At Mary Jane's a couple of weeks ago Sevenfold played to a nearly packed house. Bulging middle-agers looking uncomfortable in jeans, big-haired college gals and excessively pierced freakazoids all seemed to be enjoying themselves, grooving along to the melodic rock. As with any club performance, most ears were adjusted to the crushing decibel levels, but not necessarily to the subtleties of the lyrics (which could have been in Swahili, for all anyone knew). This phenomenon was at once a curse and a blessing for Sevenfold: a curse because the messages in some of its songs weren't being digested; a blessing because the messages in some of its songs weren't being digested.
You see, Sevenfold is a Christian band well, not technically a Christian band but a pop-rock outfit with spiritual, heavily Christian leanings. It is one of a couple of Houston-based acts unabashed in its use of Christ-inspired positivity as a point of departure. Of the seemingly overt Christian acts, Sevenfold and rapper 7-Letta are the two most promising. Of the don't-call-me-Christian variety, singer-songwriter Laurie Foxx is attracting some national attention.
What each of these performers feels is that being categorized as "Christian" is unnecessarily limiting. U2 doesn't have to limit itself that way. Neither does Creed. Reaching mainstream markets also means pseudo-Christian acts can spread their messages to many more sheep. "The objective is to reach different people," says Dr. R.L. Shaw, president of local gospel and contemporary Christian music label S.I.C. Records. "But the same motive is to inspire, uplift and encourage."
Which Christian acts succeed or fail has always been determined by quality -- and, in small measure, by business acumen. If the music is good, and if the record is available in a record store's "rock" or "rap" section (as opposed to being available only in its "Christian" section), lyrics will matter less. They become ornamental in a way, merely accents to beats and melodies.
Mention God or Jesus once in your song, says Richard Omar, an independent marketing consultant who has handled promotions for Real Deal Records artist Nuwine, and your record will be relegated to "Christian" shelves. "The music has to sound like The Box or KRBE," he says. "Lyrically, leave 'God' low or any religious suggestion."
7-Letta doesn't preach. His rhymes evolve from and revolve around southwest Houston, the rapper's down-to-earth neighborhood. At the time he began writing and rapping a few years ago, 7-Letta (né Kirby Gray) was going through "typical adult male-type stuff," primarily, child custody battles. He lost two of his three children in court. Frustrated, 7-Letta says he chose not to act out, but to pick up a pen. The song "Trouble Timez" was the result.
"From dealing with different situations like that," says 7-Letta, who was raised Baptist and attends Windsor Village church, "what keeps me strong is faith. That's how I ended up writing what I wrote."
On nearly every song on his self-released debut, One Life, 7-Letta makes prominent yet discreet allusions to the Bible and God. The lyricism is overtly positive and conscientiously clean. There are no curses or racial epithets. Yet the album, with its hard-core beats and 7-Letta's gruff delivery, is not bubblegum. "Will Smith, he couldn't take his stuff to the battlefield," 7-Letta says. "Me, I can freestyle for 15 minutes straight. I did my whole album with no paper," slang for lyric sheets. Among the inspirational songs are also many radio- and club-friendly tracks. "I really didn't mean for the album to come off so Christian and biblical," he says, "but it did."
While 7-Letta is cruising on the coattails of big-time successes Nuwine and another Houston-based Christian rapper, Mr. Mike (now with Priority Records), Sevenfold is trailblazing. The last time anyone remembers a Christian hard-rock band from Houston with this much potential King's X was filming its first MTV video.
On the band's self-titled debut, which was released in 1998, Sevenfold achieves its obvious musical and lyrical goals. Positivity and faint references to Christ or Christ figures are the only elements that separate a song like "Left Behind" from anything on The Buzz. Over harmonious electric and acoustic guitar tones, David Underwood sings to a walking tempo: "They walk beside me but they don't know me / They don't have a clue at all / It's sad you got to be somebody / To be anything at all."
You don't have to be a New Testament scholar to see these words could come from Jesus' mouth. Nor do you have to be a guidance counselor to see they could come from an alienated youth.
"The music was good, and I didn't even know about the lyrics until we recorded the first album and I heard them clearly," says Joey Wright, Sevenfold drummer. "I asked Dave about the songs, and that's the way it is. And it's still that way."
Though Wright doesn't mind. Raised Methodist, Wright -- whose brother Jon plays bass in the quintet, which includes Matthew Cook on guitar and vocals and Eric Dyches on lead guitar -- believes in Underwood's vision. "He's more fundamentalist than I am," Wright says. "But just because you're Christian doesn't mean you're not like everybody else. It's not a wall to hide behind."
Only on the album's last song, "J.T. Interlude," is Jesus mentioned. Says Underwood: "I don't intentionally write spiritual things. I write about issues in my life. And since I'm spiritual, a lot of it comes out.
"It's about life in general," continues Underwood, who was raised Presbyterian but has been attending Baptist church with his mother over the past year. "It's not a lot of spirituality or, as Joey would say, 'throwing the J-word around.' It's more positive. It's modern rock without any references to alcohol or sex.They have a spiritual pick-me-up."
The band is working on its second album, tentatively titled Things Left Unsaid. Wright, speaking on behalf of his band mates, says though they dislike being categorized as only a Christian band, they are open to offers from Christian record labels. "The last thing we want to do is close any door," he says. "We want to get our music out there."
Says Underwood: "No one in the band is antiestablishment. We all understand the business side of it. We want to create a product that can be received in the Christian market that is spiritual but [can] be mainstream in the stores.We want to be a rock band with morals."
Image also plays a large role in what will make mainstream radio or appear in a record store's "cool" sections. What's funny is that even though Sevenfold and 7-Letta admit to strong Christian biases, they don't present themselves on CD sleeves or promotional shots or in person as God-fearing Bible-thumpers staring off into the heavens.
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Conversely, Foxx, who cringes at the tag "Christian," poses on her recent album, curiously titled Angels on Parade, in front of stained glass with her necklace crucifix in full view. Foxx, who was raised Methodist and Presbyterian and prays regularly, says being perceived as someone with Christian tendencies frustrates her.
"Don't say I'm a Christian artist; I'm not," she says. "I can't take that label. I am an artist, and in my art, what matters is inside.There's a lot of negativism in music, and rightfully so. It allows people to express their feelings. But there's also a lot of positive things about us here and in our world. It's good to convey those things, too."
See the positivity in person this week. Sevenfold performs Saturday, March 11, at Fitzgerald's. -- Anthony Mariani
E-mail updates on your band or music-related news to Anthony Mariani at email@example.com.