Godspeed to All They Captured: Tooth & Nail Records’ Renaissance – Part II (2008)

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.

2008: Save Everything You Can

If 2007 gave us any indication of the direction Tooth & Nail Records was headed in, we should’ve been awaiting the next year with yearning. But nothing could’ve prepared us for 2008: a highly pivotal year that, with everything happening in our country, was important. The recession arrived in full force, the United States elected its first black president, and Tooth & Nail’s renaissance hit full swing — with a whopping six debut records, on top of great releases from a handful of label mainstays.

In that year, Tooth & Nail’s renaissance became an absolute cultural force — one that permeated AbsolutePunk, Jesus Freak Hideout, and Christian bookstores’ CD racks. Now, it’s going to be difficult to give every record the recognition it deserves (so please don’t tell me I should’ve spent more time on this album or that album, because otherwise this article would be 10,000 words long).

But before we get into the bands that released records on Tooth & Nail that year, we need to get into an item they used to help promote them: Rock Sampler.

Rock Sampler was a CD that Tooth & Nail and BEC Recordings released as a marketing ploy, like a toy you’d put in a Happy Meal to promote a new movie. It began in the ‘90s before MP3s were a thing, and the label continued to release these CDs into the 2000s — including 2008. This edition came free with a purchase of Kutless’ To Know That You’re Alive (Kutless was coming off a mainstream rock breakthrough and was a CCM post-grunge force at this time).

To Know That You’re Alive didn’t hit shelves until June 24, and almost all of the songs included were from albums that already came out — the logic being you’ll hear the tracks, love them, and log on to iTunes to download the full LPs. Good marketing, huh?

2008 was a pivotal year in American history, as the recession hit full swing and a new presidency loomed. It was also a busy year for Tooth & Nail Records, as evident by these eight timeless releases.

For those who hadn’t kept up on the label’s whereabouts by the summer, they were met with a flurry of brand-new artists. By the time you get to the very end of the CD, you’ll find two fresh signings that opened 2008 with their unique brands of alternative rock: Ivoryline and Search the City.

The bands’ most recent independent EPs gave us a good idea of what we’d hear with these new signings — and the direction Tooth & Nail was heading in: alternative rock at the core, with a blend of post-hardcore, emo, pop-punk, and indie rock for added flavor (like a melting pot of the popular alternative subgenres at the time).

You’ll hear power chords and sweeping hooks — everything that we already loved about Anberlin, Emery, and Hawk Nelson, revealing a potential to follow in their footsteps. Jesus Freak Hideout called Tooth & Nail the “perfect home” for Search the City, while referring to Ivoryline as an “outstanding addition” to the label’s roster. (Oh, how I wish either band lasted more than two albums).

There Came a Lion dropped two days after the Giants won the Super Bowl, and A Fire So Big the Heavens Could See It dropped a few months later in early April. Lyrically, Ivoryline was more outwardly spiritual than Search the City — something we’d see even more on 2010’s follow-up, Vessels. But both bands were clear products of their 2000s environments. Ivoryline took their name from a Death Cab for Cutie lyric (“Ivory lines lead”), while Search the City references the movie Danny Deckchair, a 2003 Australian comedy, in “To the Moon for All I Care.”

Ivoryline and Search the City were Tooth & Nail’s fresh signings that jumpstarted a fresh era in the label’s discography. They released their debut records in early 2008 following years of independent play and Warped Tour promotion.

“Son of a Gun” and “The Rescue” were the clear standouts off Search the City’s debut, with the latter acting as the featured Rock Sampler cut. It’s a moment in time for a short-lived band: an anthem of needing saved — ambiguous enough to suggest either God’s grace or a loved one’s care. But this was another Tooth & Nail band that didn’t need to bash you over the head with its beliefs (Ebel wanted his artists to be judged on their music first, after all).

