[21 January 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Christian music has a lot of issues, not the least of which is the fact that it distinguishes itself as “Christian” in the first place. The religious tag implies that any music that doesn’t go out of its way to actively identify itself as such must necessarily be opposed to Christianity or is, to use the much-abused word, “secular”. There was a time when so-called Christian music was in its golden age, peaking in the mid-to-late ‘90s with essential records like DC Talk’s Jesus Freak, which manages to both be engaging musically and forthcoming about its religious convictions. The latter can exist in the same sphere as the former without detracting from it. As it stands now, however, Christian music is plagued by myriad problems. Its metal bands are perpetually stuck in the dead-and-gone stylings of metalcore, once interesting bands like Skillet have opted for rote, Nickelback-esque alt-rock, and the majority of what sells and dominates the radio amounts to footnotes to Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United. The trend in American politics involving right-wing Christianity’s disenchantment with and separation from “secularizing” and “globalizing” forces seems particularly true of the Christian music as a whole.
Michael Gungor, a man who is not ashamed to let his Christianity show, stirred up a lot of internet attention last year when he questioned the notion of Christian music in an astute blog post. “We call it Christian,” he writes, but it’s certainly not based in Christianity. It is based on marketing. That’s it. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but it wouldn’t be true.” (Or, as one might alternatively call it, the “Eric Cartman Theorem.”) As someone who has toured “as a Christian artist,” Gungor is well equipped to make a statement on the follies of the name, but musically he’s leagues above his colleagues in sophistication. With releases like 2010’s Beautiful Things, Gungor, whose surname became the name of the musical collective he performs with, shows an apt skill of genre-hopping, playing off of tropes and themes from blues, indie, and post-rock. Few if any artists openly shaping their music to some overtly Christian expectation are as audacious as Gungor in this regard, and with I Am Mountain he and his band, including his wife Lisa, continue in this adventurous streak.
Sigur Rós has been a key influence on the music of Gungor (“The Earth is Yours” from Beautiful Things is a poppier take on that band’s Takk…), a fact still very much the case with I Am Mountain. The title track, which opens this LP, utilizes a piano sound straight from the Icelandic post-rock playbook before building into a catchy, wordless pop crescendo, accented by some Anathema-esque vocal interplay between Gungor and his wife. Gungor has referred to his style of music as “liturgical post-rock” before, which bears itself out on the textural streak running throughout I Am Mountain. In some ways, the band isn’t doing a whole lot that’s sonically innovative here. Anyone familiar with the obvious reference points can see where these songs inevitably go. Contextually, however, Gungor brings a gamut of styles to an audience that might not otherwise hear them, a noble feat in a genre that has been defined by stagnation for the past great while.
When I Am Mountain gets familiar, though, it helps that this merry band, just as it did on Beautiful Things, isn’t content in relying on, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, a one-sided diet of examples. “Beat of Her Heart” mixes European folk chord patterns with spaghetti-western guitars. “Finally” does Radiohead circa King of Limbs better than Radiohead itself did. A mean slide guitar dominates the compelling alt-country of “God and Country”, which kicks off the album’s folky second half. All of these various experiments give I Am Mountain its restless spirit, which ends up being its greatest achievement. In refusing to capitulate to the generic demands of the Christian music market, Gungor shows that being devout isn’t anathema to making great music. Hell, even the nonbeliever should find a great deal to like in I Am Mountain. After all, the grand silliness of the Christian/secular divide is that it presumes religious or philosophical disagreement must mean the establishment of irreconcilable factions. If nothing else, Gungor demonstrates the capability of music to break down those harmful boundaries.