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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews


  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 May
Sounds like … hardcore, punk, and emo loudly collide on the band's fourth recording effort—similar to Underoath, Rancid, MxPx, and New Found GloryAt a glance … Engage is more routine hardcore and less interesting than the band's previous releases, although they remain a cut above the typical hardcore band with their tight-knit sound and encouraging lyrics.

Together for ten years with three albums on Solid State Records, hardcore band Stretch Arm Strong is more committed to their music today than ever, now that all the band members have quit their day jobs in order to tour full-time. This South Carolina band has had some impressive opportunities to tour with high profile mainstream acts. In the spring of 2003, they toured with Good Charlotte and New Found Glory, and they'll tour with Rancid this fall.

Much of Stretch Arm Strong's appeal has been their musical diversity. Most hardcore bands are one-trick ponies, to the delight of their most serious fans. While Stretch Arm Strong always kept hardcore punk at its core, they've also been willing to introduce atypical elements to their sound: piano, strings, and even an occasional affinity for singing over shrieking. What's more, while most hardcore bands (Christian and mainstream) tend to brood and wail with their lyrics, Stretch Arm Strong is often more encouraging. Though not all the members are believers (lead vocalist Chris McLane and drummer John Barry are the most outspoken about their faith), the songs still point to a need for spiritual substance—á la Linkin Park. And perhaps most important of all, while many hardcore bands are often intelligible in their screaming, you can usually decipher McLane's vocals without too much effort.

For their fourth release, Engage, Stretch Arm Strong has taken a more direct approach with their music. It's less grandiose and much more stripped down, with nary a piano or string section to be found. Consequently, the band has removed what's made them most interesting among similar sounding bands. Like 2001's A Revolution Transmission, the album begins with predictable fast-paced punk hardcore, first with the anti-racism themed "We Bleed" and then the youth empowerment anthem "Raise Your Fist." The difference on this album is that it generally adheres to the same sound throughout.

Themes of spirituality have always been subtle with Stretch Arm Strong, and the same is true on Engage. "Miles Apart," one of the few melodic punk rock tracks on the album, is most likely about long-distance romance, though it could just as easily be about one who has strayed spiritually from the Lord: "It's all so difficult because I'm not with you/I know that I'm growing, but sometimes I slip, and now I'm slowing down." Another melodic punk track, "Black Clouds," offers a critical choice as an alternative to darkness and depression: "You're searching for something, never satisfied in the end." The band powerfully rejects immorality in "Defect" while declaring that anger and hate only beget more of the same in "Devil Shoots Devil," crying "Avarice, envy, pride has set this world on fire."

Like "Raise Your Fist," "The Calling" is essentially a call-to-action for youth, though it does seem to hint at something deeper and life-changing. The two-minute "Ignition" presents a portrait of one who has experienced the spark of a new relationship, and it's almost certainly the most spiritual song on the album: "Seeing changes in myself that I just can't believe. Experiencing life with my heart on my sleeve/Open to this brand new world, I turn my soul inside out." Closing out the album is an almost unrecognizable punk rapcore rendition of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band's "Express Yourself"—in addition to the departure in sound, the lyrics are almost completely different, save for the titular chorus.

Engage is only 33 minutes long, with spiritual themes that are only present if you interpret them as such, and the music is less diverse and interesting than their previous efforts. Looked at differently, most hardcore punk albums run short and this more focused sound is probably more true to what serious hardcore rock fans want—the meat and potatoes of thunderous drums and heavy electric guitars topped off with screamed vocals. For better or worse, Stretch Arm Strong has chosen this musical path—at least for now. Perhaps the greatest benefit of it is the opportunity to reach a broader audience through more prominent touring and thereby serve as salt and light in their own way.