Friday, December 23, 2011

Artist Spotlight - Mad At The World

It may seem old-fashioned or even kind of goofy now, but the expression "mad at the world" was at one point a perfectly reasonable thing to say when you were frustrated.  Nowadays it's all f-bombs and histrionics, with everyone scrambling to outdo everyone else's expressions of frustration and anguish.  But you don't have to scream at the top of your lungs to be heard, nor do you need to pepper lyrics with expletives to get the attention of those who might benefit from your stated position and/or message.  It helps sometimes, but taking the high road is usually the best way of communicating these things to your audience, because in the long run, the short-lived attention getting techniques may only serve to later alienate the audience as they age, so the impact you may have once had will be lost.  Avoiding these kinds of pitfalls will ensure a more lasting, positive impact on the crowd who may be listening to you.

Such is the case with Mad At The World, who came out in the late 1980's with a new sound (for "Christian music" anyway), a bit of a fresh perspective, and a decidedly intelligent lyrical bent that expressed the disenfranchisement and detachment some people felt with the world at large, in a way that would have both immediate impact, as well as leaving a lasting impression.  In the years that followed, MATW (as they shall heretofore be known) changed their game (more than once) and took on dark subject matter from a vantage point of exposing those things and shining upon them with truth and light so as to warn listeners of societal and spiritual pitfalls, as well as being frank about things that some folks weren't entirely comfortable being frank about.  It is this blatant honesty and vulnerability that made MATW so endearing to listeners, and why so many years later they are still held in such high regard.  The fact that their music (regardless of what genre they were taking on) is great certainly helps as well.

MATW started out in 1987 when Roger Rose began composing music and recorded a demo tape that landed in the hands of a Frontline Records executive.  Roger's tape was impressive enough to garner him a record deal, and he then set out recording the eponymous debut album with younger brother Randy, and guitarist/bassist Mike Pendleton in tow on several tracks.  Initially, the style was a very Depeche Mode-esque synth/dance pop with a melancholy bent and a very serious lyrical direction.  This was not to be bubble gum pop music, but real thoughtful pop with weight and meaning to it.  The debut was released in 1987 to critical acclaim among the CCM press, and fans of the synthpop style ate it up.  The 2nd release, "Flowers in the Rain", saw the group incorporating more traditional instrumentation beyond the synthpop base they started out with, so there were more drums and guitar on the record, as well as more rock-oriented songs and arrangements than before.  Indeed, the last track on the album "Dancing On Your Grave" (with the first lead vocal by Randy Rose) signaled the coming change to a more hard rock direction.

The 3rd release, 1990's "Seasons of Love", showed the band shifting entirely toward an alternative/hard rock style, complete with an acoustic ballad, several hard rocking tracks, and more blues-influenced arrangements.  This album also included 2 tracks with Randy on vocals, giving him more opportunities to show his talent as not only the band's drummer, but also as a vocalist with a decidedly grittier approach than Roger's more smooth vocal sound.  The 4th album, "Boomerang" (1991) took the hard rock sound full-on, sporting even harder tracks and more straight-ahead rock arrangements than ever before.  This album included more tracks with Randy on vocals, and the band's most controversial track, "Isn't Sex a Wonderful Thing?", which posed the question that if God created sex, shouldn't it be a wonderful thing?  Unfortunately, as the lyrics explore, it's not always wonderful when used out of the context of a marriage relationship, as the examples of misuse of sex provided by the song will attest to.  1992 saw the band's 5th album "Through the Forest", often considered the best by fans of the group.  This saw a continuation of the alternative hard rock sound from the previous 2 albums, but had an overall darker tone with punchier songs and arrangements, as well as material that was a bit more exploratory in nature with other stylistic elements included for great effect.  One particular highlight was "M.A.T.W. (Reprise)" which was a driving hard rock remake of the band's eponymous track from the debut album.  The final track on the album, "If I Can Dream" is a cover  of an Elvis song, and a stylistic departure from the rest of the material, signalling another change in direction.  Also departing were Mike Pendleton and guitarist Brent Gordon.

"The Ferris Wheel", released in 1993, saw the band moving away from the hard rock of the previous 3 releases into a more alternative pop-rock (or power-pop) direction, concentrating less on muscular guitar-driven songs and more on pop and rock arrangements, with a decidedly less "tough" sound, reminiscent of mid-period Beatles music in many respects.  While Randy continued to explore a heavier hard rock/metal sound in his band Rose, he was lock-step in MATW with more mellow tunes on this disc as well that he wrote and sang.  Randy also brought in 2 members of his solo band, Ben Jacobs on guitar and Mike Link on bass to round out the line-up.  Coming some 2 years after that was the band's final studio album, "The Dreamland Cafe", which featured an even greater emphasis on Beatlesque power-pop than before, as well as tinges of light psychedelia.  Some of the material, according to interviews, was played entirely by Roger Rose.    Though this was the last studio album the band recorded, they remained active in some fashion until 1998 when they officially called it quits.  Randy continued making solo music for a time (under the new Mothership moniker), and Roger disappeared from the music industry limelight.  1998 also saw the release of "World History", a somewhat uneven compilation album of tracks from the band's 1st 6 albums - curiously, their final album is not represented on the release at all.  Also curious is that the compilation steers toward the more mellow side of the band, though a couple harder rock tracks are included, rather than exploring all facets of the band's sound.

The band's impact is difficult to quantify, because they were a small fish in a small pond, in the sense that they didn't sell a lot of albums, and were probably more critical darlings than a band with a large fanbase.  Still, their influence can be heard throughout popular Christian music over the following decade and then some.  Synthpop duo House Of Wires covered the song "Mad At The World" on their 2nd album "Monogamy", and many bands from a number of genres have expressed both respect for and love of the music of MATW.  Some other bands respect what MATW accomplished musically and lyrically, even if they aren't necessarily fans of MATW's music.  Either way, Roger and Randy Rose (and the other various members of MATW through the years) have made an impact on the rock music world with their songs and their hearts worn decidedly on their sleeves.  I salute MATW for their creative approach, their lack of fear in changing things up when they felt called to do so, and for the wealth of great music they have released.

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