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Holy Diver

Atomic Opera

In City of God, E.L. Doctorow's latest novel, a Catholic priest by the name of Pemberton questions every infallible notion in the Bible and in Christianity itself. His Sunday sermons sound like angry editorials. As a result, Pemberton is stripped of his collar by the local diocese. He becomes a Jew and marries a Jewish woman. Doctorow's take-home line: "[Pemberton] said to me last night that he has never felt as completely, wholly Christian in his life as he does now, studying to be a Jew."

Local Christian art rockers Atomic Opera have just released an album that is in some ways a musical reflection of Pemberton's overall disgust with Christian doctrine. Through front man Frank Hart's lyrics and his tempered, sly delivery, the quartet on Gospel Cola (Metal Blade) rails against the typical targets (abortion, violence, ignorance) as well as topics that might send lesser God rockers straight to hell, namely those sanctimonious Jesus junkies.

"I want a Virgin Mary night-lamp," Hart sings on "Jesus Junk," the first track of the album. "Bible hero lunch box / The Shroud of Turin on my wristwatch / Only listen to Christian Š rock."

Does Atomic Opera qualify as Christian rock even though the band, through its lyrics and the voice of front man Frank Hart (center), criticizes the religion?
Does Atomic Opera qualify as Christian rock even though the band, through its lyrics and the voice of front man Frank Hart (center), criticizes the religion?

Must be that time of year again: Christian-bashing season.

Standing outside St. Anne Catholic Church on Westheimer recently, Hart held forth on "Jesus Junk": "It's a flaky, wacko culture. I'm sure they love God and are trying hard to do the right thing, but I was 15 last time I thought that way. On the other hand, I believe in God. I'm not trying to demystify or de-theofy God." If you do, "you end up with a liberal, dead theology," he said. "It's hard to find a place where they meet in between."

"People use the most sacred thing in life to sell product," continued Hart, who graduated from a Springfield, Missouri, Bible college in 1986. "That's where I got the idea for Christian soda. It's so silly and weird." For the band's CD release party at Century City not too long ago, Hart had cans of Gospel Cola made and distributed for consumption. "I'm not a monk," said Hart, a burly guy whose head is entirely bald save for a long dark ponytail. "Most Christian rock comes from an evangelical background or Pentecostal. It's that 'turn or burn' mentality. That's why we [Atomic Opera] hate being lumped in with them."

Yet AO has always looked askance at faith, criticizing Christianity a by-product of Hart's probing songwriting. Calling AO Christian rock is akin to calling a sous chef a fish fryer. Unfortunately for AO, its lyricism is just a little too heretical for the average Ned Flanders (thank you very much) and just a little too dependent on the implied J-word for Buzz program directors. Such is the price for following one's muse: turning off almost everybody.

Christian labels aside, AO also offers an adventurous take on contemporary metal craftsmanship. Songs reveal a strong melodiousness; time signatures shift without notice; and layered vocal harmonies add some organic flavor to the crisp, nearly robotic arrangements.

Hart's desire to stand apart from the majority took root in childhood. Like his fellow metaphysical metalists in King's X and the Galactic Cowboys, Hart spent his formative years in the Midwest before relocating here about ten years ago. As a teenager, he began going to church as rebellion. "I tried to get attention."

Christianity became important only once he and his wife, Kim, landed in town. Atomic Opera was formed shortly thereafter in 1994, a couple of years after King's X had shot to stardom. AO has been mainly a vehicle for Hart to explore his personality and all the things that constitute his identity, including his faith.

"I used to believe / There is a house of prayer," Hart sings on "My Head," off Gospel Cola. "I'm going crazy / I used to agree / Believers should meet there."

The question Hart poses in this song, similar to what the poet Wallace Stevens asked nearly a century ago, is, Why do we need a building called a church to believe? Hart ponders an ambiguity like this throughout Gospel Cola's dozen tracks.

Unlike Pem, as Doctorow's narrator calls him, Atomic Opera does not have to answer to any prelates. No matter what verdict comes down from the usual musical judiciary -- record buyers and KSBJ-FM listeners -- AO will continue. "The only audience is me," Hart said. "I want to make records that I would like to hear. I can't contrive it. It's got to be dark, heavy music and about heavy, spiritual things."

Amen.

'Round Town

If a commercial radio station goes bust in Houston, does anyone with a brain hear it? Answer: No. Even though everyone knows the Buzz is merely relocating positions on the dial, still-worried doomsayers have this bomb-shelter plan of sorts to follow should the station actually self-destruct during the switcheroo: Buy a copy of Billboard magazine. Turn to the charts in the back, find the "modern rock tracks" listing, go to your nearest record store and buy all 20 songs mentioned. Go home. Play those same few songs on a loop all day, throw in cuts from some of your older brother's grunge CDs and your fraternity brother's awful Bob Marley Legend CD, and voilà! The Buzz at your fingertips.

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