Drowning with Land In Sight Reviews
There's just one problem. After twelve years and seven releases, very few people have ever heard them, and their reason is simple: they're a relentlessly intense "alternative" rock and roll band, who are also explicitly, although far from typically, a "Christian" rock and roll band. The 77's are also a perfect example of what Larry Norman meant when he talked about being "too Christian for the radio, and too radio for the Church." Indeed, the enigmatic 77's have been a puzzle to the CCM establishment, who have been unable to find a place for the band's thoughtful and dark lyrics in the context of positive Christian radio. Meanwhile, the arbiters of mainstream radio might welcome the band's intense honesty, but are terrified of that honesty in the context of an explicit faith. In many ways, the 77's have been caught in the middle, the quintessential "underground band," seemingly destined to perennially set trends without ever being trendy.
But with their newest release for Myrrh Records, Drowning with Land in Sight, the 77's seem poised to reverse that destiny. A perfect follow-up to their 1992 self-titled release, Drowning is as an intense and provocative record as any that will be released for any market this year, and one that cannot be ignored by either Christian or mainstream radio. Musically, this record captures Mike Roe and company at their finest, hard-rocking best. Perhaps the most intense disc on a Christian label in years, Drowning flows in the trajectory of songs like "Woody" or "Look" from their last project, or "Perfect Blues" from their 1987 release for Island records. The opening track, the infamous "Nobody's Fault But Mine" (which Led Zeppelin stole form Gospel pioneer Blind Willie Johnson) sets the tone for the disc, an all-out, no-holds-barred, sonic assault on the listener. With the rhythmic foundation laid relentlessly by bassist Mark Harmon and legendary drummer Aaron Smith, Roe's searing lead guitar work and second guitarists and co-songwriter Dave Leonhardt's exceptional support work have opportunity to shine on the disc's 60 minutes worth of music. There is little doubt after listening to Drowning that the 77's are no sanitized studio creation: they are a real, live, sweaty rock and roll band who cheerfully celebrate their musical influences, among whom they count such a diverse grouping as Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, and even recent modern rockers like Pearl Jam or the Stone Temple Pilots. "Nobody's Fault's" original Gospel lyrics set the thematic tone for Drowning as well, with their three-fold affirmation of the life and death difficulty of life, the possibility of redemption, and our responsibility to live in the light of both these truths.
For Roe, the 77's brutal honesty and intensity are essential to the mission of the band, an intent that he insists is first and foremost a ministry, albeit one not normally thought to fit into most "Christian" radio formats. There is no "happy, happy, joy, joy" Christianity here, but instead an absolute commitment to find the heart of the Gospel - unmerited favor - for the absolute worst in us.
"The record is about being taken to the deepest and darkest parts of ourselves and our lives," says Roe. "It's deep into the theme of abandonment - complete loss of moral foundations and moorings, both emotionally and spiritually. In other words, it's a state that many Christians find themselves in today, but are either unwilling to admit or simply cannot face."
"The theme of the album," says Roe, revolves around "someone so far gone that they finally get to the point where they realize they need a Savior at least. This is after knowing God in their youth, in having a Savior all along, but finally coming to the realization that your actually need one."
Drowning is at once a cry to those who are coming to recognize their need, and to those who haven't recognized it as well. "I think a lot of people that grow up in church get sort of strong-armed into the whole business of Christ as Savior," says Roe plaintively. "They don't really appreciate what it means to be saved from oneself, from the world, from sin. In fact, until you're a victim of all those things and realize how totally strangulating they are on your freedom and well-being, you may always resent the fact that you had to have a Savior from something you weren't sure you wanted to be saved from, or even know what it was worth."
This return to desperate spiritual need which Roe speaks of is no theory for the 77's. Last year, guitarist David Leonhardt was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease, a kind of cancer, and Drowning was recorded in the wake of that news, some of it during his treatments. While overwhelming in and of itself, through the making of the record, Leonhardt's struggle with the disease became a paradigm for the Christian's struggle with self. But while the disc reflects "the most desperate" of the band's despair and struggle coming from that turmoil, it also was born out of a commitment to and belief that in telling the truth about their despair, they could reach out to the despair that others experience, regardless of its source. Roe's conviction that what Christians need most is to know that they are not alone in their struggles - regardless of their nature or source of those struggles - is the driving force behind Drowning, and indeed, the band itself.
Out of that commitment to "helping heal what made me sick," Roe and company have written an album of gut-wrenching, truth-telling, no-rules rock and roll that both nods back to the raw energy of early rock, and paves the way for the ground-breaking sounds of the new alternative movement.
But more importantly, Drowning clearly leads, not only to a recognition of our common, desperate need, but to that cry of a need to a God who meets us in it. The closing cut, "For Crying Out Loud" reintroduces the themes of "Nobody's Fault" and makes the source of redemption unmistakable, as well as the truth that, in reality, ultimately, no one need drown. While seemingly an excursion into despair, Drowning with Land in Sight is in reality an examination of our first step toward redemption: recognizing its need, and telling ourselves the truth about ourselves. That's where Drowning begins, and it's where grace will meet us.
Wm. Dwight Ozard