncle wrote, which sang about anything from his grandmother working in a brothel to his affection for breasts and alcohol. He even had one dedicated to the family, called "I'll never smoke weed with the Roughtons again." The same stuff happened, but it all felt different. Instead of it being like it was before, after I had grown up around it and gotten used to it, I was able to really grasp how sad it was. At one point, around 3 AM, I left the room in the middle of my uncles having a racist rant, only to hear "Of course he leaves when we start talking bad about the n*****s." It was a depressing experience for me in a way. Men and women in and above their 60's drinking like college kids, the stories, the loud music. It all seemed so superficial. I loved seeing the family, don't get me wrong. I just hated seeing how bad off they were. It hurts because I want to help them. I don't like to see people I care about destroying themselves. I know God has put this on my heart for a reason, and He wants me to reach them, and I want to reach them as well. I left and came back to Wilmington early. It became too much. I hope I will be able to reach and help them somehow in the future, but it was all too much at the time. Didn't get to see the family on my dad's side, save for a few minutes of visiting on my way out of town. Hopefully I'll get to see more of everyone around Christmas. And, of course, that rest will be headed my way soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Christian "Art" (specifically, music)

This picture makes me laugh. It comes courtesy of my friend Sara, and it is of a memorial in Romania. "Cristian Pop" is the man's name, but add an "H" into his first name and it begins to relate to this blog post. Segue time!

Basically, Christian music, for the most part, is not a force to be reckoned with in an artistic sense. This, of course, is not to devalue worship music; The worship experience is extremely important. However, Psalm 96 says "Sing to the Lord a new song!" Not the same one with a different tune. Here's a little something to consider: Contemporary Christian music is the only genre of music that is categorized entirely by lyrical content. And it really goes nowhere from there. Christian music is written by Christians (obviously), about Christianity, for mostly Christians. While worship is an important part of music, we are also called to "go and make disciples." Oftentimes, non-Christians will tend to avoid over-Jesusy music, since it is based around a faith they do not know. We create a Christian bubble, and it is hard for others to get in. If, however, we sing about our Christian worldview, new possibilities can crop up. We are, of course, called to be "in the world, but not of the world." Our faith should affect everything in our lives, and we should acknowledge that in lyrics. It changes your thoughts on everything. You begin to see the world how God sees the world, and that should show in your lyrics. If a non-Christian person begins to see the world how you present it, they are beginning to adopt God's perspective, which could be an important step in bringing them closer to God.

My next gripe with the lack of artistic merit in Christian music is the music itself. Oftentimes, it is.......well, boring. Most Contemporary Christian music features a very simple melody with about 4 chords repeated over and over for 3 to 5 minutes. (Trust me, I'm a worship leader; I know, although I try to play more interesting songs while maintaining an attitude of worship.) These songs are not bad, and they are great for a worship environment, but in every other way they are boring. We are told to play our instruments "skillfully," not repetitively. Change it up a bit! This is why kids associate church with boredom! We write our music for God, so we should try our darnedest to do it well! Music is a language all it's own. Music can say a heck of a lot more than words sometimes. Our music shouldn't say "G, D, A minor, C," it should say " I love God and I wanna show it!" Instrumental music can often say a lot more to me than any lyrics; We need to make use of music's power!

My passions are art and God. I want to live my life for God, while reflecting that in my art. God can't be contained in 4 chords. We want to show people our hearts for God, as well as God's heart for the world, both lyrically and musically. I will close this blog with some lyrics by Thrice. Their music is experimental and artistic and just plain amazing, and their lyricist, Dustin Kensrue, presents his ideas on God subtly and beautifully.

Wood and Wire
14 years behind these bars,
In 12-foot square of cold cement.
I’ve lost nearly everything,
For a crime of which I’m innocent.

But all my suffering’s a light and momentary pain,
While the weight of an endless glory still remains to me.

A dead man walking down the hall,
To meet a mess of wood and wire.
They lead me where men fear to tread-
But towards the thing I most desire.

For all my suffering’s a light and momentary pain,
While the weight of an endless glory still remains.
Throw the switch son; I know you ain’t got a choice.
The dawn is coming; all is well, I will rejoice.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Setting stones

"Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I've come."
-Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

