YouthWorker Journal January/February 2001By ?
The Phantom Tollbooth August 2000By Terry Wandtke
The Alarma Chronicles' lack of commercial recognition may puzzle some listening to the collection now; that lack probably has little to do with the sound of the albums. With a combination of earlier influences (such as the Beatles' pop sensibilities and the Beach Boys' harmonies) and cutting edge pop music (such as New Wave, eighties electronica, and alternative guitar rock), Daniel Amos seems in step with the musical pulse of the eighties, both its influences and trends. Unfortunately, Daniel Amos fell victim to a series of problems. Their musical style rapidly evolved from country rock to Beatles-inflected pop to the eclectic sound of The Alarma Chronicles. Their fan base had a difficult time keeping stride with the band (especially since Horrendous Disc, the album immediately preceding The Alarma Chronicles, was kept from release for several years). More importantly, a growing Christian music industry was trying to identify itself to its consumers even though it wasn't quite sure of what that identity would consist. The highly innovative Daniel Amos put out four albums over five years: Alarma, Doppelganger, Vox Humana, and Fearful Symmetry. They linked them conceptually and called them The Alarma Chronicles. They used biting wit and social critique and set it to music that pushed the envelope of Christian music in the eighties. Consequently, the industry and many consumers didn't know what to do with them.
I don't mean to assume a superior attitude and suggest I know what to do with them; I wouldn't want to do that. Their enigmatic quality may make them hard to market, but it also makes their music exceptional. "Central Theme," the first song in The Alarma Chronicles, signals Daniel Amos's move toward modern pop music. Yet, Terry Taylor exposes his debt to Brian Wilson with vocals not just haunting but melodic and sweet. In some ways a worship song placing Jesus in the center of all things, "Central Theme" is immediately followed by the title song of the first album; instead of reassurance, "Alarma" provides the listener with the bad news that people are turning away from God's love and the desperate needs of others. This wake-up-call message is punctuated by fast-paced guitar riffs and post-punk vocals, unadorned and sometimes harsh. This album is filled with similar odd juxtapositions such as "Big Time / Big Deal," a New Wave diatribe on the egotism that drives Christian celebrities in a media-driven age, and "Props," a Beatles send-up that questions having blind faith in the virtue of happy endings. These collisions of style and substance are cleverly orchestrated to create music at once unconventional and perhaps even uncomfortable. In many ways, this is the project behind The Alarma Chronicles--to disorient and to see faith in a new way.
Admittedly, that makes the series an extensive undertaking. Despite the potential for the series to lead to moral pomposity, The Alarma Chronicles maintains a fairly consistent and humble tone throughout. Perhaps the most successful album is the second, Doppelganger. Taylor signals his ambition as lyricist with "Hollow Man" (drawn from the work of T.S. Eliot), and that ambition is matched by the clever construction of each song on the album. Functioning as a sustained exploration of consumer culture, of the rhetoric of contemporary Christianity, and even of human perception, Doppelganger ranges from acerbic satire (in "Mall (All Over the World)" and "New Car") to heart-rending social commentary (in "Youth with a Machine" and "Angels Tuck You In"). The musical experimentation continues on this album and the band's growing maturity is evident. Though their influences are as numerous as on Alarma and are again employed to create a sense of dissonance, the music has a distinctive style which allows it to stand on its own merits. Daniel Amos transcends its musical influences and creates something innovative with the tight arrangements of "The Double" and the manic "I Didn't Build it for Me."
In my estimation, Daniel Amos took a radical step with Doppelganger toward being the exceptional band they would be in the late eighties and early nineties, lyrically sophisticated and musically superior to most of their contemporaries. This makes the third album in The Alarma Chronicles somewhat disappointing. An interesting experiment with being in but not of a technological world, Vox Humana uses eighties synth-pop to scrutinize the role of faith in a time driven by technology. Unfortunately, this approach gives the album an extremely dated sound and limits its general accessibility. However, this deficiency doesn't deny the place of The Alarma Chronicles as a unique happening in the course of CCM. Millennium Eight's deluxe treatment of this collection is justified. The four albums are contained on three compact disks and the accompanying book contains all lyrics, liner notes, and text of radio shows associated with The Alarma Chronicles. In addition, the book includes commentaries on the albums by various critics who have charted the course of alternative CCM. The Alarma Chronicles' mini-novel, written by Taylor in segments accompanying each album as it was originally released, isn't Tolstoy, and Taylor obviously tired of writing it. However, it works well as a connective device between the albums. And Taylor obviously never tired of making the music that comprises The Alarma Chronicles.
The final album, Fearful Symmetry, contains some of the best music of The Alarma Chronicles (such as "A Sigh for You" and "Shadow Catcher"), indicating the caliber of the music they had yet to create. Though Daniel Amos's strongest work would follow these four albums, this book set represents a watershed moment more people need to know and experience.
