Release Date: Mar 12, 2013
The year was 1996. I was finally finding friends at my new school (of course I would leave a year later, but that’s not the point). The fact is, my life was impacted for years to come when my friend Ryan loaned me two CDs – dcTalk’s Jesus Freak and Audio Adrenaline’s bloOm. These two records marked a turning point in my young life that would eventually lead me down a path of working in the same music business, making the suggestion that a band I was working with should record with former Audio A guitarist Barry Blair, and having that same friend who loaned me those records serve as my best man eleven years later. So, it was with much pause and reverence for the past, a glimmer of nostalgia, and a whole lot of lowered-expectations that I approached this record…
When a band brings in a new lead singer, several things are likely to happen: A) Something totally new is born (Audioslave) B) The band takes on the lead singer’s voice and style (Dio-era Black Sabbath) C) The fans revolt (Van Hagar) D) Everyone brings their best to the table and finds a way to honor the past and move forward into the present (Queen + Paul Rodgers).
There are few artists in all of music, Christian music in particular, with a voice as unique as Kevin Max. When you hear him, you know it’s him. And there are few bands in Christian music with as much history, accolades, and warm-fuzzy memories as Audio Adrenaline. When I first heard of the combination, I laughed out loud. I thought there was no way you could take two things that were so pre-defined, put them together, and be taken seriously… but they did!
So, how did they do it? Well, for one thing, they built a new band from the ground up (only bass player Will McGuiness returns as a member of the band). So the other members aren’t bringing in any tenured right to say how things should be. By all accounts, they are fans as much as anyone else. Second, they kept founding lead singer Mark Stewart involved. This is the piece of info that changed my mind. Not only does Stewart serve as an ad-hoc creative director and songwriter, he sneaks a tiny, but oh so special, vocal into the song “King of the Comebacks.”
Backstory: I’m not sure how much you know about this, I was fairly unaware myself. Back in 2007, the band called it quits due to Stewart’s ongoing vocal troubles. Personally, I had parted ways with the band back at the dawn of the decade, so I had no idea that on their final studio album (2005’s Until My Heart Caves In) then-guitarist Tyler Burkum had handled the bulk of the vocal duties. So, it’s not as though they broke up due to irreconcilable differences or anyone had been kicked out, they just literally couldn’t do it anymore.
My biggest concern with this record is making sure that it lives up to the Audio Adrenaline name. So, the question I asked myself all along the way was: “Can I hear Mark Stewart singing this?” For the first half of the record, the answer is unequivocally, “yes.” The music and the lyrics are “Audio Adrenaline.” It is positive, engaging, gets you moving, and it has catchy, strong hooks. The lead single “Kings and Queens” is an epic anthem (but they could have used a real string section to make it more epic). The aforementioned Stewart cameo comes on “King of the Comebacks” which has really grown on me.
The second half of the record diverges a bit. “Raise the Banner” and “Fire Never Sleeps” are more reminiscent of Kevin Max’s solo work. “Raise the Banner” is a reggae-influenced rocker whose inclusion of the term “I and I” may ruffle some conservative feathers. I’m convinced that for “I Climb the Mountain,” the band broke into U2’s studio and stole their master tapes for a new record. Vocally, lyrically, and musically this is Bono and the Edge (and there’s nothing wrong with that). The two remaining songs, “Seeker” and “The Answer” really set a pace for what a future album by this collective could sound like. They showcase KMax being KMax and the band stretching its legs to not necessarily sound like its forefathers.
Kevin Max can be an acquired taste. If you’re like me and acquired it on the first listen to dc Talk’s Jesus Freak some 15+ years ago, then you’ll have no problems. If you were never a fan of dc Talk but are a die-hard AudioA fan, it may take you awhile to come on board. What I absolutely love about Kevin’s voice on this record, specifically on the first five songs, is that he really opens up his range and goes after some of those notes that we haven’t heard from him in the last 15 years or so.
On my first pass at this record, it was simply nostalgia and curiosity; then it became a deep analysis of what was really happening here. After about three days, though, I just liked it. I wanted to hear it just because it is good. The songs kept running through my head and I found myself running back to the music.
There is a behind-the-scenes documentary that is available if you pre-order from the band’s website. I haven’t seen it, but I can’t imagine that it contains too much more than what you can find on the Videos page of their site. The band has confirmed tour dates for March and April. We should probably assume that they will hit the festival scene this summer and I’m sure that more than a few folks are hoping to see Audio A (KMax), Toby Mac, and The Newsboys (Michael Tait) on the same bill. Magic may ensue…
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