So, to give credit where credit is due, this entry is greatly inspired by last night's service at Lifepoint. To start, here is a bit of a contextual preface from 1 Samuel 7:1-17. Here, Israel is in mourning, as they have once again turned away from God. (This happens quite often; I'd be frustrated with the Israelites if their lives didn't mirror my own so much.) Here, Samuel says "If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and He will deliver you out of the hands of the Philistines." While it is generally well-known, it is important to note that it is pretty common for the Israelites to create manmade idols and worship foreign gods instead of the one true God. (Who, I can only imagine, must perform an epic facepalm every time His chosen people stray.) The Israelites then gathered at a place called Mizpah and fasted, poured water out before the Lord, and confessed, so that Samuel may intercede with God. Those darn Philistines heard about this and, seeing it as a moment of weakness, decided to be total jerks and launch an attack. When the Israelites found out about the attack, they prayed even more fervently, and made a burnt offering to God. Here's the crazy part; When the Philistines drew near, "The Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites." The Israelites then proceeded to chase them down and own them.
So here we have an incredible story of repentance on behalf of the Israelites, and of God's mercy shining through, as well as His awesome provision. But here comes the crux of the story. (Well, at least for the purposes of this blog.) After the Philistines were defeated, Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen. "He named it Ebenezer, saying, 'Thus far has the Lord helped us.'" This may seem insignificant, but it's pretty crucial. Samuel is setting up a monument, a reminder of sorts, to always show how the Lord has provided. And it makes me think; I go through life with a cycle of crises, always praying for God's help with one thing, then switching to another once He's taken care of it. In the midst of all my asking of God, it is a rare occasion that I actually stop to just thank and praise Him for the amazing things He's done. I look back at some hard times in my life, which at the time seemed hopeless, and seemed so desperate. Often, I could never see God working; I'd scream at Him to show up, but He was already taking care of things, a realization that only comes with hindsight. Sometimes, you have to get some distance from your problems before you realize how puny they are compared to God. This past January, I was pretty bad off. I was close to a level of clinical depression, due to many things that would take too long to type up, and I really didn't know where God was, nor could I see Him working. Looking back, I see some of the amazing things He was doing in me that were right in front of me. I see how the situations I was put into and the people I've been around have molded my life into what it is, and I am thankful for that. God isn't always immediate; He can be pretty sneaky/subtle sometimes in the ways He works in people.

So onto the big thing, which is giving Him thanks for this. What can I do to place Ebenezer stones in my own life? Well, there's the hope that God will work in others through me, and that me helping them along the path to God is a tribute in itself. And isn't that the core desire of a follower of Christ? To experience His love, and to bring others to experience it? There are other stones I think I leave. As a musician, my songs are worship to Him, and in that aspect are very much commemorative pieces to Him, much like the stones. They illustrate ways that He has spoken to me, and how that has changed me.

There isn't a whole lot of deep extrapolation here. Mainly, I just wrote this as a way of recognizing just how far God has carried me, even in the short span of a year. It is incredibly encouraging to look back and see just how easily God has dealt with some of the hardest parts of my life. It gives me a lot of hope for Him working in current and future struggles. After all, there isn't really any problem too big for Him too handle, and He's proved that time and time again.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trust, grace, and other meditations/realizations

This past week or so has been one where God has alternated between complete silence and practically shouting things at me that I've been ignoring to a lesser or greater extent. I've been noticing lately that He often has to frustrate me to the point of breakdown until I realize something, which certainly says something about my stubbornness. He's shown me a lot of ways that I've been guarding myself, a lot of ways that I have not been accepting His grace, and even some places in my life where I still haven't fully learned to trust Him.
The hardest thing to face that God has shown me recently is that I still haven't learned to trust him in my interpersonal relationships. (This, of course, extends all the way from interactions with strangers to friends and more than such.) As someone who strives to follow Christ in all aspects of my life, it was terrifying for me to realize that I was letting things get in the way of that. Relatively insignificant things, at that. I guess, to outline this, I'll just start small and end with the heavier stuff. Being a leader in a Christian organization, and just a general follower of Christ, I am called to be evangelical, to "go and make disciples," to quote the man himself. Problem is, I lack the social graces for speaking with strangers about anything, especially my faith. I naturally avoid conflict, and have this innate fear of rejection, and this somehow results in the paranoid ideation that everyone I talk to about God who doesn't already know Him is gonna want to get in an argument with me, or that I'll say something that just hits them wrong, and they'll end up shutting me, or worse, God out completely. While these fears seem rational to my introverted mind, they simply aren't. Not to say that I won't ever face conflict in this; there are some people who simply do not want God, which I should be prepared for. Still, I am called to reach out to people, because that is how people come to know God. And as for my fear of speaking, Romans says that God fills us with His Holy Spirit, which speaks through us and gives us wisdom. He has it under control; why do I need to worry?
The second tier of my interpersonal distresses comes from my inability to say hard things to people I'm close to. Again, this is a simple case of conflict-avoidance. I am terrified of burning bridges, and it's this fear that shuts me up even when I'm on the verge of exploding. It's this fear that has kept me from telling some friends how they have really hurt me or aggravated me, in ways they may not even realize or intend. It's this fear that has kept me from screaming at certain friends and family who are destroying their lives with drugs and alcohol, who have completely disregarded the care of their friends and family for the comfort of the substance. I have always been able to show them grace, however frustrating, but I have never been able to break down and say the hard things, because my mind tells me that it is better to live with a problem than it is to risk making it worse to fix it. But then, expressing my concerns or problems out of the same love for these people that keeps me from rocking the boat may sometimes be the only way to make them realize the weight of the situation. These situations desperately need to be addressed, because silence only exacerbates the problem. You think it will go away if you ignore it, but it really just stews, maybe going dormant for a bit, and it just keeps getting worse. And it's only recently that I've realized that I don't fully trust God to remedy these situations, or to rebuild these bridges. Which, of course, is ridiculous. God is a healer and restorer of relationships, and we are called to address conflict or sin in a godly manner with the individual. Heck, there are even specific guidelines to confronting a person about conflicts. It's pretty clear, judging both from scripture and from God speaking directly to me, that He wants me to address these issues, and that he's gonna have my back when I get the guts to say what needs to be said.
Lastly, a good deal of the part of my life where I still have not learned to fully trust God results from things that have happened in my romantic life. I know stuff like that is silly, and we often either overdramaticize or downplay the power of romantic hurts, but the effects are always there, to a lesser or greater extent, and can cause significant distress. My walling up in this area is explained pretty simply: I have dated 3 people in my life, all of whom cheated on me and severed all contact. I certainly don't condone emo-ranting, but at the same time, the psychological impact of something like this cannot be ignored, and there was a lot of hurt wrapped up in that. After all of that, I've just started avoiding those connections. That isn't to say I don't desire that kind of close relationship with somebody, but that there's just this ingrained fear that leads to me not fully trusting God in leading me to healthy relationships. I've realized that I've had a lot of bitterness from this, and have detached myself from a lot of things.
So what's the basic overview? What have I sussed out in the course of this little mental dialogue? Basically, sometimes all you can really do is take a plunge and trust God to keep you safe. Yeah it can have varying degrees of fear associated with it, but God is a protector; He loves us, and he is with us in EVERY situation, even those that make us most antsy. He has a plan for us to prosper and to have a future. It is my nature to avoid all forms of conflict, all situations that my worst-case-scenario mindset can take hold, even to the point of detaching myself from the situation. I have to trust God in everything, no matter how nervous it makes me. He is the God of my whole life, not just parts. I want to surrender completely to Him, and to trust him enough to make the necessary leaps, knowing that He is going to catch me. Also, God didn't just throw these convictions in my face without encouragement; in the midst of my worrying, I found 2 Corinthians 7:10, which says "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." It was God saying, "Well Matt, you aren't perfect (gasp), but at least you are worrying about the right things, and I love you regardless." I will close this rather lengthy post with Psalm 62, and the prayer that I would trust God in every aspect of my life, and that He would be the God of my whole life, not just the parts I feel safe enough in.