Ivoryline’s vocalist Jeremy Gray reminds us that the Christian can backfire, not because people don’t like Christianity but because Christians’ hypocrisy turns a lot of listeners off. “Labeling a band Christian is not necessarily awesome, because it’s just a label. But if you back it up with how you live, that’s what’s important,” he said in an interview with Indie Vision Music.

Ivoryline didn’t boast one standout on their debut but rather went for consistency across their entire LP. But “Reminds Me I’m Alive” is the song I’ve always thought of as their most memorable offering, a declaration of their faith and a craving for deeper meaning in life. It’s also one I’m sure that made the Tooth & Nail folks’ hearts gush, since it references how going to Seattle and signing with the label has impacted the band (“It has magnified all my cries / For something more than fine”).

“Days End” opens There Came a Lion with cascading guitars and a chant-style chorus, giving listeners a first glimpse of Ivoryline’s smashing alternative rock style (one influenced by early 2000s post-hardcore and indie rock).

Another new band that had recently hopped on the label was Children 18:3, a sibling trio from Minnesota who are a handful just to describe. Let me take a stab at it: They’re like if a bunch of youth group kids listened to way too much Sum 41 and Green Day and had a zest for gothic and horror chic.

But the truth is that they actually began as a ska band — all the way back in 1999. By the time we get to their 2008 self-titled debut, we find a band with tremendous punk rock energy, a knack for catchy vocal trade-offs, and an uncompromising set of Christian values.

For any parents concerned about Children 18:3’s macabre image, they were likely comforted by the fact David (the long-haired, Alice Cooper-looking frontman) was holding a bicycle on the album cover. Plus, they wrote songs about popping balloons and making paper Valentines, and I can’t think of anything more punk than that. This was a trio that did what they wanted, and that caught Tooth & Nail’s attention.

“They’re just a good label. They’re very artsy. If you’re in the Christian music industry, you’re judged by the lyrics and what you say, but not so by Tooth & Nail,” David said about the label in an interview with Cross Rhythms, reinforcing the “music first” mantra. “Obviously, Brandon doesn’t want any of the bands to swear or be directly anti-God on the record, but there is a lot more artistic freedom.”

“All My Balloons” is a laudable introduction to Children 18:3’s multi-layered punk rock sound. It was also one of the freshest cuts on the 2008 Rock Sampler compilation, hinting at a legacy year to come for Tooth & Nail Records.

Children 18:3’s debut, which dropped not long after Ivoryline’s in February, is the definition of artistic freedom — and it’s not all flowers and butterflies either. The group put plenty of emphasis on death: the anti-abortion resistance of “You Know We’re All So Fond of Dying” and the pleading with a violent friend on “Samantha” to name a few. The first three songs clock in under three minutes, with no time to breathe in between them — all killer, no filler, as their soundalike Sum 41 would say. SputnikMusic praised the band for having “no trouble getting to the point.”

“Homemade Valentine” is Children 18:3’s peak moment musically and lyrically, with their most durable chorus and a supremely sticky metaphor for faith (“We pasted all our hopes on him like the paper hearts of our homemade valentine”). I remember in ninth grade when a friend of mine burned me a CD with some of the band’s songs and specifically wrote “This song rocks!” Thirteen years later, it still does.

Children 18:3 even revisit their roots with the ska-punk “The City,” whose narrative may only finish behind the Bourne Identity cinematics of “LCM” for the most memorable storytelling on the record. As a full-length, Children 18:3 still stands as a special moment for Christian music — it puts a fresh spin on an overdone genre, and received rave reviews in the Christian (Jesus Freak Hideout and Indie Vision Music) and punk (AbsolutePunk) worlds. A creative burst during Tooth & Nail’s renaissance, the tightly constructed punk masterpiece immediately catapulted the trio to premier Christian rock status (they’d tour with Norma Jean later that year).

Frontman David Hostetter had an impressive ability to turn dramatic stories into tightly written punk numbers. “Homemade Valentine” is not just a metaphor for faith, but also a reference to the road to Emmaus account in Luke 24 (Photo Credit: Kelsey/Love Fusion Photo).

