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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review of Theocracy's New Release: GHOSTSHIP

It's no secret that Theocracy has been my favorite band since, well, the first time I heard Mirror of Souls off their 2nd CD. There's something about this band's unabashed Christ-centered message coupled with extraordinary musicianship and vocals that has resonated with me since the first listen.

If you don't know the band or their style, I'll do my best to explain them. They are considered Progressive Power Metal. That means they play hard-rocking music with uber crunchy guitars, thundering drums, galloping bass, ethereal keys, and stunning vocals. But rest assured, this is not heavy metal as it's been described by people who slam the genre. Theocracy's music is filled with beautiful melodies and each CD has such a mix of styles. One song might be a power ballad. Another, a 10+ minute epic. There are some tunes that are soaring anthems, and there are some that have a cathedral like worship quality. And yes, there are some MELT YOUR FACE OFF flat out thrashfests too. But no growling. Nothing vexes me more than a fantastic progressive metal symphony ruined by a Cookie Monster vocalist. But, I digress.



GHOST SHIP

I give the CD 5/5 Stars. Yes, it's that good. And, to me, it does what so many bands fail to do: it progresses. Yes, there are echos from their first three CDs, but they don't stagnate. They hew and hone there sound so that it is at once "The Historical Theocracy" but also "The 2016 Theocracy," better, stronger, faster, and more meaningful than before. So that's my generic overall review. The CD is fantastic. So, if that's all you needed to hear, just go get the CD. You won't regret it. Here's the Amazon link for it:


The rest of this review is a more formal track-by-track evaluation. I kinda feel like I should say {SPOILER ALERT} because I'm going to be very specific about each of the songs.

PAPER TIGER:
The song begins with a very Iron Maiden-esque choral guitar lead, but with a serious thrash beat. At first I didn't think I'd like it because of the thrash, but then, as usual, Theocracy changes tempo. Matt Smith's vocals enter with a very haunting tone, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Seriously, this song is like a visit from Jacob Marley, warning all Christians to snap out of self obsession, entitlement, and invented dramas—all things that keep us from loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul, as well as, loving our neighbors as ourselves. "The narcissist machinery, forging a self-made victim's society..." BAM, talk about a sledgehammer blow to the solar plexus. The thing is, that's where our society has gone. Everyone's offended by everything. Everyone's a victim. Everyone's entitled to pretty much everything. Paper Tiger tells us Christians that we're supposed to be above that. It's a message hard to endure but so needed. The chorus is a bit of a paradox because it soars with the sound of hope, but lyrically delivers a scathing reprimand. The 1st solo is solid, leading into a CRUNCH FEST of cool transitions. The 2nd solo follows and it's melodically righteous...with a little more homage to Iron Maiden's twin guitars. What follows is a vocal onslaught. Set to another beat, it could be a killer rap, but this is just hardcore, in your face indictment of American Christians being poisoned by the snakes in the dark, decrying how hard life is on us while our brothers and sisters in other nations are being murdered for their faith. 4/5 Stars.



GHOST SHIP:
The title track opens with a sonorous guitar attack with some sort of audio effect in the background, sounding something like a warning siren. Once the vox kick in, there's a great bed of delightfully creepy gothic keys beneath that set the tone nicely. There's serious power in this song, and the chorus comes crashing in like a rogue wave. "Pay the piper, here we go, got a ticket for a one way journey, Slay the viper, come follow, even if you're ordinary." And this is the heart of Matt Smith and Theocracy for GHOST SHIP: all you out there who feel like you don't fit in, all you misfits, the uncool, the left behind—God has room for you aboard His ship, and once you're with Him, we will shake the world. The solo in GS is really interesting, a blend of some serious tapping, sweep picking, and some blues hooks. Then comes a part I can't wait to hear live because they most definitely will pull the audience in to sing "WHOA OH OH!" The abrupt crunch ending is genius. 5/5 Stars.


THE WONDER OF IT ALL
Big guitars and drums open this 6.5 minute track, and I though I heard a little Randy Rhoads in the slide rhythm. Lots of guitar breaks between the lyrics here, and it just works. One of the best lines of the whole CD comes in stanza 3: "Hear the fool's soliloquy: cannot grasp, it cannot be." WOW. This song is about the amazing paradoxes in the scriptures and in Jesus Himself. But the fool doesn't understand them and so claims they cannot be. Have we forgotten how far above our minds God is? Instead of denying the paradoxes, revel in the wonder of it all. Die to live. First will be last. Give to receive, etc. What a magnificent message. The solo of Wonder Of It All is virtuoso beauty. I don't know what makes a solo's tone change so drastically, but the melody of this solo is spoken in such a reverent, ethereal sound that it made me long for a whole track of just that kind of guitar work. 5/5 Stars.




WISHING WELL
Some nice Pirates of the Caribbean keys open up this tremendous tune, giving it a serious nautical vibe. And for those who think Christians are all holier than thou, judging non Christians, listen to this song (and Paper Tiger). Wishing Well is all about lip service. We talk a good game and offer a hearty "I'll keep you in my prayers," but when do we actually get up of our collective butt and go out and help people. One of the catchiest choruses on the CD, Wishing Well's will stay with you. But this song isn't just indictment. It, like many of the psalms, opens with broken hearts and terrible practices, but ends with hope, returning to God to take action and help those in need. 4/5 Stars.



