It’s 2006: You’re updating your Myspace page with your favorite Christian rock songs, you’re playing the newest Relient K and Switchfoot albums with your best friends, and you’re looking forward to the next megatour to hit your church.
That’s basically what my life looked like back then, and I wasn’t alone.
Christian music had hit the mainstream, with artists like Skillet and Third Day bringing electric guitars and praiseful lyrics to the spiritual masses, creating their own frenetic zeitgeist in the process. But the era wouldn’t be complete without Tooth & Nail Records, a Seattle-based record label that supported some of the best Christian music at that time — all thanks to a focus on the underground and a mantra of quality.
It fought back against a tendency to focus more on God and less on the music (after all, the music mattered). Christian rock didn’t have to be worship music stripped down to its most basic guitar-and-drums elements — in fact, it could rock. Tooth & Nail brought in bands who could stand on their own two feet, and they were strong on their own accord. “I just wanted Christians to be able to put out art again and be accepted and be judged on the music first,” Brandon Ebel, founder of the label, said.
These were bands that could play clubs, churches, Warped Tour, and Cornerstone Festival without a problem. It was a crossover move that prioritized artistic integrity while attracting Christians and non-Christians alike. Tooth & Nail became the source of dependable rock and punk music for youth group kids with somewhat strict parents: positive messages and no cursing. Yet, they were also excellent tunes for everyone else who didn’t care otherwise.
By 2006, Tooth & Nail had been around for 13 years, and it had just arguably hit its peak of influence. That year, metalcore band Underoath and mewithoutYou put out their career-defining records in Define the Great Line and Brother, Sister, taking the label to crown status among Christian rock and hardcore crowds.
But the real question at that point was, “What now?” Would the label continue its strong run, or would this be the best that it gets?
It’s an odd question for such a triumphant time, but it was a time of transition. Some of the bands that did the heavy lifting for Tooth & Nail were not making the same impact they once did for the label. MxPx had signed with another label, Hawk Nelson had recently left for BEC Recordings, and Further Seems Forever had already broken up. In fact, Underoath had been on the verge of breakup multiple times at that point.
The scene was in flux, but Christian music and punk rock were still as big as ever (after all, 2006 was the year of Comatose and The Black Parade). Tooth & Nail was progressing its sonic makeup well, marking the beginning of what I like to call its “renaissance,” or “rebirth” period — one where the label threw all the darts at the wall and hit an artistic bullseye. Post-hardcore, pop-punk, power pop, and even crunk-rock: They nailed all of them.
During this era came some of the most timeless records from the label’s staple artists, as well as fresh artists that rounded out a constantly reloading roster. It was a time ever fleeting: Many bands didn’t make it past an album or two. But they all seared the signature “Tooth & Nail sound” into our memories, while making us nostalgic for an era that laid a foundation — for our tastes and our beliefs.
Now, let’s take a time machine back to the four core years of this renaissance and explore some of the premier Tooth & Nail records that came out between 2007 and 2010.
2007: Burning Down Neverland
The Great Recession began, officially, in December 2007. The weather grew colder, families gathered for the holidays, and little did they know their country would begin a period of economic turmoil not seen since the Great Depression.
But a day after Christmas that year, Florida band Anberlin gave us a late present in a two-song EP. It foreshadowed something as well, but in this case, that something was wonderful: their third album, recorded that previous fall.
Anberlin had already worked their way into youth group kids’ collective consciousness with their first two albums. They were the rock band with enough edge to reach punk kids, yet they had enough melodic shine to reach kids still latching onto the rock-lite sounds of Switchfoot, Kutless, and labelmates Hawk Nelson.
However, up to this point, it seemed like this was a band with a lot of promise that hadn’t quite hit their potential yet. They certainly showed it on 2005’s Never Take Friendship Personal, boasting two popular singles (“Paperthin Hymn” and “A Day Late”) and widespread acclaim. It was only a matter of time before they reached that next level, becoming everybody’s favorite band rather than an underrated alternative rock act in a crowded genre.
Would Anberlin finally hit that level on their forthcoming album? With Godspeed EP‘s main event, “Godspeed”, they immediately raised the bar. The massive, guitar-heavy rock single took the rock sound from Friendship to new heights: a musical identity that wasn’t just energetic and thoughtful, but now also dark, urgent, and introspective.
The first single from Cities braced fans for the album’s jet black tone, though it was a labor of passion for the band. “I think “Godspeed” was the most difficult [song to record]. Not as much lyrically but it got frustrating because we couldn’t figure out the chorus to the song,” vocalist Stephen Christian said in an interview with Rush Hour Scenes. “They lied when they said the good die young,” the singer belts out as he subverts unhealthy rockstar habits. (It was an honest confrontation of the “27 Club,” as Stephen would turn 27 that following summer).