It was a busy winter and spring for the label, which also included the first LP from Secret & Whisper (a Moby Dick-themed post-hardcore adventure) and Run Kid Run’s second LP (a lighthearted pop-punk romp I remember begging my mom to buy for me). It wouldn’t slow down by summertime either.

Not long after Rock Sampler dropped, Capital Lights took the scene by storm, with a transition from metalcore to pop-rock so shiny and synthy it practically begged for the label of power pop. Then came The Classic Crime’s sophomore effort, The Silver Cord, a standout rock record in a year chock full of them for Tooth & Nail. This one was no surprise, either, as the band was already expecting to take their seat next to Anberlin and Emery after the highly promising Albatross in 2006.

There are a lot of ways to characterize The Silver Cord: bigger, heavier, darker. But the one word that best sums it up is “focused.” That’s because it showcased the band moving forward. “We always kind of favored The Silver Cord as an album that we were all proud of, and we were so tired of Albatross for a long time because we had written those songs two or three years before we even recorded that album,” frontman Matt MacDonald said in an interview I did with him in 2015. 

That’s not to say everything went smoothly getting to this point. The Classic Crime had major label aspirations before Tooth & Nail, but after signing a lucrative deal with their hometown label, Albatross didn’t get them as big as Anberlin and Emery like they’d hoped (wishful thinking, right?). But, as MacDonald said on the Labeled podcast, “The first naivete was over, and now it’s the real thing.”

While The Silver Cord was a long time coming for a band that spent several years touring Albatross, The Classic Crime was busy even before that: They released an acoustic EP titled The Seattle Sessions in November 2007.

Released in July, The Silver Cord ended up being the band’s breakthrough, selling 5,805 copies in its first week (surpassing the total for Albatross, Tooth & Nail’s strongest opening at that time). It was a chilling accomplishment since there’s a song called “5805” on the record, in reference to the address of their first practice space. It’s a track caked in nostalgia and glistening melodies, and it’s wholeheartedly potent.

“Salt in the Snow” is another mid-tempo standout — and arguably the biggest standout on a record brimming with energy. In it, MacDonald speaks of salt melting snow, a reference to “winter’s cold giving way to summer’s warmth.” “There’s imagery of seasons in there, summer being a good season of your life and winter being a tough season in your life. So it was kind of in between those two seasons where you’re just melted,” he said to Jesus Freak Hideout.

It’s this positive immaculacy that made The Classic Crime blossom on their sophomore disc, because the frontman always found a way to hit you square in the chest with his well-meaning intentions. The band uses its instruments to hit you in the chest, too: Emo-tinged hard rock bangers “Gravedigging” and “Abracadavers” explode behind massive guitars and the rough edges of MacDonald’s voice. Then there are songs like “The Way That You Are” that do both with pure power.

“Abracadavers” was the first single off The Silver Cord, a look at the band’s rock sound at full impact. It was followed by later singles “5805” and “Gravedigging,” the latter of which was featured on the 2008 Warped Tour CD.

Some will crown Albatross solely for nostalgia’s sake (it did come out on the tail end of the 2000s emo/punk movement), while others will look at the refined alt-rock nature of The Silver Cord and see just how much of an impact it had — and perhaps there’s some nostalgia there too. But it was clearly a step forward, as well as a step up for a band looking to flourish like their Tooth & Nail contemporaries.

One band who wasn’t like anyone on the label and was also approaching their second album was Family Force 5. They were actually new to Tooth & Nail in 2008, releasing their rookie record on Gotee Records (the label best known for Relient K). With the artistic freedom the label ensured for its Christian bands, it was the perfect fit for an act that didn’t have overtly religious themes but sure had a lot of personality.

Dance or Die was a sharp departure from the crunk-rockers’ heavy, guitar-centric style on Business Up Front/Party in the Back, with more of a dance/EDM style (the title was, quite literally, saying “you’re either with us or against us”). It was also one of the most anticipated Christian records of 2008 — and it followed through both commercially and creatively.

