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Of Beauty and Rage: Red, St. Augustine, and the Human Condition

March 5, 2015


“Though your sins be like scarlet,they may become white as snow; Though they be red like crimson,they may become white as wool.” – Isaiah 1:18

Truly great music artists compose albums which are meant to be listened from beginning to end. The songs of an album are not individual parts to be taken on their own, but are best appreciated and understood within the context of the whole album.

The latest album by the rock/ambient group Red, of Beauty and Rage, is the epitome of this ideal. Every song on the album contributes to the coherent whole. Each song is like a chapter of a book that advances the overarching story. Drop one chapter of the book and the story doesn’t make sense.

While the dark album cover reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 movie, The Village, Red’s newest album tells the story of an encounter with harmony amidst chaos. The band members of Red, Michael Barnes and identical twins Randy and Anthony Armstrong, are men who know how to tell the story of the human condition. The human condition is a reality of a fallen human race and is a story of grace and the struggle with sin. Most of the band’s previous projects have dealt with this dichotomy, but of Beauty and Rage represents this fallen, yet redeemed condition the best of all their albums.

I saw Red live for the first time in 2006 at the Lion’s Theatre in Massillon, Ohio with about seventy-five other people. Since then, the band has put out five additional studio albums and has gathered an immense national popularity. Red’s resonance with its fans certainly comes from Michael, Anthony, and Randy’s musical and emotional talent, but most importantly from their ability to touch people’s souls. This band touches souls because they are genuine artists of the human condition.

Red’s newest album is a complex roller coaster of emotions, musically and lyrically, as the band clashes and molds harmonious string pieces, intimate piano nuances, guttural screaming, and distorted guitar riffs that lay siege to the ear drums. In one song, frontman Michael Barnes screams violently about his “Impostor”, while at the end of the next song, “Shadow and Soul”, Barnes sings a haunting falsetto to a very intimate piano melody. This piano falsetto artistically expresses the beauty of soul, especially amidst darkness and suffering.

Two very important all-instrumental string compositions bookend the album, the first song “Descent” and the last “Ascent”. Glancing at the titles, I would suggest that the songs correlate with the themes of sin and grace, or, falling away from God and conversion to God. “Descent”, crucially, sets the scene for the entire album. The song is solely comprised of two alternating string chords that are bursting with tension, dissonance, and power. I think this musical dynamic is a representation of sin and suffering that can be felt both in the ears and in the soul. Not only is the experience unnerving and moving, but the song remains in that tension; there is no resolve.

Exploding out of the first track, the next song, “Impostor”, is heavy and in your face. It speaks to the fact that sin and, more importantly, Satan is an impostor. In order to confront sin, one must first recognize and call it out by name. The Evil One wants us to think he isn’t there. When Barnes screams repeatedly throughout the song, “IMPOSTOR! IMPOSTOR!”, it is apparent that he recognizes a reality that is foreign and unwanted.

As the band rips through the next few tracks, “Shadow and Soul” – arguably one of the most intimate songs of the album, “Darkest Part,” “Fight to Forget,” “of These Chains,” and “Falling Skies,” the life of sin is represented in depth. Throughout these songs, there is an image of a locked door standing between the soul and some unnamed person. These songs are prayers of a heart aching for Christ; a heart aching for conversion and redemption. In “Shadow and Soul,” Barnes sings, This is not for you / You don’t belong here / Caught in my soul / Caught in the shadow. It is difficult to let Christ into the soul with the presence of darkness. The door of the soul, to which only we have the key, is kept locked by sin, pride, anger, and fear. Letting Christ into the soul is the hardest part of conversion, yet it is the most freeing.

In the middle of the album lies another instrumental song titled “The Forest.” This short song could be easily breezed over, but, I think it is vital to understand the album. Before “The Forest” is the reality of sin and the darkness of human existence. After the track, the album takes an upswing both lyrically and musically. The subsequent tracks, “Yours Again,” “What You Keep Alive,” “Gravity Lies,” “Take Me Over,” “The Ever,” and “Part That’s Holding On,” deal with the reality of grace amidst sin and the final victory of God’s redemption. What is important is that something changes – not just musically – in “The Forest.” Something is encountered in this solemn place that simply changes everything.

What really are forests anyway, but vegetation, various trees, and some animals that enclose the beauty of silence? The beautiful silence and solitude of the forest is where we find renewal and we open ourselves to an encounter the Infinite. Silence is crucial to encounter because all other distractions are gone. In the silence, attention is drawn to the self. Fundamentally, it is in the depths of the self, the soul, that the Infinite is encountered.

