These days, Christian hard core is spreading faster and with more fury in so-called "youth groups" than a Jack Abramoff donation at a GOP fundraiser. Interestingly, some of this new Jesus rock is actually pretty decent--teenage lambs transforming themselves into guitar-riffing lions.
But touring the church circuit isn't always righteous. Performing in a place of worship can be awkward. Just ask Versus the Mirror.
Last month, Tucson's latest musical export joined a few other bands for a tour of the Southwest. The headliner--a Christian act that had sold 30,000 records--personally asked VTM to tag along for a rock 'n' roll crusade into the churches and Christian coffee houses of Arizona, Nevada and California. Guess who ended up selling their souls to, um, the Big Guy?
"We were eager to tour before getting our debut record out in stores," confesses VTM guitarist Gabe Borquez. "Ultimately, we had some good and bad experiences. But that tour was obviously not for us. It's weird to play a church, because you have to present yourself in a respectable manner, which isn't easy, given the music we play. Still, the best promoters are in the churches; they take care of the bands."
Most likely, 20-year-old frontman David Siebold's switchblade lyrics--for instance, the shrieked line "Damnation is my kind of free" from the song "Barracuda Capital of the World"--didn't win any converts.
In any case, Versus the Mirror threw in the towel. As if to forgive the Christian hardcore scene for aborting the tour, Borquez also reveals that his band had to cut its drummer loose during that time. The new guy, Evan Vanderwall, is ready to start chopping in time for an April 22 CD release party at The Rock. The album, called Home, hits like a bunker-busting bomb.
Indeed, between the Bled and Versus the Mirror, Tucson is developing a serious reputation. Like the Bled before them, the members of Versus the Mirror made their mark in the local scene, grabbing an indie label's attention. In VTM's case, the label is Equal Vision, which released masterpieces like Converge's Jane Doe (2001).
The first thing about Home listeners notice is the guitar tone. Versus the Mirror had already developed a fetish for vintage amplifiers and guitars. But producer Bob Hoag--a Steve Albini-type purist who dresses in period fashions circa 1942--pushed the band to record in analog (instead of digital) format, to throw out the distortion pedals and to rely on an amp's natural sound. Recorded at Flying Blanket in Mesa, the result is a warm, heavy attack that tickles your neck hairs.
"The amps are turned up until the sound breaks," explains Borquez. "There's nothing fake involved."
But there are ambient moments: chiming guitars, melodic bass vamping, mild electronica. A lot of Home conjures the gritty yet cosmic landscape of the Arizona desert.
"Yeah, it's a dry, raw recording," Borquez agrees. "That's what we want people to hear: a rugged--not a polished--album. So much of today's hard core is nothing but trigger drums and Marshall amps. Most bands can't pull off their sound live, so why use that stuff?"
After the release party, VTM tours with Boy Sets Fire, "one of those bands we've always looked up to," says Borquez.
"Hopefully, the kids will show up," he adds. "And if they bring their moms along, even better."
Moms? How Christian of them.