Back in the late 80's, Christian artist tobyMac (McKeehan) started his career as part of DC Talk, arguably one of the most popular Christian pop acts of its time. The combination of Toby Mac's hip hop influences, Michael Tait's rock leanings and Kevin Max Smith's artistic bent saw the band grow in popularity by intertwining the trio's varied influences and bringing Christian music one of its biggest pop/hip hop acts.
By the turn of the millennium, however, the group had run its course and the three artists parted amicably to launch solo careers. Of the three, tobyMac has seen the most success by continuing down the path he started with DC Talk and turning up both the hip-hop influences and Christian message. As he turns a corner into the second decade of his solo career, tobyMac continues to reign as one of Christian music's top artists, having sold over two million copies of his first three CDs, each of which earned Grammy nominations.
In 2010, he followed up with his fourth proper solo disc, Tonight, continuing down the path of diversity that his career thus far has projected. He also continued to refine the mixture of worship and celebration that his live shows have emanated for the past decade. In fact, although his recordings have been admirable, his reputation and popularity has truly been built the old fashioned way: by touring consistently and delivering a riveting and explosive live show every time he hits the stage.
Along the way, he has also implemented his business sense in the manner of establishing his brand, launching and annual concert package and launching his own label imprint, Gotee Records, to help launch new artists. The annual concert showcase goes by the title of Winter Wonder Slam tour and over the past 6 years, Toby Mac has included a veritable who's who of Christian rock and pop, touring with other popular acts like Relient K and Skillet, as well as rising Christian acts on the cusp of finding a larger audience and widespread popularity.
In the past, Winter Wonder Slam has been a late fall/early winter tour, wrapping up before the end of the year. This year, however, despite a sluggish economy, the tour continues into the new year, launching its second leg this Friday night, Jan. 14 at Mabee Center with Brandon Heath and Christian rock's latest up and comers, House of Heroes. Ultimately, it makes for a well-rounded package as Toby Mac draws from a pop and hip hop audience, Heath caters more to the CCM and worship demographic and House of Heroes appeals to the rock crowd. Although tobyMac is obviously the main event and Brandon Heath is truly coming into his own, it's the opening act that could possibly turn the most heads on this leg of the tour.
House of Heroes is no stranger to tobyMac, who actually picked up the band and its 2008 release, The End Is Not The End, for widespread release on Gotee Records in 2009. That album still stands well on its own, combining a handful of unforgettable singles like "If," "Lose Control" and "In the Valley of the Dying Sun" with an artistic vision that allows the album as a whole reveal itself as a concept album on the powers of love and war.
In speaking with lead singer Time Skipper, he shared that when writing that album, the overall theme "really happened on its own. We didn't realize until the end what we had and it all really came together at the last minute."
Riding on the critical success and artistic satisfaction that came with that album, Skipper say that when the band returned to the studio "We decided we really like the concept idea and set out to make another one. This time we got really high concept and had a linear storyline idea, but once we got about six songs into it, we decided to back off a little bit. We weren't sure people would follow the story, but we definitely wanted to keep the theme."
The resulting album, Suburba, definitely continues in its predecessor's footsteps, building on the theme of growing up in middle class suburbia and fighting through the everyday challenges that go with it.
"I remember reading in an interview once where someone said that the best songs come from personal experience," Skipper reflected, "so we kind of approached it that way."
"As a band, we started out together in high school as youthful teens and the world was our oyster, so to speak. Over the years, though, things didn't always go as we planned or necessarily go our way.
We finally had to sit back and ask ourselves are we doing this because we want to be famous and make money? Ultimately, it's because we love music and enjoy doing this."
That experience comes through on Suburba, looking at lives that start out with a promising world laid out in front of them, and then adjusting as life gets in the way. Thematically, it's a celebration of youth and reflection on the loss of innocence. Musically, however, I'd have to argue that it's something more.
While the overarching theme does come through clearly in the stories being told, the album really translates more as a concept album musically, drawing from a variety of influences and melting them together, not unlike a typical suburban community. Vocally, the House of Heroes has always shown its Beatles influence with tight arrangements and harmony vocals. With Suburba, however, Skipper reaches into a different vocal range that often recalls vintage Rick Springfield, balancing melody and rock growl with a great pop hook.
Sonically, Suburba draws from a multiple generations of music, implementing an intro on "Relentless" that recalls Alan Parson's Project "Game People Play." Echoes of Brian May's classic Queen guitar tone ring openly in the simple and catchy "Somebody Knows" and the mini-opera of "God Save the Foolish Kings" recalls Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights" with and extended narrative and vocal exchange between Skipper and female vocal siren Stephanie Smith. This isn't just a classic rock amalgam, however. Elsewhere, the band continues to draw from the big hooks of Foo Fighters, narrative abilities of My Chemical Romance and Green Day and even the huge guitar histrionics of Rage Against the Machine on "Independence Day for a Petty Thief."
When discussing the sonic influences, Skipper shared that "out influences have always been super eclectic, but when we started out we were kind of bummed out because we felt so pigeon holed to fit a niche. As we got older, we asked ourselves "why is that?" and decided to just put all of our influences together in one big melting pot."
"Our goal going in was to write a youthful, American record. It was funny, though, because when we sat back and considered who we thought of when thinking of American rock and roll, it always rolled back to bands like The Beatles and The Who and Queen: British bands that were playing rock 'n' roll."
Ultimately, Skipper reflected that it boiled down being influenced by the bands that the members found when digging through their parents' and siblings' record collections as they grew up: bands like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Queen, The Who and Meat Loaf.
"When we were recording, we kept saying we were kind of going for Queen meets the Foo Fighters," Skipper said.
In retrospect, the band was successful in that endeavor, finding a close approximation to that unlikely pairing in its sound. Along the way, the band kept a distinctively positive Christian message in its lyrics, even when facing adversity or disappointment. Much like the last album, however, the message isn't at all heavy handed, allowing the songs room to appeal to both the Christian and mainstream marketplaces.
With the song sin place, House of Heroes just needs the proper exposure to a larger audience in order to find a new level of success. Landing the opening slot on the Winter Wonder Slam Tour could be the first step in doing just that, putting the band in front of some of its largest audiences yet.
In fact, once the band lands a couple more prime spots like this, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it headlining shows at Cain's Ballroom within the next two years, instead of the small all-ages clubs it has been frequenting over the past couple of years. Before that happens, however, House of Heroes will be the featured opener on mentor Toby Mac's Winter Wonder Slam tour, taking the stage at 7pm this Friday, Jan. 14. Arrive early to see the group that could be the next big Christian rock act with potential for mainstream crossover success. s
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