“We keep changing the music, and you guys keep coming.”
Michael Gungor said this during a heartfelt moment of thanking the audience for coming to see him, his wife Lisa Gungor, and their band perform at the El Rey last night. It’s standard operating procedure for bands to thank their audiences for attending shows, but I could tell that seeing us all there at each stop on the tour was especially meaningful, given that a lot of the music on Gungor’s latest album I Am Mountain had arisen from a season of doubt and distress, and the new songs discussed these in sometimes metaphorical ways that weren’t as clear on the outcome or “answers” as a lot of Christian music fans might expect. And that’s to say nothing of their stylistic shift, from kinda rock-oriented indie worship band on Beautiful Things, to full on baroque and even a bit bluegrassy on Ghosts Upon the Earth, to the snapshot of a sort-of-electronic, sort-of-acoustic, sort-of-jammy and sort-of-abstract band in flux captured on I Am Mountain. You just never know what you’re gonna get from a Gungor album, or from one of their concerts, but they remain one of the most talented and prolific bands on the “indie” side of Christian music, and they’re always a treat to see live.
Even though Beautiful Things, Gungor’s breakthrough album, is merely four years old, it seems like the distant past from the perspective of their current tour, which has a setlist dominated by I Am Mountain, with a few highlights from Ghosts sprinkled throughout. I’m fine with that because I generally want to see a band play their new stuff live and I’m not one of those fans who just wants to hear “the hits” and then tune out the rest. Most of their fanbase seems to agree, or at least to roll with the changes patiently and attentively. While the upbeat tracks from I Am Mountain (which were mostly stacked one after another at the beginning of the set, temporarily worrying me about how the pacing was gonna work out in the rest of it) and a few older gems got the biggest cheers, the slower, more abstract stuff seemed to keep people transfixed as well, soaking in the mellow glow of the band’s unusual blend of Lisa’s synthesized keyboard sounds and Michael’s virtuoso guitar soloing. Tracks that I wasn’t sure “worked” on the album started to make more sense in this setting, especially with the tragic ballads “Yesternite” and “Beat of Her Heart” back to back, both of them featuring a desperate man crying out to “the gods” for something he perceived being taken away – either the love of his beautiful wife (in keeping with the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice), or just his faith and certainty in general. Christians who have lived their entire lives in a bubble might not get this stuff. “Did he say gods, plural? Has he become polytheistic or something? Better put Gungor on the CCM blacklist.” But those who have been through that dark night of the soul, who end up being confronted with the actual words of God versus their rapidly-crumbling beliefs in the things they thought were God, or at least those who can approach someone having such an existential crisis with empathy rather than judgment, are capable of responding more deeply to these sorts of songs. The lack of a clear chorus or really even any lyrics to sing along to might make the tempestuous ending of a song like “Upside Down” seem like navel-gazing indulgence, and as a concert-goer it’s hard to know how to respond to such a song. But it was in that moment, more than any of the furious rockers or blistering instrumental solos or infectious sing-along choruses, that the music brought me to a most interesting personal reflection. As much as I may gripe and groan about the things I struggle with in the present day, including some of the lessons I’m still learning about what God is not and what I had only assumed God promises, versus the far more meaningful things He actually promised, any faith crisis I’ve been through recently is small potatoes compared to the depressions I went through in college and shortly there after. There were points where I didn’t want to admit it, but the bottom had dropped out under me and I wasn’t sure God was there to put His hand out and break the infinite freefall. It was the most genuinely scared I’ve ever been, and there was a reason for me to go through all that stuff, but I’m glad I came out on the other side of it with some false beliefs busted and some true beliefs strengthened. A lot of people would want to forget such a scary time of crisis and just move on. But in creating that sort of a sonic collage that ends their album (and the pre-encore portion of their live show) on such an unsettling note, they’ve reminded me of something that God gracefully brought me through. Michael and Lisa are still Christians, so I know He brought them safely through it as well. But it takes courage to even admit to ever having had those sorts of doubts when you’re among people who haven’t been through that sort of darkness yet. So while it asks for a good degree of patience from the audience, seeing people be so receptive and intrigued by these sorts of songs reminded me that I’m far from the only one to have gone through that stuff.
