In 1996, Tooth and Nail Records put out a release from what they promised was a “supergroup” – a band comprised of members of other, previously successful bands. This release was Friction from the band Stavesacre.
Now, full disclosure – I had never listened to the bands that these guys came from. The singer and guitarist were from a band I had heard of called The Crucified. They were mentioned in hushed tones by the church youth group kids because apparently even people THAT WEREN’T CHRISTIANS liked them.
The other two bands I had never even heard of.
Tooth and Nail promotion had done its job, however, and I bought the album without even listening to a millisecond of it.
It’s going to sound like hyperbole that it changed my life. I guess it is hyperbole. Maybe it didn’t change my life. Jury is still out. What I do know for sure is that I found a kindred spirit in Mr. Mark Salomon. Mark’s lyrics spoke to me unlike most of the “Christian” music that was out there at the time. The bands I listened to either seemed to have super stupidly happy “Sunday School” messages or intentionally vague lyrics with a mention of Jesus thrown in there occasionally.
The lyrics from Stavesacre were different. Mr. Salomon wrote things that were just… honest. Take for one example this lyric from the song “Devil” regarding being perceived as a “role model”:
well, I guess I’ve disappointed you
what did you expect?
the hero is a wretch
a devil in the flesh
are you disenchanted by the idols humanness?
do you still think we connect?
maybe more than you’ll (I’ll) admit
Unique? Somebody writing a song honestly is no newsflash. However, for a late teen growing up in a fairly strict Christian household, hearing anything other than “We are Christians and everything is great” was a bit… shocking. Found in this album was Mark writing things from a place of reality. He was struggling, he was real, and he still loved God. He wrote songs of praise right alongside songs of lament.
We could get into the “why” of how this was mind blowing, but that could take all day. I’ll just sum it up in that while avidly reading the Bible, I was only listening to the happy parts. It wasn’t until many years later that I allowed myself to see the thing as a whole. There is sadness, lament, struggle. Also, hope, redemption and beauty. Hearing Mark’s honesty was a big step in realizing this.
Lyrics out of the way, let’s talk about the music. Dirk Lemmenes’ bass wizardry immediately hooked me. Combined with Jeff Bellew’s alternatively shredding and soaring guitars, I knew I liked this whole damn band from the first song. Jeremy Moffett handled drums on this first release (but was quickly replaced by Scaterd Few’s Sam West for the long-haul) and his beating of the drums pleases me. Round that out with Mark’s unique and frequently doubled vocals (comparisons are frequently made to Ozzy Osbourne) and I was a fan after I listened to that first album that first time. The band went through a few lineup changes over the years, most notably adding guitarist Ryan Dennee.
That was over 20 years ago. The band has put out 5 studio albums, 3 EPs, and a live album since then. Various band members have formed side bands, played on other projects and the band has broken up and re-formed at least once. It has been 7 years since we have had any new music from the guys.
That has now changed.
Up for pre-order is “MCMXCV” (1995, for those of you not up on your Roman Numerals or too lazy to google search it). I was a backer for their funding campaign for this album and was therefore able to get a copy of the recording early. So you get a new Stavesacre album review!
MCMXCV is both dark and beautiful. At times thrashing and at others, quiet and pleading. This release has something for fans of Stavesacre past, present, and future. Produced by Paul Fig, the sound mix is great. Mr. Fig has to juggle many different musical styles throughout the album and does so deftly.
Track one is an intro where we hear what sounds like ambient street noise with cars passing by that appear to be listening to past Stavesacre songs.
Track two launches into the rock with The Dead Rejoice. Crunchy sports rock guitars drive the song as the lyrics reflect on what seems to be Mark’s perspective over his musical career.
“I was dead and buried in 1995. The world didn’t mourn my passing, not sure it knew I’d been alive…”
Tracks 3 and 4 take us back to the thrashing, hardcore punk-influenced side of the band.
The Tower infuses some political commentary in casting a story of two groups separated by a tower. In case you think I just blindly love everything about this band with fan-boyish enthusiasm, I’m going to lay this out there: This is my least favorite song on the album, and in part it’s due to what Mark does on the verses. While technically skilled, he ends many lines by going up a few octaves (I think that’s the term. I’m not a fricking music major). I personally don’t think it works. I like the overall back and forth structure of the song, just not that vocal choice.
Accelerating Into Tail Lights is track 4 and this is the kind of punk-rock influence that I dig. In fact, you can listen to this one for yourself RIGHT NOW!
Track 5 brings us back a hair from the punk into more straightforward rock with One Hand Clapping. More lyrical reflection on the past. I feel like this a personal-experience-of-the-band type song.
