Christian motifs and imagery have been an important part of metal ever since the release of Black Sabbath’s debut album in 1970. But why is “Christian Metal” seen so negatively by so many fans of heavy music? Are God-fearing bands really not as good as secular bands? Is metal really Satan’s music and that’s why Christians cannot play it? Obviously, the answer to both of these questions can only be no. I think the reasons for the hate “Christian Metal” bands often get are diverse and a little more complex than that.
One reason “Christian Metal” is seen so critically is that many bands in the scene try to adapt contemporary or trendy sounds and slap a Christian message on them, resulting in a final product that sounds uninspired and inauthentic. Another thing that makes “Christian Metal” very unattractive to most metal fans is the term “Christian Metal” itself. It’s a term that combines a musical genre with an ideology or belief. I can’t think of another genre term that does that, and there are good reasons that is the case. Genres should never be defined by content matter in my opinion. Even terms like Viking Metal or Pagan Metal that seemingly focus on lyrical content can be connected to musical properties of the associated acts.
With “Christian Metal,” however, that is not the case. That’s why many Christian musicians distance themselves from the term, which I think is a very good thing. Not only is the term very limiting and often misleading, it is also repulsive to most metal fans, for whom the music itself is in the focus of interest, not the beliefs of the musicians playing it. Bands who get thrown into the “Christian Metal” or even “White Metal” (please never ever use this term!) category often get no attention from music fans who are not Christians, hence only getting noticed by Christians, which ultimately leads to a “Christian Metal” echo chamber where there is very little contact with secular musicians. So, even from a “missionary” or biblical perspective, the use of the term “Christian Metal” should be seen very critically. You can’t be the light of the world if you stay in church.
Theocracy is a group of God-fearing musicians. Their band name expresses their faith and their beliefs. But I don’t think they ever called themselves a “Christian Metal” band. Founded in 2002 as a one-man project, Theocracy is a channel for frontman Matt Smith’s musical genius, his personal beliefs, his creativity, and his passion for the gospel. Theocracy has always been its very own beast. Theocracy’s 2003 self-titled debut was composed, recorded, and produced by Smith alone, and it already hinted at what was still to come. Epic compositions, beautiful melodies, complex riffs, and an opulent but tasteful incorporation of orchestral elements made Theocracy a fascinating and impressive listening experience, especially taking into account that it was a one-man project. However, the album had its flaws, the canned drums being only one of them. Five years later, Theocracy made its return to the music scene. Now a three-piece, Theocracy was a refined version of its original form. Mirror of Souls was the outcome of the combined efforts of those three musicians, with Matt Smith still being the composer and driving force. Today we celebrate the tenth anniversary of this special album.
Matt Smith comments on the tenth anniversary of Mirror of Souls:
I can’t believe it has been 10 years since the release of Mirror of Souls! I remember wondering if anyone would still care, since it had been so long since our first album…but thankfully, you guys did. It was a time of rapid-fire changes: adding band members, learning new recording techniques, and wondering if this crazy idea I had for a 23-minute song would actually work on record like it did in my head. Thank you for giving the album the life it has to this day, and for making those songs enduring standards that we still play at almost every Theocracy show.
Instead of writing a typical “review” or quoting important people in the scene or anything like that, I am just going to tell you what this album means to me personally. Mirror of Souls was actually one of the albums that got me into heavy music. I stumbled across the album opener “A Tower of Ashes” one day on YouTube and I was completely blown away by its speed and power. It sparked my interest for heavy, fast-paced music. And I did not have to look any further than the rest of the album to satisfy my need for energetic heavy tunes. Mirror of Souls can more or less be seen as a two-sided album, with seven medium length progressive power metal tracks on the first, and one 23 minute long progressive metal piece on the other side.
Every one of the tracks on this album tells its own story and every one of them touched me in another way when I first heard them. Life as a Christian is a life of spiritual battles. Battles against yourself, adverse circumstances, temptation, rejection, and sin. And while the war has been already won, the battles are still raging every day. I know that is the case in my life. This album, like every other Theocracy album, has been playing an important role in my spiritual life ever since I heard it for the first time. Matt Smith’s lyrics touch on topics such as pride and self-infatuation (“A Tower of Ashes”), sickness and losing a loved one (“On Eagles Wings”), self-righteousness (“The Writing in the Sand”), forgiveness (“Absolution Day”), temptation (“Laying the Demon to Rest”) and martyrdom (“Martyr”) and all of these tracks spoke right into certain situations in my life. And, yeah, there’s also a Christmas song on the album (“Bethlehem”), but it’s a lot better than you’d expect.
The centerpiece of the album, however, is the epic title track that spans over 23 minutes of playing time and tells the metaphorical story of a man’s journey through a hall of mirrors over a deep void to the Mirror of Souls that represents the eyes of God. It’s the story of a man finding forgiveness and fulfillment in realizing he’s a sinner and accepting Christ’s sacrifice. It’s a progressive power metal masterpiece and the best example of musical storytelling I’ve ever witnessed. Yes, the lyrics are very outrageously Christian and I could understand if they are not your cup of tea. Musically, however, this album has everything a metal fan could ask for. There are some brutal thrashy riffs (“Laying the Demon to Rest”), gorgeous melodies (everywhere), incredible vocals (everywhere), incredible progressive and epic songwriting (everywhere, but especially on “Mirror of Souls”) and simply impressive musicianship (everywhere, of course). Stylistically, it’s a perfect marriage of old-school power metal and progressive elements that is both catchy and technically impressive.
Okay, wow, that was a long text. And I didn’t really say anything in it. Whatever, the bottom line is this album rules. And you should check it out. Now.
A special limited vinyl edition of the album will be released on November 23rd and can be pre-ordered here.