Cities dropped a few months later on February 20, 2007. Little did the band know this album would put Anberlin in an entirely different category, one characterized by exceptional artistry and cryptic thematics — now even thrown around as an “emo” masterpiece of sorts (Stephen even rocked the emo hair during this album cycle). It would be the type of record to define a career. It also catapulted Anberlin to a major label the next year.
For several years, we wondered when the best version of Anberlin would arrive. With Cities, it did.
Cities had everything: the frantic rock anthem (“Godspeed”), the angsty breakup song (“Adelaide”), the acoustic hymn (“The Unwinding Cable Car”). It even had some experimentation with the synth-rock of “There Is No Mathematics to Love and Loss.” Most importantly, it had the epic finale aptly titled “*Fin,” the nine-minute journey where the band bleeds everything they have into the recording (Christian said that, by the end, he’s just improvising his lyrics).
But Cities is a record greater than the sum of its parts. When we look beyond the music, we see a record that’s a timeless classic, but we also have to look at the era it was created in: musicians becoming older and more self-aware, a world of economic and social instability surrounding them. Yet the result is actually the most intimate and personal of Anberlin’s career. Christian references Blueprints for the Blackmarket “man versus world,” Friendship as “man versus man,” and Cities as “man versus self.” It was an internal reflection, and it went deep.
During Anberlin’s recent run of full-album playthroughs, they’ve been very outward with the stories behind many of the songs. But during More to Living Than Being Alive, the Cities edition, they left no room for between-song banter. Perhaps they wanted to let the songs maintain their confidential nature. Perhaps they realized the greatness of the songs like we have and wanted to let them speak for themselves. (If you’re looking for the real meanings, though, Christian posted them all on his blog site).
Anberlin’s three-album blueprint signified growth and maturity in modern rock, and it made you wonder who could craft the next “Cities.” I remember hearing predictions that Ivoryline’s third record could be just that — unfortunately we never got to hear album three from the Tooth & Nail signees (they faded away in the early 2010s).
Other contemporaries to release records on Tooth & Nail that year, like Anberlin with Cities, were veterans that took the label to greater heights: MxPx, Thousand Foot Krutch, and Project 86. But before all of that, we were greeted with a fresh debut album — by another familiar veteran, however. Aaron Gillespie made his imprint in the rock world after years behind the kit for metalcore masters Underoath.
This was no surprise considering Gillespie’s singing voice, which he pitted against Spencer Chamberlain’s screams in Underoath. In the alternative rock setting, it felt more at home than ever. It helped, too, that the drummer-turned-frontman stayed with the same label as Underoath, as well longtime Tooth & Nail collaborator in producer Aaron Sprinkle.
“I was going to go with someone else and my A&R guy at Tooth & Nail mentioned him. We just started talking, over the phone, and it just seemed like the right fit. So we went ahead and ran with it. Aaron kind of helped me realise what I was trying to do,” Gillespie said in an interview with Cross Rhythms. Sprinkle gave The Almost its signature dirty rock sound — though not a southern rock vibe sonically, it packed in every bit of the Florida humidity.
Following the commercial triumph of Define the Great Line the previous year, anything with attachments the metalcore giants was bound to sell well. But that doesn’t explain The Almost’s rapid rise in 2007. This was all the two Aarons — namely the one who played every single instrument on Southern Weather.
Gillespie flaunted his talents more than ever before on his side project’s debut, this time taking over a frontman’s role. His voice has always been rough and nasally around the edges, and now he burst through the bruising choruses of hit singles “Say This Sooner” and “Southern Weather” with the same type of energy he brought with Underoath. The energy put The Almost alongside Dashboard Confessional, Paramore, The Starting Line, and other notable alternative artists breaking through in the mid-2000s (they toured alongside the latter two in fall 2007).
The Almost continued a trend in Tooth & Nail of not being outspokenly “spiritual” lyrically (apart from “Amazing, Because It Is,” which steals its chorus from Christian hymn “Amazing Grace”). This helped bridge the gap between the Christian and secular worlds. Not only did it facilitate Gillespie’s rise to the mainstream, it also secured a sense of integrity for the label, in a time we now acknowledge many bands played up their beliefs.
“I’m not a perfect person, I’m just a normal dude who is trying to put his spot on the world, to find his place in the world, be a really truthful dude in all aspects of my life. I want to be honest and true and open about everything I do,” Gillespie said. His honesty has always come through, even now when he says he does not believe in organized religion anymore.