My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

How long will you assault a man?
Would all of you throw him down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?

They fully intend to topple him
from his lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

Lowborn men are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie;
if weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.

Do not trust in extortion
or take pride in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.

One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that you, O God, are strong,

and that you, O Lord, are loving.

Surely you will reward each person

according to what he has done.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My own language

So in paying close attention to my own speech, it was difficult for me to notice words that I say particularly often, since I don't really say much. I did notice that I say "man" at the end of many statements, which could be one reason that people often take me (mistakenly) for a stoner. I've also noticed, to an extent, that I will occasionally use musical terminology to describe certain aspects of everyday things. For example, the other day, I commented on a persons voice having a particularly strange timbre. I've also noticed that I will reply to various statements with a muttered "meh."Apart from quoting the movies Friday and Anchorman on an almost daily basis, I can't really think of many more phrases or words that I use regularly. Well, at least none that are worth commenting on.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Strict Joy

When I saw the title of The Swell Season's new album, "Strict Joy," I'll admit that I was a little concerned. They had come to be one of my favorite bands with their self-titled debut, which was characterized by soft, melancholic, mid-tempo acoustic guitar and piano songs with some strings here and there for added oomph. While it was some of the most beautiful music around, I certainly would not have referred to it as "joyful." Therein lay my worry for the new album. Upon listening to it a few times and digesting it, I have found that, while the title is apt, and the group has expanded their sound significantly, the group loses none of their power, nor any of their ability to tug at the heartstrings.
The album opens with "Low Rising," an upbeat, jazzy little number, complete with a horn section and solos from a slide guitar and a trumpet. "I want to sit you down and talk. I wanna pull back the veils and find out what it is I've done wrong," Glen Hansard sings. It is immediately clear that while the band's subject matter remains the same, they seem much more cheerful about things. The third track, "In These Arms," finds the band back doing what they do best: creating beautiful, tear-jerking ballads. The combination of the light piano in the background and the harmony created by Hansard and Irglova singing "Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms" makes this one a standout, and a definite favorite for fans of their older material. Next is "The Rain," an upbeat acoustic number that seems to keep a good balance between the new and old styles, followed by "Fantasy Man," the first song on the album led by Czech singer Marketa Irglova. This track has an interesting folky feel to it, from the plucked guitar to Irglova's subdued, almost childishly innocent vocals. My personal favorite on the album is the Irglova-led track "I Have Loved You Wrong," written from the POV of a lover who expresses great regret for the mistakes they have made in a relationship. Not an original concept by any means, but they do it SO well. If there is a single moment on the album that will make you tear up, it will be the beautiful vocal harmony at the end of this track. Easily a personal favorite of their songs.
While these are the tracks that stand out to me, there really isn't a sour moment on this new release. Lyrically, the group is as melancholic as ever. Sonically, they have branched out significantly, adding horns, electric instrumentation, and even spanish guitar courtesy of Javier Mas. You could certainly say that, instrumentally, they sound much more "joyful" than on their debut. The album is a clear evolution of their sound, and I love to see artists evolve, so I say keep it comin'.