AROUND THE WORLD AND BACK
This is my favorite track on the CD for a hundred reasons, but to summarize, this song is personal to me. It's as if God lifted Theocracy's pen to speak directly to me. The song begins with a nostalgic music box melody that reminds me of the musical teddy bears my mom gave to each of my children when they were young. So yeah, ten seconds into the song, and I'm misty eyed. The opening lyrics reached out to me at a heart level: "Hey weary traveler, have you finally lost your way..." Uhm, yes, that's me. I've been a Christian since 1991, and there have been times when it was so easy to believe in Jesus and the scriptures. It was as if I finally could see the world clearly because the Word of God made sense! But then, time passes, and we get bogged down in a thousand directions, some good, some bad, but the next thing you know, you're living a double minded life, going through the motions of serving, worshiping, etc. but in our hearts feeling a 1000 miles away from God. A perfectly timed ticking clock introduces the instruments, and this is one unique song. It's part power ballad, concert hall AOR rock, but has these lovely CRUNCH moments to remind us, hey this is Theocracy here. And again, another part of the lyrics crush me: "Grace has a way of building hope out of despair..." Wow. Theocracy wants us to know that salvation is ALL ABOUT JESUS. We can't work for it. We can't climb to it. We can't build a bridge to it. All we can do is surrender to His love. "Grace alone is free, so rest in Me." A story to tell about the solo on this track (my favorite of the whole CD). At the risk of TMI, I'm one of many Christians who, from time to time, suffer through seasons of clinical depression. I had an awful bout of it this summer. And one day, I open up facebook, and Matt has posted a behind the scenes video of Jon working on a guitar solo for the new CD. I clicked the YouTube vid and the solo just brought me to tears. I felt like I heard Jesus in that solo, a rising, soaring, upbeat thrill of hope. It just broke me wide open that day in the best possible way. And then, to finally get the GHOST SHIP CD and realize that that very solo was on Around the World and Back, well, it kind of blew my mind. The chorus is rousing and hopeful, and the lyrics near the end tell us "Be not afraid; Your price is paid." I've kept those words as a kind of mantra to fight back when the doubts creep in. 5/5 Stars.



STIR THE EMBERS
Stir the Embers begins with an in your face guitar barrage. Supremely cool. Righteous transitions of tempo here. The whole concept of crying out to God to stir the embers, kindle once more the flame of faith is so needed in the church today. "Walk with me, I'll never be the same again I know." My son's favorite lyric. This is just a skull crushing, kick butt ROCKER, and it ends appropriately with the sound of a newly kindled fire. 5/5 Stars.

A CALL TO ARMS
From the opening licks, this one blew me away. I thought I heard a little homage to Dokken's George Lynch in this tune, for me at least, a very good thing. Loved the rhythms and the solo. Val, were you paying a little tribute to Lynch there? The chorus, while catchy as can be, somehow didn't fit the song. There was so much great hard groove in this song, and then the chorus sounds a little sing-songy, like a camp song. The lyrics are great. But for a real metal call to arms, it just didn't fit. Still a strong tune overall. 4/5



CURRENCY IN A BANKRUPT WORLD
This song caught me by surprise. The opening rhythm definitely had echoes of older Theocracy material, but whoosh, that fast, they transition to a slower, more melodic sound. They're telling the stories of two people who have lost hope to the point of wanting to end their own lives. It's a little dark and very heartbreaking, but it's reality today. I'm a middle school teacher by day, and I hear WAY too many stories of suicides or attempts...and it just underscores the point that we're living in a bankrupt world, if we try to live it without God. After a fine lead break, Matt does something tremendous with his vocals. He's telling of a man who thinks he's blown his whole life. Listen to the emotion in Matt's voice when he sings, "Checking out, 'Cause no one will miss me now." Very few vocalists can evoke that kind of emotion. Matt does it time and time again. But for a song this dark and melancholy, there just had to be a payoff in the chorus, and WHOA, Theocracy comes through with a soaring message of hope that will echo in your mind for weeks. 5/5 Stars.

CASTAWAY
Not sure how I feel about this song. Lyrically, I love it. I mean it tells the story that most every Christian feels from time to time, that of being left behind by friends or family or even by God. It's about being ridiculed by the world for believing in Christ and understanding that this world isn't our real home. We are all just pilgrims passing through. Musically, the skill is all there, but it's a style of power metal that I least enjoy. And that's all preferences, right? 3/5 Stars.



EASTER
This is the epic song on the CD, clocking in at 9:53! And it really is an epic retelling of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The remarkable achievement in this song is that the music completely compliments the lyrical content of each section. From the mournful, dirge like opening where the disciples are destroyed at the loss of Jesus to death to the confusion of "But He promised" and "What now?" It's all there, and then "GLORY GLORY hope is alive!" Such an uplifting component of the song. You'll be singing that out loud! Interesting is that this song has close to a 3 minute interlude where the band just jams! It's a masterpiece. The final section is a conversation between God and his brokenhearted disciples. They are despondent and lost, but God reminds them of His promise to rise on the third day. It reminded me of the Lord talking to Peter. Peter, do you love me? Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Jesus asked Peter three times, and in Easter, there's an element of that same loving and repeated reminder: my promises are true. Then, just when I thought this song couldn't wow me anymore than it already had, at 8:50 there's this wonderful Queen Bohemian Rhapsody harmonic section that just gave me chills. Lots of songs have been written about the events of Easter, but this may capture the emotion of the time better than any other.

In summary, GHOST SHIP is an amazing achievement. I can only imagine the countless hours Matt and the band put in to craft such a masterpiece. But, I'm so glad they did put in the time. It glorifies God and helps fellow weary travelers like me.
















1 comment:

Emmarayn Redding said...

Ghostship is a really cool band. I'm not usually into metal music, but this stuff is really cool. You should also check out King's Kaleidescope and Citizens and Saints. :D Also the singer, Dustin Kensrue. His music is almost cinematic in nature, but with some hard-rock vocals mixed in.