4 1/2 Alarma! clocks out of 5
The Phantom Tollbooth September 2000By Steven S. Baldwin
Looking back almost twenty years to when this song cycle began, some of the music now does have a dated Eighties sound and verges into art rock grandiosity at times; however, there are other musical moments that are purely timeless, extremely well crafted, and as infectiously catchy as the day they were first received by eager fans. There is a wealth of material here, with songs that are more brilliantly written and above average in quality than otherwise and a whole lot of cleverly composed, witty lyrical bits to wrap your head and worshipful heart around. One of the too many to mention highlights is "New Car," with its whimsical yet relevant stab at the health and wealth mentality of many, perhaps well-meaning, but misguided church goers:
I want a miracle, I know what I need...
Give me a Johnny Jacobs (New Car!)
I'm one of the kings's kids
(He wants a blessing!)
Taylor suggests rightly, however, that Doppleganger's "Youth with a Machine," is the lyrical centerpiece of the collection: A future generation of children is in danger. Danger of being tempted by the siren song of technology In danger of dashing itself against the rocks of its own technological revolution. This compelling theme runs throughout the entire collection, particularly in the two middle albums. Nevertheless, it is the very first song of the Alarma! Chronicles, "Central Theme," that, as the title suggests, provides the project's ultimate focus:
Shining in the center, my Lord in the center
Jesus in the center, revolving around Him
Always revolving around Him
Who is on the throne you find, the King of Kings
He's the one I have in mind, the central theme
Lord of Lords...
This focus on our Lord opens, runs through, and closes the collection, being revisited most obviously in the Fearful Symmetry's poetic "The Beautiful One." In the weight of such obvious and impelling evidence, it's hard to imagine now that Christians at the time thought the band had abandoned the faith. Nothing could be further from the Truth.
The complete discs, the stellar content, the pithy articles, the many extras...all of this is well worth the $39.98 asking price, and doesn't begin to touch on the sentimental value that such a collection represents for the fans who've longed to own this collection on CD. The larger question is whether those currently unfamiliar with the chronicle ought to check it out. In the included article "Here I Am...There You Are," Taylor remarks that the core of the Alarma! Chronicles is one of commercialism and consumerism compromising the Church's ability to champion truth and show compassion and love in our modern culture. This message is indeed as powerful and relevant today as it was in the Eighties. More so. And most of these delightful songs are still able to bring a smile to your face, a giggle to your heart, and a whole lot of ecstatic air band action. Consequently, in a crass and ironic endorsement of commercial consumerism, I urge you to purchase this collection. This unpaid advertisement has been brought to you by a devoted fan of the band who believes in both the sheer artistic merits of the work and the power of the Spirit to use this musical collection to inspire your heart again and again.
5 Alarma! clocks out of 5
Crossings Issue 15 August 2000By Jeff Bradshaw
Almost two decades later, all of the behind-the-scenes efforts to bring the four albums out of the "out-of-print" archives of four different record companies and unite them in a "book" set (I'll explain this shortly) have paid off, and now the Alarma! Chronicles come to us in three discs slipped into a 170-page book. The book contains essays on the history and significance of the Chronicles, transcripts of the two Daniel Amos radio shows that heralded the first two Chronicles releases, and the accompanying "vision" narratives that came with the original albums (which of themselves generated numerous discussions, let alone the music), not to mention pictures (and the provocative album art); hence the need for a "book" set, as opposed to the Box Set.
Alarma! is a post-punk, new wave guitar-rock record that is rather stripped-down and has the spontaneity of a live performance. The musical direction was a quantuum leap forward, and the cover art (both front and back cover) was equally innovative and thought-provoking. The lyrics weave a common theme throughout the 16 tracks, which match the cover art and the written narrative--that of self-serving, self-righteous Christians who keep plugging away for their own gain in a serene and affluent culture (and getting into rabid arguments with other Christians over stupid things) while turning a blind eye to people who suffer and die all around the world without Jesus or the compassion that those Christians could provide, and a God who could easily lose patience with us and somehow does not. Great guitar work, excellent vocals, nicely placed keyboards, and production that sounds a lot more expensive than it likely was. Nearly every track is devastating in both its sound and in its lyrical content. It's very hard to single any out, though "Through the Speakers", "Alarma!", "Big Time/Big Deal", and "Cloak & Dagger" seem to really stand out. Very affecting, but just a warm-up to...
