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"If I wasn't in a band I would be in Florida where it is hot all year long," writes Underoath guitarist James Smith on the Tampa-based screamo band's website, "and going to school or working something I would hate to do." Singer Spencer Chamberlain answers the standard what-would-you- be-doing-if-you-weren't-doing- this question more specifically and just as honestly: "I'm really not too sure--probably working in a garage or something, rebuilding old cars." The most telling reply, though, comes from drummer Aaron Gillespie. "I would probably be a worship leader or a chef," he writes with all the earnestness HTML can convey, "depending on one thing or another."
Depending on one thing or another--not chance, certainly. Underoath, along with metalcore acts like Atlanta's Norma Jean and San Diego's As I Lay Dying, are part of a nominally underground heavy-music scene not built on the age-old cornerstones of cultural rebellion and moral misbehavior, but rather on the age-older foundation of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior. The scene is only nominally underground because many of these bands sell far more records than their higher-profile peers in the secular world. Underoath's latest, (They're Only Chasing Safety), for instance, has moved nearly 200,000 copies. This is Christian music sonically unlike what you might remember from Sunday school, yet much of the sentiment remains the same. In questions of life's work and everything else, Gillespie trusts in the guidance of God and is comforted by the sense of inevitability he provides.
In the same way that what you might remember from Sunday school sounded exactly like John Denver and the Carpenters, this stuff is for the most part musically indistinguishable from what plenty of non-churchgoing young people fill their iPods with. Underoath handily triangulate the area between Jimmy Eat World, the Used, and My Chemical Romance: buzzsaw guitars, tortured screaming, soaring choruses that gleam like one of Kanye West's diamond-encrusted Jesus pendants.
Still, these guys are doing this instead of rebuilding old cars, so there's no sense in underplaying their hand. In "It's Dangerous Business Walking out Your Front Door," Chamberlain play-by-plays a car accident that may or may not exist in his dreaming mind. As he describes glass shattering and a pain that's "never been so brilliant," a ghostly choir moans behind him, previewing the afterlife awaiting him and his lady. (This comes a few tracks before "Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape," where Chamberlain croons, "Jesus, I'm ready to come home.")
About the lady: It's possible she and Chamberlain are trying to keep things clean, if I'm hearing "A Boy Brushed Red Living in Black and White" right. (And let's hope I am: Who else is feeling a serious dearth of emotionally complex virgin songs in pop right now?) "We've done this wrong," Chamberlain sings over a palm-muted Jimmy Eat World lift, "We're too far gone/These sheets tell of regret."
Norma Jean bust out the choir too, in "Disconnecktie," from their third album, O' God, the Aftermath. But these dudes aren't as sweet a bunch as Underoath; for them, faith is a weapon to wield in the earthbound struggles singer Cory Brandan never describes more eloquently than "the mirror of our mouths endlessly yelling." The music on O' God reflects that wartime mindset: Guitars writhe and crunch like hot shrapnel, proffering none of the melodic sweetness found throughout the aptly titled Chasing Safety. These guys might be doing this instead of rebuilding old cars, but the racket they make could be someone wrestling a transmission. "Where have we gone wrong?" Brandan demands in "Liarsenic," opening up Chamberlain's bedroom guilt to include family, jobs, politics, Britney Spears--well, pretty much everything, right?
NORMA JEAN plays July 7 at TARGET CENTER as part of the SOUNDS OF THE UNDERGROUD TOUR; 651.989.5151