The Loud Gospel: The Return of Extol
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
This song has all kinds of win.
Syncopation. Melody. All you’d expect from Norway’s metal giants. After eight years, Extol is back—and better than ever.
Their last album was a huge departure—not just from the music scene itself, but also from the band’s signature style. But my initial skepticism was washed away from the second the needle hit the record. Long-time fans will be pleased by the return of Ole Berud on clean vocals and guitar. And yes, audiophiles: that is a seven-string guitar you hear, giving the album a bit of a Meshuggah-esque vibe.
When it all comes together, you have a record that resurrects the best qualities of the band’s earlier work (this album will surely be compared to Undeceived) even as it breathes some new life into an otherwise stale scene.
But what makes the whole thing blog-worthy is the band’s lyrical content. Sure, the band’s musical ability lets them share the stage with acts like Opeth, but it’s never been a secret that the band members describe themselves as followers of Christ.
Christian metal is hardly new. I can still remember the first time I heard Inhabit by Living Sacrifice. But over the years I’ve come to notice a shift: lyrics were now becoming more emotional and introspective. Metal (and its related subgenres) became a platform for whining about your personal problems.
Brandon Geist of Revolver magazing said that the shift happened around twenty years ago with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Before that album, hard rock was
“a very sort of macho genre. … But after Nevermind hit, suddenly it was cool to be in a hard rock band and to sing about your feelings—and to sing about your feelings in a complex way. Hard rock became inward-looking. You can see that influence in the nu metal bands like Korn or Slipknot. All of a sudden it was acceptable to be in a metal band and to sing about your neighbor molesting you or something. Hard rock really became cathartic as opposed to escapist.”(quoted by Tony Sclafani, “Why Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ Spoke to a Generation,” Today.com, September 22, 2011)
But this wasn’t a trend unique to hard rock and metal. Think about it: we usually associate music of the sixties with anthems of rebellion and non-conformity. We associate the music of the today with relationships and personal feelings.
If you have a church background, you know the impact this had on Christian music. When the “boomer” generation grew up, they turned their focus away from “traditional” hymns to “contemporary” worship songs. On the one hand, it was great to have music that actually reflected the era. On the other hand, we saw the lyrical content shift from songs about God to songs about how I feel about God. In other words, Christian music tends to follow the same introspective cultural trend.
In his recent book, Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper raises this issue in seeing a huge contrast between the “messiness of Israel’s worship” and today’s music:
“We are children of a much more sanitized era, you and I. …The sentiment of most contemporary Christian worship is high on emotional language, heavy on the Spirit (and its accompanying imagery of flames, wind, and doves), but usually thin on (if not bereft of) the topic of bleeding birds and beasts. We talk about the cross as a shorthand for the bloody sacrifice of Jesus, but even that is removed from the hands-on messiness of Israel’s worship.” (Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace, p. 49)
But on this latest album from Extol, we don’t have that. We find lyrics like this:
“Hold my hand – move forward / Take me to the gates of righteousness / Lead me on – by Your word / Enter through the gates of righteousness” (“Open the Gates”)
“Incomprehensible, captivating / Flawless and beautiful / By the desire of the Creator / The essence of life poured out in every being / Not by mere chance, but with a purpose / Shaped in the likeness of the Triune / Come into existence to love, to worship, to connect” (“A Gift Beyond Human Reach”)
While they include our response to Him, these lyrics are more than merely a collection of personal sentiments: they are about God and His gospel.
The very genre itself defies our attempts to “sanitize” our world. And perhaps that’s been the long-standing appeal of metal, at least in my own life. One of my art professors said that when you get a bit older, you tend to return to the genre of music that first became truly your own. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been finding such comfort in metal lately. Or maybe it’s because in contrast to the “happy/clappy” plastic culture that dominates so much of today’s worship music, we hear Extol ask such penetrating questions: “Will Your eyes be upon me / Despite my distorted being? / Will Your presence follow my faltering moves / Through times of failure?”
Extol brings us the gospel—the loud gospel—a gospel that transcends questions of genre and preference and brings us instead an unwavering passion for God’s glory.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.