Of course, you need the up-tempo sing-alongs and the fast-paced, rhythmic guitar-driven stuff to offset all of the deep-deep-down philosophizing. And there was plenty of that to go around – first at the beginning set with their extended, soulful take on “Wayward and Torn” segueing into their searing take on the whole gun control debate, “God and Country”. How the band’s past informed their present could be heard as snippets of the verses from “You Have Me” were woven into the outro of “Long Way Off”: “Out on the farthest edge/There in the silence/Will You stay with me?/My faith was torn to shreds/My heart in the balance/Will You stay with me?” Elsewhere, the more up-tempo, celebratory moments from Ghosts Upon the Earth – “When Death Dies”, “You Are the Beauty”, and “This Is Not the End”, helped to balance out the more contemplative material from the new album, each of those old songs sounding markedly different in the new band configuration, which made up with rhythm and programming and layering and Gungor’s unusual style of soloing what they couldn’t provide by way of classical instrumentation, given the much smaller band configuration. I like hearing old songs reimagined as a group’s sound morphs over the years – I may usually prefer the studio version of a track, but the re-imagining keeps things new, as I’ve now heard a few of those songs in concert three times. As always, the core band members gave their all, easily filling in any perceived holes in the expected sound of a song. I have to give particular credit to Lisa Gungor, who has become just as much of a creative force as Michael, taking the lead on several songs and occasionally supporting the band on guitar and even drums in addition to her usual keyboards. She’s doing this tour while heavily pregnant, and that baby has pretty much the best front row seat in the house. If what they say about playing intelligent music for your baby is true, then this one will come out of the womb a total genius. (One small critique of the men on stage and backstage: Would it have killed someone to go get her a stool? I admire Lisa for soldering on despite being out of breath and looking at a few moments like her back was killing her, but especially during a few of the softer songs when she was out of the spotlight, they should have given her a place to sit down already!)
While there are many songs on I Am Mountain that may not last in their live sets past this tour (largely because they’re so specific to this period of the Gungors’ lives and to the sound of this album, which will likely change radically for their next album and tour), there are some that I know will endure for pretty much the entire life of the band because they’re such great moments of audience participation. You can’t watch them perform an irresistible groove like the one from “Let It Go” and not get swept up in the motion of it. And hearing an entire room of people sing along to the wordless chorus of “I Am Mountain” was one of those musical moments when it’s easiest to see heavenly beauty in this ball of dirt and water and flesh that we call Earth. Of course, the band knew to save their signature song for last, only bringing out “Beautiful Things” for the encore, and most interestingly, this was done in intimate acoustic fashion, with the other band members calling it a night at the end of a main set, and only Michael, Lisa, and an acoustic guitar – and of course the entire audience losing themselves in a beloved classic song – for accompaniment. That song will never not remind me of things God brought back to life, comping up through ground that I had considered irrevocably barren. And given the changes that Gungor has gone through and how they don’t seem to fit as well into the CCM crowd these days, I’m glad that song in particular still seems as meaningful to them as it is to the rest of us.
- Wayward and Torn
- God and Country
- Long Way Off/You Have Me outro
- Let It Go
- When Death Dies
- Beat of Her Heart
- You Are the Beauty
- The Best Part
- This Is Not the End
- I Am Mountain
- Upside Down
- Encore: Beautiful Things
It had been mentioned to me (and I had since forgotten) that the opening act was Kye Kye, who we had seen before, opening for Future of Forestry‘s Christmas tour back in 2010. I was surprised that so many people seemed to have heard of them. They have one of those heavily layered, sorta-chill but sorta-danceable indie pop vibes, and just a general air of coolness about them that makes it easy to fall in love with their sound. (Think of a more club-friendly Plumb and you’ll sort of get the idea.) That sort of thing translates better to a dimly lit concert hall than it does to a brightly lit evangelical church, so I liked them more the second time around. Some of their newer material was downright beautiful. But the one thing that kept me from enjoying their previous album Young Love more than as just a superficial listen was the mush-mouth tendency of their lead singer. At first you’d just assume it’s an issue with sound levels in a live setting, but Olga Yagolnikov just has one of those coolly detached voices that makes the group’s lyrics hard to understand, and ultimately they seem kind of secondary as a result. With that being said, I do find it promising that Chad Howat from Paper Route produced their new album – now there’s a group that knows a thing or two about top-notch electronic rock music. So I’m looking forward to Fantasize and I hope that the group finds a way to clean up their live sound a bit – if they could gain in clarity what they already have in mood and tone, they’d be a force to be reckoned with.