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Album Review

What does it take to become the people we were meant to be? That's the huge existential question Christian hard rock act RED hits head-on with Until We Have Faces.

Tipping the hat to the similarly titled work by C.S. Lewis, RED's third album wades into the messy business of brokenness and redemption. Accordingly, themes of deceit and truth, shame and forgiveness, woundedness and wholeness all factor heavily onto an 11-song effort that the band says focuses on our "search for true identity."

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Album opener "Feed the Machine" depicts fearful people who are struggling to keep up appearances ("You mustn't disappoint them/ … You mustn't fall behind") even as they succumb to violent, self-destructive vices ("You need the danger just to feel your heart beat/You need to die just to find your identity/You need the knife just to know that you can bleed/You need the pain now just to feel anything"). Instead of capitulating to this self-deception ("We fall in line, we live the lie/Give up, give up, and feed the machine"), the band calls such strugglers to "wake up" and realize that they don't have to submit to those soul-destroying lies. Indeed, recognizing and overcoming self-deception and the lies of the world is a recurring theme on songs such as "Lie to Me (Denial)," "Watch You Crawl" and "The Outside," all of which include lyrics that can be heard as a rejection of the devil's deceptive ways. On the latter, for example, we hear, "Now I can see your lies from the outside/ … I replace this life you stole."

"Faceless" offers an incisive psychological take on someone who longs for freedom yet feels trapped by his choices and unwise decision to turn his back on God ("I abandoned this love and laid it to rest/And now I'm one of the forgotten"). But he realizes he's made a wrong turn: "I'm not myself/Feel like I'm someone else/Fallen and faceless/So hollow, hollow inside/A part of me is dead/Need you to live again." The song suggests that until we allow someone else—namely God—to shape our identities, we're fated to flounder on our own ("We are the faceless/We are the nameless/We are the hopeless/Until we have faces"). In a similar vein, "Let It Burn" wonders how long someone will willfully live a prodigal life before renouncing that misguided path. And someone whose "eyes have adjusted to the dark" begs, "So reach down and pull me up, pull me out" on "Buried Beneath."

The album's message of redemption intensifies as it progresses. "Not Alone" promises, "I will be your hope/When you feel like it's over/And I will pick you up/When your whole world shatters." "Who We Are" again rejects deception ("We won't believe the lies again") and bears witness to the abundant, eternal life that awaits for Christians: "We can be who we are now, now we are alive/ … It's who we are, we are undying/We are forever/We won't hide our faces from the light."

RED wraps things up with an aching ballad about longing for a wandering friend to return from a spiritual wasteland. "Tried to walk together/But the night was growing dark/Thought you were beside me/But I reached and you were gone," we hear on "Hymn for the Missing." Then that friend asks, "Where are you now?/Are you lost/ … Will I see you again?" It's a somber reminder not to forget those in our lives who may have moved from light into darkness.

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Summary Advisory

Once upon a time, Christian bands were set apart from their mainstream contemporaries by songs that were as celebratory and triumphantly focused on Jesus as secular songs were focused on hedonism and self-destruction. Then something interesting—called the 1990s—happened. And as the new millennium dawned, suddenly there was a growing list of rock bands that were eager to sing about faith … but just as eager to address life's perplexity and heartbreak. And they were doing it on secular radio, too. Bands such as SwitchfootFlyleaf and P.O.D., to name just a few, sang (and spoke) openly about faith in Christ even as they testified to the reality that such a faith doesn't magically make everything better in this life.

After three albums, two Grammy nominations (for Best Rock Gospel Album) and several mainstream hits, we can add RED to that list. With a heavy sound that splits the difference between  Linkin Park and Chevelle, RED's songs also split the difference between human struggle and God's presence in the midst of it. The band tends to avoid direct references to God or Jesus. But when frontman Michael Barnes sings, "I am with you/I will carry you through it all/ … I will pick you up/I will be your hope," the context assures us he's not singing from the perspective of a googly-eyed boyfriend.

RED doesn't flinch from painting vivid pictures of emotional devastation, especially when singing about a subject such as cutting. But Until We Have Faces never ventures there without also offering a clear path through those dark woods.

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Debuted at No. 2.

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February 1, 2011

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Adam R. Holz

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