It sure helped that the band had a whole lot of style to go with that substance: attention-grabbing fashion, weirdly wholesome stage names, and an obsession with pop culture. Dance or Die is an uncompromising representation of that style, and it’s all over the place too — from the bass-heavy screamo of “Get Your Back Off the Wall” to electropop overload of “Radiator.”

Family Force 5’s electronic-styled dance-rock affair Dance or Die featured two singles, “Dance or Die” and “Radiator,” which were also the opening and closing tracks on the album.

The record, which dropped in August, was immersive, expansive, and (not surprisingly) bold. “I think Dance or Die is kind of like the apocalypse. That’s basically how we thought when we wrote this record,” guitarist Derek “Chap Stique” Mount said of the band’s in-the-clouds headspace. “We wanted lasers and explosions and bombs and robots to be very actively involved.”

Family Force 5 was almost always too much (“the musical equivalent of mixing Mentos and Coke,” AbsolutePunk said of Dance or Die). There were no Speak & Spells on this effort, but there was a whole lot of musical diversity — perfect for a label hitting a creative groove. The Atlanta crew were a unique species, and everybody loved them for it: Their Tooth & Nail debut reached the top of the Christian charts. Just don’t try to hit on their girl — that’s a party foul, dude.

As the fall approached, so did a new album from Underoath. It was a relief for all of us that the band was still in one piece at this point, which is something you wouldn’t expect to hear following a gold album.

But this was a tumultuous time for one of the biggest bands in 2000s metalcore, and it all came to a head during the 2006 Warped Tour (a tour that saw Underoath on the headlining stage). Word got out about vocalist Spencer Chamberlain’s drug use, the rest of the band confronted him about it, and Underoath suddenly left the tour — with concerns that metal’s new kings were imploding at their peak. (I’d recommend listening to this episode of the Labeled podcast, which talks all about the incident).

Survive, Kaleidoscope featured live versions of songs off They’re Only Chasing Safety and Define the Great Line, a last gasp of Underoath’s previous two records before adding another full-length to their discography (Photo Credit: Todd Fixler).

But things mended, the band pressed on, and here we are in September with a follow-up hitting shelves. Lost in the Sound of Separation, naturally, embodied this period of tension and desolation. It was angry and direct, finding a band at their peak popularity but also at the top of their game.

To understand this a record, we have to first take a look inside Chamberlain’s head. On Define the Great Line, he began to sing more about his relationship with the world: Feelings of isolation, alienation, and trepidation all permeated the mountainous metalcore soundscapes. He only gets more explicit and enraged on the follow-up. [This record’s] about the last two years of my life. It’s definitely some of the darkest [stuff we’ve done], but that doesn’t mean I’m always totally desperate,” he said. Chamberlain comes right out of the gate with this exact angst (“We’re the desperate, you’re the savior,” he screams in “Breathing in a New Mentality”).

Remember, this was a man who spent the past two years getting bible verses screamed at him as he struggled with his own personal issues. His response? “I’m no leader, I’m just a mess,” he proclaims on “Anyone Can Dig a Hole But It Takes a Man to Call It Home.” It’s also the song where Aaron Gillespie finally chimes in with his cleans, because Underoath wanted to spend the first five minutes of the record uppercutting you right in the face.

Separation as a whole was heavier, more direct and more chaotic. In an MTV sneak peek, listeners raved about the songs as they built “slowly to their thunderous, ear-splitting crescendos.” “We Are the Involuntary” immediately comes to mind, an atmospheric wall of sound that crushes everything in its wake once Chamberlain chimes in.

“Desperate Times, Desperate Measures” was not the first Underoath song to make a Madden soundtrack (that would be “You’re Ever So Inviting”). Its video premiered on MTV2, in a time when TV still played a role on music consumption.