Doppelganger follows with quantuum physics, social commentary on spiritual matters, and much fuller, layered music with that same post-punk quirkiness and a big sound. This 1983 release was my first exposure to Daniel Amos. It also took the evolving musical direction to new horizons, incorporating backward masking ("Hollow Man", which is "Ghost of the Heart" from Alarma! run backwards with added lyrics) and sound effects to enhance the punch of the cutting lyrical content. The "big" sound comes at least in part from drummer Ed McTaggart pounding the skins in a warehouse. Very nice effect. The overall effect on individual tracks is that they're more stimulating to the imagination, and help the listener to visualize the powerful concepts in the lyrics. The cover art deals this time with duality, sometimes that of the quantuum physics variety (your "future" or "timeless" self in eternity looking back to your current self--note "The Double"), to more of the self-serving, prosperity-centric Christianity (all the while acting pious and holy) that Alarma! rightly skewered two years before. TV preachers and the whole "prosperity gospel" mentality get their come-uppance in several tracks ("New Car", "Angels Tuck You In", "Little Crosses", "Autographs For the Sick", and "I Didn't Build it For Me"), and they range musically from R&B to new wave to modern/hard rock. Living in the past? You're taking too many trips down "Memory Lane", but at least this is a nice techno tune. Ten years before Bob Briner published his "impact the culture" treatise Roaring Lambs, Terry Taylor had already lambasted modern American Christianity for being out of sync with what's going on in society (or with other believers, for that matter) in "Here I Am". Get these lyrics..."Moving about, in our own exclusive spheres/we touch not, we are not even near". Ouch! Expecting the next album to be called Vox Robottica, we were instead treated to...
Vox Humana was the techno tour-de-force that may have actually been the climax of the Chronicles. The encroachment of technology, and its ability to obscure what is important to humanity motivates the cry of the "voice of the human", to translate the title. To sum it up, this album is probably the best played and best composed of the four. With a few traditional rock instruments, the sound is largely generated by synthesized instruments, with sequencers and keyboards (and drum pads) abounding. And the concepts of the music, cover art, and narratives again strike a common chord--technology is poised to crush us under its weight, and relationships are taking a beating as a result of its allure and isolating tendencies (sounds just a tad prophetic in the Internet age, doesn't it?). Somehow, God manages to get through to us in spite of it all. One of the most passionate (and complex) compositions on the album is a tribute to the 16th(?)-century British poet "William Blake" (certainly a rebellion against the techno 80s, despite the nice techno effects). Beautifully worded, with all sorts of allusions to Blake's work. A likely favorite on this album would be "Dance Stop", the anti-anti-dance tune that was a favorite at DA concerts. Also very noteworthy (and catchy) is "It's the Eighties (So Where's Our Rocket Packs?"), where techno-pop meets Depression-era radio crooning (and possibly Depression-era predictions of how science would radically change our lives by the 1980s) that proves the more things "change", the more they really stay the same, especially in social and religious terms. "Travelog" uses serious wit to decry the pseudo-travels of those who sit in front of the TV. Shallow spirituality is the subject of "Home Permanent", and God's love the subject of "When Worlds Collide". A fitting end to man's search for meaning and assurance in an overwhelming age of technology, God becomes our "Sanctuary", in a tune that is so brooding, yet so moving that the listener can easily slip into "the zone", nearly trance-like, in worship of our Lord.
Fearful Symmetry is the final chapter of the Chronicles, with moments of sharp wit in socio-religious commentary, but largely holds the elements of an artfully played worship album. God sings for us, so to speak, in "A Sigh For You", and we respond to the "Beautiful One" (the Lord, of course), at the end, with another call to the Love of our lives in "When The Moonlight Sleeps (On the Frosted Hill)". All things become new in the narrative and the lyrics, as the Creator's love for us is consumated. The mystical interpretations of baptism are explored in "The Pool", with the driving modern rock beat. A few fun tunes hold a serious message--first, the folly of legalistic piety is pitted against what sounds convincingly like those old instructional films that we were shown in schools decades ago in "Instructions Through Film". Impressive. Second, anyone wishing for those old steel guitar days of DA's country rock get one last look with a frantic twist in "Sudden Heaven", dealing with God breaking in on the darkness of our current lives with His glory. Third, "Neverland Ballroom" sounds an awful lot like a dance club take on Revelation. Hmmm...Two tunes get a fair mention for a slightly different reason--"Sleep, Silent Child" and "Shadowcatcher", moreso musically than lyrically, though the lyrics are as haunting as the music. These two tracks stand out in my memory, as at the time I was reading Frank Miller's classic graphic novel on an aging Batman's swan song, The Dark Knight Returns. These tracks became the soundtrack for a dark, brooding comic book, and I will ever see Miller's stark images and stammering prose when I listen to this disc.
Put together, the four Alarma! Chronicles represent the best of Christian music in the 80s. A few typos in the lyric sheets should not make you even the least bit hesitant about trying to get a copy of the new Book Set, but you should be warned that the Book Set is a limited pressing--supposedly only 2,000 copies were published, most of which were sold earlier this summer at the Cornerstone festival. You may have a hard time procuring a copy, but it will be worth the effort if you can still get your hands on this.