Next up is Sleepyhead. Lyrically, this feels like a continuation of “Alice Wishlist” from 2002’s album (stāvz’ā’kər). Musically, this sounds like it was a B-side from 1999’s Speakeasy album. I love it.
It takes a crunchy and sinister turn with the next track Mr. Larkspur. I wish I had lyrics for all these songs, but especially with this one. Musically – the band puts forth music that is dark and uneasy, mixed with Mark’s combo of both lower and higher range giving the song a Neon Horse feel to me, while still holding true to what makes a Stavesacre song.
Now that the band has released lyric videos for all the songs, I have a better opinion on this song. I feel this song, lyrically, is a companion piece to the song Son Of Dawn from White Lighter. I feel Son of Dawn tells a Biblical narrative of a deceiver. One like the attributes ascribed traditionally to Satan. The lyrics seem good on the surface.
“If your road should be narrow, if you turn aside, my open arms are waiting… run to the light.”
How nice! This figure is welcoming me in when times get tough! However, there are a few clues in the song that give this more of a sinister side. Here is one of the verses:
“I offer more than you comprehend, not just a kingdom, but where to rest your head. One of us must bend a knee, one of us must follow, and one of us must lead.”
In fact, this song sounds like Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. And then there is this line recorded in Luke:
But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.”
Certainly sounds like Satan trying to entice with promises of comfort. The message is nice, but the being is not.
Mr. Larkspur on the other hand, sounds sinister. The lyrics tell a nuanced story about someone that gives you an uneasy feeling.
“He’s violent and violent, emetic, and fragrant.”
Mark also describes him as smelling of “Aloes, Myrrh and something dead” in one verse and “devils, wolves and disquiet” in another. This person also has made the “flock restless” and has the ability to “know those things I never said”. The bridge of the song talks about there being “no more room inside the Inn”, and “nowhere safe to rest your head”. The bridge goes on to say:
“The Word, The Faith, and nothing less, put a little weight on it. What is this without the risk?”
This all reminds me of the famous C.S. Lewis quote about Aslan the Lion, who was an allegory for Jesus in the Narnia Series of books. When Lucy is talking to Mr. Beaver about him, this exchange is given:
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”
…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
The other descriptions of this being remind me of what the Pharisees of the time felt about Jesus. He was disturbing the “flock”, he had the power of demons, he was violent and a drunkard, and a friend of sinners.
I think this song could be about the real Jesus, or following the real Jesus. He isn’t safe. He seems “off” and disrupts what we hold as the status quo. He knows us deeply, even to the point of knowing those things that we have never spoke out loud to others. He is also violet (royal) and fragrant, and true life is found when you take the risk.
On the other hand, I’ve probably over thought it and this song also sounds like it could be just about what people (Christians) have said about the band and how they have trudged through it to come out the other side. Mark certainly drops several allusions to previous album titles in this song.
It could certainly be about something else completely unrelated as well. The human brain is great at making connections that actually don’t exist. Tee hee!
The next two tracks are solid rockers. On Being a Human continues the very honesty in writing that I had mentioned earlier.
Sideways deals lyrically with living in this broken world and how you are going to handle living day by day after some tragedy has befallen.
We then get a bit of a surprise. Breathe Me is a cover of a song made famous by Sia.
Mark’s vocals really shine here. He has an incredible range that isn’t always on display on Stavesacre or Crucified records. I feel both his projects with Neon Horse and White Lighter showcase his vocal chops a bit more. That might have changed with this cover. I even dare say that he sings this song better than Sia. My 10 year-old daughter was listening with me and she agrees. Hear that? Some random internet nerd and a 10 year-old girl thinks that Mark Solomon sings better than Sia.
It makes me wonder how he would do on a show like the Voice. This rendition would have brought down the house, no doubt. Not to be out-shadowed, the rest of the band do a great job with the musical arrangement. It would be fun to hear an album of how Stavesacre would handle covers of pop songs.
Next we have what is probably my favorite song on the album: Moonstone. I guess we could call this one a ballad. Mark effortlessly goes between falsetto and his “regular” voice (whatever, leave me hate in the comments) over a tight, melodious song that never gets boring. We even get some guest female vocals at the end. It reminds me of “Fear and Love” from 2006’s How To Live With A Curse, which might have been my favorite Stavesacre song before this one.
The whole thing caps off with Hymn, and what a bittersweet thing that is. The song hits every great trademark. Soaring guitars, wonderful melody, driving rhythms, instantly sing-along chorus, rich bass. It’s the whole package all wrapped up in one track. Sadly, it’s also the last.
What a wonderful album, and well worth the wait. Now guys, please. Let’s not wait another 7 years until the next one!