RED bassist Randy Armstrong says of the influential Christian metal act's fifth album, "The concept for Of Beauty and Rage is the dichotomy of good and evil, and finding Beauty out of things that we suffer within our lives. ... We draw in the listeners with these beautiful moments all over the album in the midst of the rage that represents the things that can and always go wrong in life, then we throw in some monsters (whom actually are ourselves) and they are chasing us constantly. The chase is the battle we all fight against ourselves."
His twin brother, guitarist Anthony Armstrong adds, "Our struggles as humans are the catalyst for us to experience both the beauty of life and the difficult times that bring rage and confusion. One can't exist without the other. It's okay for us to descend into the darkest parts of our souls to recognize and learn how to draw the beauty out of difficulty and character flaw."
Is it OK? Maybe we can get closer to the core of this by asking how effectively this release draws "beauty out of difficulty."
Frontman Michael Barnes delivers one of the album's most plaintive, prayer-like pleas for redemption on "Take Me Over." He sings, "Traces of your voice/I know it, I know it so well/Walking in the storm/I can feel you, I can feel you with me/ ... I am standing on the edge/take me over, take me over/See how fast this life can change/Take me further, lead me further."
"The Ever" echoes Psalm 139 with, "But you saw more/You saw my deepest part." The song also testifies, "You woke me up inside/Brought me back to life/I lost myself/But now I breathe again." "Yours Again" wonders, "Where did I lose my passion?/Where did I start to fade?," then pledges (perhaps to God), "I won't let go again." Elsewhere, we hear, "Without you my world is darkness/ ... Open up my eyes/I need your light inside." "Imposter" hints at a shadowy, deceptive part of our personalities that must be confronted with truth. Likewise, "Shadow and Soul" cries out for connection amid encroaching darkness ("Helpless, I'm reaching out") even as it recognizes the danger someone might face in trying to help ("This is not for you/You don't belong here/You, caught inside my shadow").
On "What You Keep Alive," we hear, "I am the call in the night/I am the truth behind your lie." "Gravity Lies" expresses this determination to overcome self-deception: "Fight, while I'm alive/I see you now/No less than light." "Of These Chains" ponders the ambivalent complexity of a broken relationship in which a man longs for release from the past yet also hungers to hang on to it ("And if I let go of these chains now/Will I float away? Can I just hold on?"). Similar lyrics turn up on album closer "Part That's Holding On."
"What You Keep Alive" crosses the boundary from self-contained anger into what could be heard as violent threats—even if the band actually intends a more metaphorical or self-focused meaning. "You should be afraid of me," the song begins. "Pain is the promise I will keep/I am the whisper in the dark/I am the scream when you fall/And you will feel the pain, you'll see/And I will bring the pain you need." From there, things get more ominous: "You keep me alive (so I can hurt you)/ ... You picked me up, you watched me shine, like a razor in your hand/And when I cut beneath your skin, you want it all again." And there's even more disturbing imagery as the song progresses: "Turning, the knife is turning now/ ... My love, my enemy (now you can't escape)/I can feel you in my veins (the pain is on its way)/And it's too late now (I'm letting go)/You should have run away (I'll watch you suffocate)/Now you can't escape/I am the dark and I am awake." The conclusion of all this? "You will feel the pain (suffocate, suffocate)."
More rage turns up on "Fight to Forget," where a bitter man says, "Your love is a lie/I will fight to forget/Your love is a knife/I will die to forget." Cynicism and hurt mingle in this assertion: "Love is all a lie." This song also ends darkly: "I will die to forget you." Despair, fear, isolation and apocalyptic imagery fills "Falling Sky" ("I lift my eyes to the fire/Under a falling sky/Hopeless, there's nowhere to hide/The terror is real this time/ ... The nightmare bleeds/The poison seeps/I hear you call/You're screaming, screaming"). "Darkest Part" plumbs the raw depths of deeply personal rejection ("You looked inside, then you turned away/ ... I never wanted you to see/The darkest part of me/I knew you'd run away/I waited, but you never came"), then cries, "It's my descent, my familiar pain/Of watching all I believed fade away."
Angst, anger and alienation have been thematic staples for RED throughout the band's career, always counterbalanced with a spiritually redemptive perspective on our common struggles. That's still true on Of Beauty and Rage. But much of the album's most hopeful content is concentrated in about five songs near the end of this 15-track effort (three of which are instrumentals). And we only get to those obviously redemptive messages after wading through some pretty visceral, at times even violence-prone lyrics.
Randy Armstrong says of the album's rawness, "They are the most truthful dives into the human spirit we have ever attempted. As a band we have never been about pulling punches, and these three songs are a punch in the throat." He's not kidding. Several tracks here do indeed land like "a punch in the throat," especially "What You Keep Alive." Now, the guys in RED clearly understand what they're doing here and have verbalized specific explanations for the imagery they're using. But taken by fans (or musical passersby) at face value without the benefit of such a full discourse, some of these lyrics are just dark—from references to suffocation to suicide to twisting knives to cutting skin.
The Bible gives place to expressing honest lament and pain, both in art and in our spiritual journey. David, for example, poured out his anguished heart to God over and over again in the psalms he wrote. So the question with some of the songs here is where, exactly, venting our deepest, darkest thoughts moves from spiritually probing to psychologically scarring—for performers or for fans.
RED's redemptive messages on Of Beauty and Rage are ultimately unmistakable. But I think I would have been OK with two or three fewer throat punches along the way.