This was an Underoath seeking to capture their live energy more so than ever, as was their intention ever since they began to break through. “Chasing Safety is just so polished and I can’t even listen to it. That’s what we always used to talk about, like “That record didn’t sound like us,”” Chamberlain said in an interview I did with him years later. Define the Great Line was the initial movement toward a harder and dirtier sound, and Separation was the fulfillment of that.

Remember, the six-piece was a busy live band. Even after leaving Warped Tour in 2006, they went on to play Taste of Chaos internationally, then Mayhem Festival in 2007. They also put out a live album and documentary titled Survive, Kaleidoscope earlier in 2008, which foreshadowed Separation’s direction with a smorgasbord of metal fury. Clearly the unpredictable and unbridled energy of the stage performance was where Underoath was most comfortable. 

Unfortunately, Lost in the Sound of Separation often gets lost in the fray: Though the band played it during their three-album livestream series last year, it was left out during their 2016 Rebirth Tour over Chasing Safety and Great Line. In this reflection piece, It’s All Dead calls it the group’s In Utero: a record overshadowed by previous works, but deserving of plenty of merit for its refusal to cave to outside expectations.

The award-nominated music video for “Too Bright to See, Too Loud to Hear” was a fan-submitted video in a United Kingdom contest, an example of Underoath’s strong engagement with their listeners.

Yet, during a time of unparalleled creative artistry from its roster, Tooth & Nail stayed on top of the game with its most successful band. Like Rock Sampler, the label’s podcast was another excellent marketing tool, hyping up its releases with excerpts from new songs and even some artist interviews. It’s the September 2008 edition where I first heard “Desperate Times, Desperate Measures,” the album’s biggest gem among an onslaught of metalcore might. (The hit single also made the Madden 09 soundtrack, which was and still is a big deal for a band with mostly screaming).

The other single, “Too Bright to See, Too Loud to Hear,” featured almost all cleans from Gillespie, and it was the closest to a Christian anthem the band had put out since “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape.” The track was a hit in the spiritual realm, with its inventive animated music video getting nominated for a Dove Award. Years later, the song was even sampled by Lil Peep on his 2016 emo rap confessional “Hellboy.”

It seemed Underoath couldn’t get any bigger or better — and this may have been a somewhat accurate statement, since Gillespie would leave the band the next year and begin the act’s slow coast into (temporary) nonexistence. Their fellow Floridians in Copeland would enter temporary nonexistence as well, which began with their “farewell” album that they released in October 2008 — a month after Separation.

It was a special release for the indie rock outfit, their first on Tooth & Nail and first produced by Aaron Sprinkle. Because of their newcomer status, Copeland didn’t have the pedigree of acts like Anberlin and Underoath (until they returned in the mid-2010s). But they were active in this musical realm and immediately fit in — after all, Aaron Marsh did guest vocals on They’re Only Chasing Safety and Cities.

You Are My Sunshine was the only Copeland album to come out on Tooth & Nail Records before their “farewell.” Since their return, they’ve released two more records on the label (Ixora and Blushing).

A gorgeous piano- and strings-infused brand of pop-rock, You Are My Sunshine cannot be overlooked, because it was a fabulous addition to Tooth & Nail’s impressive discography. It was an admirable “finale” for a band that, at the time, had no expectation to ever return to activity. Marsh had a knack for strong songwriting, and Sunshine is one of the brightest spots in his repertoire — one that Jesus Freak Hideout says takes the best of all their works and turns it into a “calculated, concise piece of work.”

“If this album is any indication of the future for this band, it’s looking good for them,” Indie Vision Music predicted in its rave review of the album. While the irony of this statement was on them at the time, they certainly got one thing right: Copeland was just beginning to master their craft, as was the musical mastermind at the helm in Marsh.

The same could be said of their Tooth & Nail labelmates — some familiar faces hitting their strides and some promising newcomers flexing their talents. Altogether, they made 2008 not merely a captivating year for Christian music, but a monumental one that we continue to commend today.

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)

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