Not so long ago music of a spiritual persuasion was easy to pick out in a heathen crowd. You wouldn't mistake Stryper for Mötley Crüe or confuse DC Talk with NWA--contemporary Christian musicians always made it clear that they were rockin' and/or rappin' for the Lord. If their faith was brought to the forefront lyrically or critically (or to increase the likelihood of crossover success), then so be it. Maybe not so much for Nikki Sixx or Dr. Dre; accused of promoting Satanism, Mötley Crüe alleged that their glam metal anthems instructed the listener to shout at the devil, not with him. NWA deflected charges that they glorified violence by pointing out that they were simply creating artistic reflections of the world they lived in.
It seems like it was only yesterday that Bryce Avary came straight outta Colleyville, adopting a Martian Chronicles reference as his musical moniker to perform cavity-inducing suburban pop-punk as one-man band the Rocket Summer and to peddle his self-produced eponymous EP, released in 2000, throughout the metroplex. A healthy dose of Adventure Club airplay, KDGE listener requests and local press nods only extended Avary's stride. In 2003 he joined forces with California indie label the Militia Group to release his debut full-length Calendar Days, following that up with 2005's Hello, Good Friend to increasing attention and acclaim. Between albums the Rocket Summer became a full band and toured incessantly, and within a few years Avary had managed to leapfrog around the globe and into a slot at this year's Austin City Limits Music Festival. He also scored some big-time backing, recently trading contractual signatures with the Island Def Jam Music Group.
From his 14-year-old start, Avary displayed a savvy for crafting radio-ready gems and executing enthusiastic, family-friendly bubble-gum emo with an ease and assuredness far beyond his years. Avary's singing voice occasionally alternates between squeals and squeaks, though it mostly kind of squawks. It's at once irritating and likable. The melodies are piled on in thick slabs and the phrasing is carved out with surgical precision. The lyrics are monosyllabic and ridiculously optimistic, like some sort of anti-angst grunge backlash.
Beyond being incredibly talented and motivated, Avary is also a sickeningly nice guy. The now-22-year-old's squeaky-clean image and panty-peeling good looks are a music promoter's wet dream, but he doesn't even need the help. Before public relations agencies and top-40 hit factories even had a chance of getting their mitts on him, Avary had already perfected a widely marketable pop-punk package. It just happens to sell like hotcakes.
There's a healthy dose of skepticism that creeps in when reading the Rocket Summer's press. Much is made of how Avary writes all the music himself and plays all the instruments. Words like "prodigy" and "wunderkind" are recklessly bandied about. And a certain amount of attention is focused on his inspiring, if not inspired, Christian lyrics; not to be confused with the Warrant hit of the same name, the Rocket Summer's "Heaven" has Avary singing, "They'll just dig, dig, dig/Until they can't get out/And dying dirty digging for treasure/But as for me I'm giving up and I'll take my bow...Yes, I know that my treasure is heaven."
He's said in interviews that he considers his music to be a sort of ministry and cites Jesus' "awesomeness" as a major influence in his life and work. While he may not explicitly use the stage as a pulpit, he has witnessed people accepting Christ at his live performances. And what better place to be born again than an all-ages show?
The Rocket Summer is among a smattering of pop and indie acts that have successfully dipped into both the Christian and modern rock markets in the last few years. Many of these bands try to divert attention from their divine lyrics or biblical direction, much like Mötley Crüe and NWA tried to rub out fires of criticism with one hand while fanning flames with the other. They're Christians who make music, music that people want to hear and buy, so if you want to call that Christian music, well, whatever.
"I just want to make the best record of my life," Avary says of his next record, "connecting with as many people as possible."
Songwriters are now more aware that solely defining yourself as a Christian artist immediately lessens your chance of broad appeal. Not so much because of the religious connotations but because most contemporary Christian music is poorly written and incontestably schmaltzy. Aware of the self-parody it had become, this new strain of contemporary Christian music that the Rocket Summer deals in isn't just re-worked love songs where the word "baby" is replaced with the word "Jesus"--it's more ambiguous without being any less direct.
Relient K and the Rocket Summer don't raise the same flags that Stryper or DC Talk did; the new "jump for Jesus" wears rebellion and nonconformity well, simultaneously serving as a call to question authority while somehow still respecting your parents and being home at a reasonable hour on a school night. And while Avary speaks openly in interviews about how he speaks openly in song, he also seems keen to the business aspect of it all. Last year he explained to Christianity Today why he initially decided against signing with a Christian record label: "I knew that I wanted this to be something to connect with people that didn't go to church or know Christ." Sure, why preach to the choir?
While the Militia Group isn't an exclusively Christian label, it does offer sanctuary to many acts that ride the diminishing fence between Christian and secular music. Militia's partnering with S/R/E Recordings allowed Hello, Good Friend to get a substantial push into Christian retail. Within months, maybe weeks, of the album's release, the Rocket Summer fever had infected the MySpace demographic like avian flu, and rave reviews popped up all over the place. Less than a year later Avary's roped into a major label stable alongside Bob Marley and Bon Jovi.
After the Rocket Summer wraps up its most recent tour with Saturday's homecoming show, Avary says he will spend some downtime with his tour-managing, merch-selling, bass-playing wife before diving headlong into writing the next record. "I've held off on writing a ton of lyrics," he says, though most of the music is already arranged in his head. While he may not have penned lyrics yet, he already has prepared answers to interview questions. When asked if the new record would be another one-man band affair or if it would incorporate other players, he admits, "I dunno," before quickly repeating his goal to "make the best record of my life" that will "connect with as many people as possible."
He's already connecting with some impressive music moguls. Rising young rock stars may occasionally get the opportunity to meet Jay-Z, but Bryce has already met him several times. Asked if he's worried about having to deliver to Island Def Jam, he answers confidently but cordially: "Not worried. Excited." One wonders if Stryper would have been as relaxed had they signed with Death Row.
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