As Christians, we believe the encounter with the Infinite reaches its pinnacle in the person of Jesus Christ. This sort of encounter is a reality that changes our lives forever. Christ wants to delve into the deepest, darkest part of our sinful lives and redeem them. Certainly, Christ redeemed us once and for all with the sacrifice on the cross, but we still choose to reject him with sin. We choose to avoid the silence because, at times, we don’t even have the courage to face Him with our sin. Immediately out of “The Forest,” the encounter of harmony amidst chaos is expressed in “Yours Again,” a song that is manifestly a story of a converted and redeemed heart.

The last track of the album, “Ascent,” is undoubtedly the thesis statement of the entire album, yet it comes at the end. This song starts out exactly the same as the first track – with two alternating string chords that are filled with tension, dissonance, and power. However, after a few measures there is a movement in the progression of the chords that allows the melody to transcend above the tension and power, and move toward harmony and beauty. The chaotic, tension-filled power chords remain in the background, while transcendently harmonious chords are written over, blending with the previous chords. While “Descent” is an encounter with sin and suffering, there is a grace-filled encounter in “Ascent” that allows sin and suffering to be transformed. The sin and power are allowed to remain, yet are intertwined with grace and redemption. This dynamic is the Christian message: Allowing God into our sinful lives, so that He can gracefully transform our lives.

When I first listened to this album my soul was touched in an intimate way, and I was led to an encounter with deep contemplation and prayer. Ironically, when I had finished listening to half of the album it was five o’clock in the afternoon and time for a seminary holy hour. What follows is the first part of my journal reflection in that holy hour…

 “Lord, whatever just happened to me…allow it to be fully manifest and come to bear fruit.”

 I feel as if something just touched my soul. It is a rather indescribable feeling. A deep and strong sense of abiding fulfillment, yet….a tension. A feeling that something has come in that is foreign to me. It’s like when you get a shot or give blood. You can feel that something has penetrated you, but there is a strange sensation because you know, even if unconsciously, that it is foreign.

 Something just touched the soul….”

 As I have read through fan comments on Facebook and various forums about the new album, I find that I am not the only one whose soul has been touched by of Beauty and Rage. I am sure that an army of people could attest to the movement of God in their lives because of the band’s intimate understanding of the human condition and their absolute brilliance and talent as music composers and artists. Great music transcends the notes on the page and leads the listener to search for something more. Red is a band that can manipulate sound in remarkable ways to simultaneously express the horror of human suffering and the glorious beauty of God. The album of Beauty and Rage is truly, as guitarist Anthony Armstrong said in an interview, the band’s magnum opus. This album’s story of the human condition and the Christian message, even though it can be dark at times, is one we need to hear, pray with, and reflect upon.

St. Augustine of Hippo was also a man who knew well the dynamic of the human condition within the Christian life. Around 400 A.D. he explained the reality of conversion and human weakness in his great spiritual autobiography, The Confessions. In The Confessions, there are represented the two spiritual themes of aversio and conversio. Aversio is the spiritual movement away from God, while conversio is the movement back to Him. The life of a Christian is continuously marked with these two spiritual movements. According to an Augustinian spirituality, the spiritual life is never stagnant, but is always moving toward or away from God.

Throughout his life, St. Augustine was constantly falling away and returning back to the Lord. Before his great conversion, Augustine found himself in a place very much like the beginning of Red’s album: in the “Descent,” in sin, darkness, and chaos. He knew of the Lord, but Augustine did not want to open his heart or his soul to God. He found great pleasure and delight in the ways of sin and was not concerned about living chastely or rightly. Eventually, Augustine had a great conversion, an “Ascent,” to the Lord through the Holy Scriptures. This saint, who sinned just like the rest of us, had a definite encounter with the Infinite and a story of grace was then written over his story of sin. It was only after his struggle with sin and his eventual conversion that Augustine found the place where his restless heart rested eternally.

The story of the human condition, as it is exemplified in the works of both Red and St. Augustine, is one that is important for Christians to hear and be reminded of constantly. We need to listen to these stories, take them into our hearts, and apply them to our lives. As we live on this earth we need to let Christ into our hearts so that the story of grace can be written over our story of sin. If we let Christ into our hearts, He will write His harmonious melody of grace over our dissonant, power-filled melody of sin.