That summer, we had a similar story to Gillespie with Joseph Kisselburgh, guitarist of Falling Up who released his first solo album under the moniker The Send. He left the band to focus on this project, which unfortunately only went one album, but it was another solid Sprinkle-produced album — a piano-tinged CCM rock work.
Kisselburgh was actually one of three artists from Albany, Oregon to release a Christian rock album that year, along with Falling Up’s Captiva and A Dream Too Late’s one-and-done debut (featuring “Intermission to the Moon,” whose video was all over the Gospel Music Channel that year). Who knew Albany was such a gold mine of good music?
Like Gillespie and Kisselburgh, another case of an artist evolving away from heavier roots was a band we didn’t expect to actually be around in 2007. As Cities Burn had announced their breakup following the departure of screamer T.J. Bonnette, who teamed up with his brother Cody to create the vocal dynamic on Son, I Loved You at Your Darkest. It was an album that built an extremely dedicated fanbase from the bottom up: brutally honest (and often biblical) depictions of faith and struggle, behind a melodic hardcore style that pulsed with a bleeding heart.
T.J. left the band for the reason many bands break up in the first place: family. He moved to be closer to his wife, and the band thought, “Well, the dream is over.” But fans were so adamant they stay together that they did — a story we saw later with bands like Underoath, Anberlin, and Brand New. But what would As Cities Burn sound like without its screamer? A decent forecast was “The Widow,” the all-cleans standout off their debut.
The band’s performance of the song at Cornerstone 2007, which took place that June, still gives me chills. “I remember feeling like it wasn’t real. There’s so much love underneath a tent, you know?” Cody said in an interview with HM Magazine.
On August 14, just a little over a month after Cornerstone, came Come Now, Sleep, the band’s venture from melodic hardcore to post-hardcore — with a sound now more akin to Thrice than Hopsefall. But it was actually the style the band wanted to do from the beginning. They had a sweet spot for Jimmy Eat World and Further Seems Forever, yet toured with heavier bands like The Chariot and He Is Legend that pigeonholed them into the sound we saw on their debut.
Once T.J. left, the shift to more melodic territory was clear. But it wasn’t planned or forced. Cody saw As Cities Burn as something bigger than itself: It was evident in the way the band naturally progressed their sound, how the fans urged them to keep going, the way the singer pushed the words out of his lungs like they weren’t even his own. “We never really went into anything with much of a plan. I always felt like there was this spirit that I felt like I was following in the music,” he said.
“Come Now, Sleep is no less intense than its predecessor however, which is a testament to the musical integrity of these guys,” Jesus Freak Hideout said in its raving review of the new record. “Contact” begins the LP with nearly seven minutes of intricate guitar picking and Cody’s clean singing. It sets up a post-hardcore journey with moments of acoustic hymnal (the opener), worshippy lyricisim (“Empire”), and even some noise rock jamming (“This Is It, This Is It”).
But it’s the closer that asks the biggest questions while giving the least answers — reminiscent of a God that sometimes seems to not be around when we need him the most. “Timothy” was written about Timothy Jordan, a friend of the band who lost his life to suicide in 2005. Cody’s grief is palpable, not simply paying tribute to Timothy but bringing back the raw emotion of hearing the news and how it affected him.
“I think I’d rather believe in some imaginary place / Made up to make children behave / So our souls are safe to wander off,” he sings. Nearly 13 minutes later, and the place As Cities Burn has taken us to is wholly enveloping and cathartic.
As Cities Burn represented the convergence of soft and heavy, the two parties of Tooth & Nail and Solid State Records coming together (like Underoath’s most recent record at this time, it was also a joint release). But it also foreshadowed what we’d see out of future bands, like Capital Lights and And Then There Were None, who would sign on with musical identities far from their roots. It, too, foreshadowed As Cities Burn’s continual embrace of gentler textures, with the alternative and indie rock of 2009’s Hell or High Water.
Come Now, Sleep peaked at number five on the Billboard Christian albums chart, a big moment for a band that wasn’t supposed to exist in 2007. It was not an end nor was it a beginning, but it did stretch the constrains of hardcore and rock music, a major footnote in Tooth & Nail’s creative renaissance. The forces greater than As Cities Burn carried them a long way, though that didn’t curb their existential self-awareness.
“The dream is to never break up, eventually start to suck more and more, and fade away,” he joked with HM Magazine about the band’s future prospects.
Listen to the full Tooth & Nail Renaissance playlist, featuring songs released between 2007 and 2010, below.
Featured Photo Credit: Thousand Foot Krutch (Brooke Long Photography), Anberlin (Todd Fixler), Ivoryline (Bill Stahl Photography), Family Force 5 (Defoe Photography)