Peter Timmis reports on Jonesboro-based hard music team HOPE FOR THE DYING
This Jonesboro, Illinois-based band's style is described on their Wikipedia page as "progressive metal/metalcore/melodic death metal and Christian metal;" by a Cross Rhythms reviewer as containing "elements of thrash, death, black and '80s heavy metal," and the group themselves claim to "bring together influences as vast as the seven seas, ranging from the metal of years past to the modern kings of metal that reign today," but in fact their sound can be summed up in just two words: very loud!
Hope For The Dying were formed in 2006 by vocalist Josh Ditto, guitarists James Houseman and Jack Daniels, bassist James Red Cloud and drummer Brice Voyles. Over the years HFTD have employed something of a revolving door policy for rhythm section members (five bassists and three drummers over four years) and earlier this year the core songwriting team of Ditto, Houseman and Daniels recruited drummer Brendan Hengle who also handles bass duties in the studio.
After independently releasing a three-track EP in the spring of 2007 and an eponymous seven-track project the next year, the group signed to Facedown Records' newly reformed Strike First label who, for their first release, reissued HFTD's second EP. "When we first got together, most of us had been in serious bands before and knew that our goal was going to be to take our music as far as God would take it and just see where that led us. At the time we weren't sure where exactly that was going to lead, but we're all pretty satisfied with how far we've come so far and we're really excited to see what God has in store for us as our relationship with the Strike First family grows and our musical identity matures and improves," Houseman told ChristianMetalFellowship.com.
Earlier this year HFTD released their first full length album 'Dissimulation' which saw the band's sound mature with the addition of orchestral elements and an ambitious segueing of the tracks to create a seamless flow. Josh Ditto explained to Michael Weaver of JesusFreakHideout.com: "We had always said we wanted a gapless album, but we couldn't come up with a good idea for what was going to be in between the songs. We kept saying, 'I guess we'll just have to come up with some little riffs or piano parts or something like that,' but we didn't just want to throw something together. So, when we came up with the orchestra, James sat down with the songs we had and he figured out that all of the songs, when put in a certain order, could be properly transitioned from one key to the next without them sounding out of place. He completely arranged all of the songs for the album and then also wrote all of the parts that tie it all together."
Josh continued: "We actually tracked this entire album ourselves. All the guitars, bass and vocals were recorded at our homes and we took it to get mixed by Brian Hood (A Plea For Purging, MyChildren MyBride). But, about just under two months before we were due to go in and have it mixed and mastered, we decided, 'This thing needs to have symphonic elements to it,' and that's when the orchestra came into play. I mean, there were plans all along to have basic strings and keyboard parts here and there, but as far as the entire orchestral arrangement of the album really just came into play about just under two months before we went in to get it mixed and mastered and finalised."
The album also won praise from critics for its deep and thought provoking lyrics. "Lyrically, there's a lot of songs that go back to the theme of dissimulation," explained Ditto. "Some of the lyrics deal with the deceitfulness individuals of this band have experienced with other band members. There's a song on the album called 'Perpetual Ruin' that deals with our own personal experience with an individual and it's just to say that, 'You know what, Christians can get hurt too,' Christians can be betrayed in the same way that anyone else can. The difference is at the end that we have to strive for the forgiveness that Jesus teaches us and try to maintain a certain level of. . . I guess the word I'm looking for here is a certain level of respect for the love we've been given in order to continue to give love to those who have hurt or betrayed us. There's other songs like 'The Awakening', 'The Awakening: Dissimulation', and 'The Awakening: The Veil Lifted', those three songs tied together are just one person's account of overcoming the deception of the world. Looking past false teachings and looking past what you see on TV and what you see on the internet and finding the true meaning, which is a relationship with Jesus Christ. There are a few songs that are a little bit outside of the scope, like 'Imminent War' and 'Vile Reflections' which are more Revelation-style songs, but the rest of the album really is all basically tied around that central concept."
When and how did Josh become a Christian? "Growing up I was kinda in and out of church with my family and then at one point they kinda stopped going to church after a few bad experiences. So when I was old enough, I started walking to the closest church, which was a Lutheran church. I wasn't really into the service too much, but I still went because it was the only one I could go to. I was learning, I was experiencing, I was being an active member of the church, but I never was really experiencing the relationship that I wanted. When I turned 18, a little bit after my dad passed away, I started dating a new girl - the woman I'm married to now actually - and we started going to a different church together. We went to a revival and they had a special preacher come in, a speaker by the name of Brady Weldon, and he gave a very convincing sermon. That night I began to understand that I knew a lot of stuff about being a Christian, but I didn't have a very good personal relationship with Jesus and that was the night that I changed all of that."
Did the band experience rejection from people in their church for their taste in music and the way they dressed? James: "I personally haven't experienced any prejudices from my own church, but I know that it has been brought up to us as a band several times by people that don't understand how music that sounds so angry can be possibly be a 'joyful noise unto the Lord.' The way we explain our ministry is by saying that a noise isn't joyful because of the kind of sound being made, but the joy comes from the heart of the person making the noise. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 9:20 talks about becoming all things to all men in order to get the message of Christ to all people - some people will NEVER be reached by 'church' music or typical churchy methods, but they might go to a heavy metal show in a club somewhere. So if there are lost people at these heavy metal shows, we need to be there showing the love of Jesus. We have to go where God sends us. For us, God has sent us to the metal scene."
Do the band find it difficult when working with secular musicians and audiences? "Honestly some of the coolest bands that we've met out on the concert circuit have been non-Christian bands," explained James. "I think sometimes people might come in with a pre-conceived negative perception of Christianity, but we just try to show that firstly, Christians can make freakin' sweet music and secondly, that Christianity isn't about unleashing judgment on everybody and getting caught up in some 'holier than thou' attitude. We try to show that it's about love and hope, and sharing the love and hope that Christ showed us to the world. Usually once people realise that we're not there to slap them up-side the head with a Bible and shove Jesus down their throats, they will open up and everything will be cool. I think (and hope and pray) that through us, God has planted seeds that will grow into a desire to know more about the hope and love that the Christian faith is based on and that God has and will continue to use us as a tool to build up his kingdom."
He continued, "The hardest thing about being on the road is learning to deal with being surrounded by the same small group of people day and night, week after week and not killing each other! Sometimes it's easier than others, but in the end, we're all part of the body of Christ and we're out there trying to spread God's love, and we're stronger together than we would be on our own. It's crucial to stay true to your calling. Keep God at the top of your priority list and he will minister through you more than you can imagine and take you places you never thought possible."
Does James feel it's important to spend time reading the Bible daily while on tour? "Do I think it's important? Most definitely. Do I do it? Not nearly as much as I should. Do I wish I had the discipline to read the Bible everyday? Definitely, and I think that the more we mature as Christians, the more we are able to discipline ourselves in practices like this. God gave us his word so we could know him and learn about him. If God took the time to commission his people to write these words down, then took the care to preserve these writings over the course of history and see them translated and printed in more languages and places than any other book in history, then it's safe to say that it must be pretty important for us to read."
James concluded by explaining what's next for Hope For The Dying: "More Jesus, more metal, more touring, and more music! We're really excited to see where things go from here. . . "The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.