Creation and death; looking back whilst moving forward; good and evil battling within; the new album from Britain's premier roots rockers EDEN BURNING abounds with contrasts. Kevin Elliott talked with the band, hard at it in the studios, to find out if there is room for both mirth and matter in Christian music.
As January draws to an end, so does a month of long hours in the new ffg premises for popular folk-rock band Eden Burning. Studio owner, engineer and producer Dave Pickering Pick had picked up his studio from his Cheltenham basement and with two months unpaid leave planted it a few miles away, in a barn nestling in the open fields around Bredon. The band members helped lay the carpet then immediately brought in their equipment ready to start on their third studio album with Dave. This was the first however for Charlie Ingram (vocals, guitar and mandolin) who brings me a welcome cuppa on my arrival, before settling back down to the studio computer where he is working on some sampling experiments. Two days are left to finish the mixing and there will be a lot of waiting around today whilst Dave beavers on the desk. Mike Simpson (drummer) is taking this space to grapple with a drum machine and, headphoned in, he sits on the floor with the manual in one hand. Meanwhile Charlotte Ayrton (guitar, flutes, harmonica) is getting to grips with Solitaire Poker on the Sega Game Gear and Nive (bass) is behind a communal copy of the Daily Telegraph.
A grungey guitar sound fills the room. The track "Dependence Day" is being mixed. It was built up from one riff of Charlie's and is one of the two songs that were composed in the studio. Its lyrics, however, are among many that were written by Paul Northup (vocals, guitar) on a cycling holiday in Ireland. Charlie has long had an appreciation of heavy metal but denies being a metal axe head explaining that the rock influence on the album is not just down to his entry on the scene, pointing out that Paul also plays electric guitar on a lot of the tracks. Charlie has quickly fulfilled the 'mandolin' role extremely well, but would prefer to see his main contribution in what he can offer on vocal harmonies.
I ask Paul what he was serving up in this latest batch of songs. "I think this album has lyrics which are more deeply spiritual than before. There are no simple Christian truths spelt out, but there is still a conviction in the songs of the truth about Jesus. I admire speakers such as Tony and Bart Campolo, who preach with openness, honesty and integrity. In all our songs we are trying to be honest, telling it how it is. Sometimes we deliberately try and evoke responses by saying things which people may find awkward. The danger comes if you go too far. Live a little dangerously, but keep your roots firmly in your Christian faith."
The new album is called 'Mirth & Matter', a title taken from Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Paul in his writing draws on both his faith and passionate love of literature. His creative and poetic writing is forged with the imaginative graphics of close friend Chantal Freeman. Chantal has brought together some 19th century fictional children's characters and through them attempted to portray how a child's imagination might be reinterpreted as an adult, figures that are quirky but still recognisable. This draws out the element of 'looking back' in two of the songs. Chantal explains how the images also take on the 'contrasts' in the album. "The frog juggling is funny, but the toy soldiers that he's using is not! Some characters are more in the light than others, just as some look happy and others don't." The artwork was done originally in charcoal, using rubbers to get the shades of grey, and is used on both the album and associated merchandise. Paul explains that a lot of effort was put into designing sweatshirts that look good and that people will want to be seen in, whatever their age! The high up-front costs of the CDs mean that it is a long time before profits are seen, so the band rely on the sweatshirt sales to keep them financially viable.
I ask whether the artwork and music could be open to misinterpretation. Paul agrees that it might but feels justified. "I think non-conformist churches have a poverty of imagery and can learn from the Anglicans and Catholics. Imagination is God-given and yet it is readily hijacked and abused. Christians should reclaim it. We purposely used the sun logo for our album 'Vinegar And Brown Paper'. The sun is one of God's earliest creations, a symbol of light in the darkness, but is now given New Age connotations. On 'Mirth & Matter' the track 'Hey Diddle Diddle' is a fun song, but is partly born out of some seminars given by Philip Yancey at Greenbelt which included one called 'The Gospel As Fairytale'. This gave examples of how story telling can provide windows into the gospel and of how the world of fairytales and imagination can help redeem us. Christianity has the God of hard truths, which the Church is quick to proclaim, but he is also the God of our imagination."
"I need to borrow from the fairy story/I can't always live with the view/I need a window to another world/and Truth walks there with me too."
As "Dependence Day" continues through the speakers, Paul explains the stories behind the other songs. "In Ireland we came across a lot of travellers, honest in their search for spiritual truths. 'Song For An Unknown God' is based on St Paul telling the Athenians that he knew they took religion seriously. On one shrine he had found the inscription, 'To the unknown God' and he told the locals that he had come to introduce them to that God so that they could worship him intelligently (Acts 17). Instead of throwing verbal stones at New Age travellers we want to say to them, 'You are nearer than you know' and 'I am close to you because of what you are searching for, and would want to hold your hand and help you step across onto the path of truth'."
Paul puts on a track and the band challenge me to identify their special guest. "You'll know who it is," I am assured. A deep voice booms out, "Let the contest begin". Drawing on my depth of cultural experience I questioningly reply, "The bloke off Gladiators?" Woefully wrong. One internationally acclaimed Shakesperean actor would be dismayed, but I did think Brian Blessed made a great winged warrior in the 'Flash Gordon' movie. It is "The Joust" that features the voice of Mr Blessed. EB's secretary Penny had the idea of using him, so they paid a fruitful visit to his Surrey home. "The song is about the battle raging within us," explains Paul. "Romans 7 highlights this well in saying, 'What I don't understand about myself is that I decide one way, then act another, doing things that I absolutely despise.' The jousting horsemen in the song symbolise the two sides fighting. God is judge and the Holy Spirit is an observer grieved because he wishes to help in the fight but is seldom called upon to do so."
"So they fight each other like brother and brother/Yet they are the same man/The whole of his race is there in that place/Gathered to the joust of a life's span."
The other surprising 'guest appearance' is from a string quartet, on the track "Six Months On", written by Paul after the death of his much loved grandfather, PJ. It tackles the subject of coming to terms with grief. Exactly how should you feel when someone dies? Jeff Spencer, a friend of Charlie's and a music maestro, listened to a rough take of the track, composed a score and assembled his quartet in the studio to lay down a majestic contribution to the album.
The upbeat opening track "Remember When" is the other song about life in general and was written by Nive. "Basically, it's just a sad song about growing old," explains Nive. "When you are a child you are full of innocence and will happily jump off a wall, knowing that your Dad's arms will always be there to catch you. When you grow up you realise that you have lost that innocence but don't know when it happened!" He paused and, as if to justify the song, he added with a smile, "It's a bit like that as a Christian."
"I remember when/Wonder was found around each corner/Smiles were found behind each tear."
On more familiar territory to the band "Sunrise-East Of London" is a song of wonder at God's creation. This was inspired by a sunrise seen on an early morning journey around London to Gatwick airport. It speaks of how the world and creation can thrill our minds, through it we can be quickened, restored, renewed.
The longest track on the album is a worship song, "Hem Me In", that takes inspiration from both the book of Hosea and the Psalms. Essentially it is a prayer to God.
Showing page 1 of 2