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Since the celibate, teetotaling band Minor Threat formed in the early '80s, the straight-edge punk movement has taken on many permutations: there are your vegan eco-warriors like Earth Crisis, Hare Krishna punkers Shelter and Both Worlds, or queercore groups like Pansy Division. Whatever their beliefs, orientations or agendas, none has gotten more flak than the born-again set.
"No way," says Don Clark of Training for Utopia when I ask him about whether his band proselytizes. "Some of us are Christians, but there's no agenda. This has always just been about rock & roll."
Listening to their jarring, trippy new album Throwing a Wrench into the American Music Machine, there are in fact no references to Jesus, God, the Bible or any other churchy words. But on their previous release, Plastic Soul Impalement, there's no doubt where they're coming from in the full-on rant in which Clark's brother, vocalist/lead guitarist Ryan, goes into a fervor of righteousness: "Your book of Mormon, your book of Satan, your Koran/All wrong! This whole time you've been wrong. . . . How can you question something so perfect, so beautiful/I will not bask in your flames, I will not wallow in your disease."
"Yeah," Clark says sheepishly, recalling his brother's spontaneous outburst in the studio. "We probably shouldn't have done that."
If Training for Utopia is cagey about its beliefs, musically, the band is probably the most envelope-pushing of just about any hard band out there, Christian or otherwise. Plastic Soul was a savage whirlwind of earsplitting riffs and apoplectic screams, but Throwing takes that same level of brutality and gives it a digital process job. While most of the stuff put out by their Seattle-based label Tooth & Nail is innocuous, commercial-driven pop punk (MxPx and the Supertones sell hundreds of thousands of records), Training for Utopia, Zao and Living Sacrifice are put out on the label's aggro imprint, Solid State.
Zao go in for a similar metallic ferocity, only the aesthetic is a kind of groove-resistant staccato choppiness that gave their last record, Where Blood & Fire Bring Rest, a constipated rhythm. The new one, Liberate Te Ex Infernis, still has their patented stop-surge cadence, except it has the sheen of melody and textures this time. Since its release one month ago, Liberate has already sold 6,000 copies and will probably max out around 20K, according to the band—not too shabby for a bunch of Bible-belting West Virginians with a reputation for scaring people with their zealotry.
"Dude, that is so not true," says drummer Jesse Smith, setting the record straight. "We used to be that way when Sean [Zao's founder] was in the band, but that was like his whole thing—he went on to become a youth pastor. But I think the reason we might scare people is because we're so intense: our lead singer throws up, our guitarist gets all bloody, I throw my drums everywhere. I live in the hills of West Virginia. I'm sure people in this town think I'm a freak, but you know what I could say to them? 'You're a redneck with a mullet who listens to Loretta Lynn—you're the freak.'"
Colored-in with tats, sporting the latest threads and glammed-out maquillage, Smith couldn't do a better job of exploding the acoustic-guitar-strumming, tambourine-shaking, kumbayah-singing stereotype of the Christian rocker.
"Why do people think just because something's loud and aggressive, it can't be positive or spiritual?" he says. "People are so simple-minded. This isn't about us telling others what's wrong with their lives, it's about salvation. The biggest enemies of Christianity are other Christians. I mean, there's a lot of good Christians, of course, but it's the Jimmy Swaggarts and Tammy Faye Bakkers that people think of when you talk about Christians."
With his slang-peppered speech (he says "right on," "gnarly," "wrecked," "tight" and "jacked," like, every other word) and habit of bouncing from topic to topic with the attention span of a gnat, Smith is a tough interview. It's as if he's interviewing me, firing off one question after without giving me time to answer, but I finally wedge one in there about whether he finds a sufficient creative outlet as Zao's drummer. "Dude, I am Zao—I write 70 percent of the music. The other guys in the band are total slackers, but I work my butt off. Plan to see me on MTV in a couple of years, man, because I've written these songs . . ."
He pauses, dreaming about the future, and adds, "I gotta get them in somebody's hands."
Bruce Fitzhugh, the mellow, laid-back Southerner who plays guitar for Living Sacrifice, displays nothing like Smith's hyperactivity or drive—just a yen for all things Ozzy. "Once we became Christians, the love of metal never went away," he explains, cradling the phone under his chin as he feeds a bottle to his 3-week-old baby girl in his Little Rock, Arkansas, living room.
"It's just natural for us to make it aggressive. The Bible says violence in a creative format is all right. Not violence as in hurting another person, but as in being assertive."
While Training for Utopia and Zao's expressions of faith can be fairly oblique, lyrically speaking, Living Sacrifice don't waste time with subtlety and arty conceits. Their latest album, Reborn, is a straight-up fundamentalist homily, a frightening slab of jagged, low-end shred and Gatling-gun double kick, framing their collective rapture over the gift of Jesus Christ.