Christian metalheads have an ax to grind, and its name is Underoath.
If you listened to Christian metalcore in the early 2000’s, you listened to Underoath. It was almost taken for granted. Founded in 1997, the band received an immense amount of success under the Tooth & Nail record label, along with acts such as Thousand Foot Krutch, Anberlin, and Icon for Hire.
Somewhere along the line, things began to change for the band, who were quickly becoming disillusioned with the Christian label. First, clean vocalist and founding member Aaron Gillespie shifted their self-identification as Christian musicians, but not a Christian band. The band’s other vocalist, Spencer Chamberlain, said similar things back in 2006. The group underwent a hiatus after 2010’s Ø (Disambiguation), and has emerged a different band both musically and spiritually. In fact, if you’ve still got the idea in your head that Underoath is a Christian band, it’s best to drop that before we go any further.
Why? Because in addition to the band itself desiring to drop the label, the members aren’t all Christians anymore. Chamberlain, who once credited Christianity with helping him in his battle against drug and alcohol addiction, no longer calls himself a Christian; some of the other members haven’t specified what their current position on faith is. There’s a separate discussion worth having on that transition itself and what it says about the culture of Christian art, but for now, I want to approach this the way I would approach any secular album review, because that’s basically what we’re dealing with here. And from that perspective, the album is pretty decent.
Clearly the product of a very different group eight years later, Underoath’s sound has softened and matured considerably. Compared to previous efforts such as They’re Only Chasing Safety or even Ø (Disambiguation), the group’s music has shifted away from a relished chaos and towards a melodic center, not unlike post-metalcore groups like Hands Like Houses or D.R.U.G.S. (Destroy Rebuild Until God Shows). Actual screaming from Chamberlain is relative scarce, showing up on only a handful of tracks. Conversely, more melodic sounds (still within the hard rock umbrella) are common, such as in “Bloodlust,” “Rapture,” and “Wake Me.” There’s a long tradition of metalcore fans sharply criticizing bands that move to a softer sound, but it benefits Underoath, as do a set of contemplative and mature lyrics.
Metalcore as a subgenre typically deals with more serious themes than mainstream rock, and Erase Me is no exception. Chamberlain talked frankly about this in an interview earlier this year: “I’d been battling drug addiction for 12 years, and during the writing of the record, I actually got clean. I got rid of all the hard drugs for the first time in 12 years, and I’m a better musician and songwriter for it.”
The album plays like a journal of this period of Chamberlain’s life. The duality of hating drugs and still being addicted to them is portrayed honestly simply, with lines such as “You’re the only thing that gets me high/And I hate it” and “I know you’re near/Drawing me like a moth/I’m closer to your flame.” This is the central theme of the album, and while Chamberlain has lost his faith, the spiritual longing is still clear. This is obvious from the angelic imagery of the cover, but also as Gillespie sings “God give me a chance,” “my soul is weak,” and “I don’t deserve the life you give.”
Of course, the answers aren’t always what we would like them to be. When these questions aren’t left unanswered, they sometimes go astray, such as saying “I don’t need your grace,” or diving headfirst into the angst of “I’m not your f*****g prey.”
As bizarre as it is for a band like Underoath, their new record is best described as an almost poppy brand of post-metalcore that explores addiction, depression, and spiritual longing, even if with incomplete or wayward answers. It suits them well, even if it is wry different from what the group has done before. Expect it to alienate fans, both musically and lyrically. But if this is to be the band’s new identity, disappointing though it may be, this is a pretty good album within that framework.