Splintered Conventions and Skillful Praise: How Gungor Rocked the House Sunday Night

Gungor laid Rockford to waste this past Sunday night at First Evangelical Free Church’s rad amphitheater that I never had any idea existed. Kristin and I checked it out at Valentin and Dasha’s behest, they being the ones who first introduced us to the weird world of Gungor. Henry and Charis joined the posse as well, a choice made all the more significant by the fact that this would be Charis’ first rock concert.

Epic.

Starfield opened commendably, four pairs of girl jeans channeling U2 through a funnel of Chris Tomlin. I was familiar with their song “Hosanna,” whose infectiously anthemic chorus has mercilessly lodged itself in the pulpier parts of my brain many a time. Their catalogue features Explosions In the Sky-style effects soaked leads over campfire acoustic guitar and driving drums. Their singer communicated a sincerity still human enough to accommodate ridiculous rock star send-offs such as, “Now everyone get down reeeeeal low, on your haunches… [several seconds pass as hundreds of people during the build up to a semi-explosive bridge section] You guys look ridiculous.” Many bands like this seem to want to convey a love for Jesus so profound they’ve upped the monastical ante by performing a humor appendectomy on themselves. While pleasant to listen to, Starfield did not rise far above the gamut of much modern, Christian white dude pop rock, which, to their credit, they never pretended to.

I had listened to approximately three Gungor tunes before that evening and while I had dug those three, a creeping dread suddenly fell upon me as Starfield removed their gear from the stage: What if an ICBM of ultra obscure hipster nonsense was zeroing in on our position? The singer does, after all, wear suspenders- there’s a conspicuous red flag. And what exactly is a Gungor anyway? Sounds like a Swedish death metal band with an indecipherable logo- there’s even a pair of umlauts in their name!

Metal? They ain’t. Technical? At times, volcanically so. Pretentious? Not a whiff. Iconoclastic? More than likely.

They opened their set with a mind-blowing, neo-classical by way of Nick Drake barnburner that was at turns contemplative, blistering, and soaring. Kind of a lot happened in the space of that one song, including an acoustic guitar/cello counterpoint shredfest; imagine Django Reinhardt and Sergei Prokofiev recording the soundtrack to a prison break and you start to have a good idea of what that was like.

Their second song featured the same cello, acoustic guitar, keyboard instrumentation as the opening but added a monstrous Buddy Rich drum accompaniment and some downright funky bass playing that would cause Bootsy Collins to consider hanging up his spurs.

Their third song, a ditty entitled,  “God Is Not A White Man,” was the first indication that something more than obscure, noodly indie-folk was going down. The song, an Impressions-style soul jam with sporadic bursts of math rock freak out, was nothing at all like what I had expected.

The songs that followed explored new sonic territory, reminding me of the Mahavishnu Orchestra if they had listened to more roots rock. (That comparison doesn’t really cut it, but it’ll have to suffice.) Technical virtuosity never eclipsed tunefulness however (thankfully!); like skilled lion tamers they repeatedly reined in the random chaos of crazed musicianship to serve the songs and not their own egos.

The second half of their set revealed more expansive vistas, musically reminiscent of the formation of stars out of the glittering flecks of interstellar dust. Every chord seemed like it was soaked with transcendence; the “liturgical” portion of their self-styled “liturgical post-rock” suddenly seemed peculiarly apt. They were certainly post-something, but rock? Nah- if anything, their sound is a museum of rock history. The seamless weaving together of different time signatures in these last few tunes had such immediate pop gratification behind them that the changes were almost imperceptible until you went to tap your foot on a downbeat and you realized with a start that it had just become the second beat of a new measure.

The lyrics often had a directness suggestive of snippets from actual conversation or of genuine, unaffected prayer. The simplicity didn’t convey the artless sloth so many musicians and would-be poets, lashed to the helm of modern free verse’s sinking ship, tie their own noose with; no, the lack of adornment to these words showed that the depth of feeling originating in the personal experiences that provoked these pleas and the depth of the biblical allusions that the words knit themselves to would make any further poetic massage superfluous- it would actually kill the panorama of emotion by corrupting the unfeigned childlikeness of the faith presented in those lyrics. There is an earnestness that can’t support the weight of flowery rhetoric- it is fragile in its vulnerability, and it will be crushed. As an example, the final song’s closing lyrics were,

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

They repeated these two phrases in various phrasings and harmonies as a sort of contrapuntal mantra which deeply affected me. It seemed like a mission statement for the balance between contemplation and chaos throughout their set, which analogously seemed to mirror the grace of God that redeems, molecule by molecule, the ugly universe we inhabit.

I left a believer, stunned by the awesomeness we had just witnessed. At the same time I was perplexed: Why aren’t there more Christian bands with the chops, the eclecticism, or the vision (or better yet, all three) Gungor demonstrates with their music? Why is there such a dearth of creativity amongst believing musicians in the (broadly) pop realm? It doesn’t seem fitting for disciples to crank out such carbon copy, assembly line bubblegum to the glory of the Triune God. Gungor was a badly needed reminder that stretching the boundaries of musical convention and remaining relevant aren’t antithetical to being faithful and that, in fact, that’s precisely what we should be expecting consistently from Christians.

Be excellent to each other.

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