With a blistering new album and a big American push, Britain's favourite guitar rockers SPLIT LEVEL are at last getting the attention they deserve. Steve Cox reports.
In 1991, Tony Cummings described Split Level's tortuous musical history as "gnarled and twisted family tree". Six years later, Adrian Thompson, Split Level's leader and the one constant factor in a saga of failed record deals, financial hardship and various break-ups, might be excused a glint of righteous satisfaction as God is, seemingly, about to pour out his blessing with the release of their excellent new album, 'global'. Recorded in Nashville, United States, and produced by the multi-talented Rick Elias, it is a creative tour-de-force which has already brought forth excited comments in Billboard. I began by asking Adrian Thompson, who manages to balance being lead singer, guitarist and songwriter with Split Level with a demanding desk job with ICC Records, how America's Rick Elias came to produce the veteran Celtic rockers turned 1997 alternative band.
"We first met Rick in 1992," Adrian replied, "the year the album 'Boomerang' was released in Germany. It was Christmas time and we were playing a festival in Germany called Christmas Rock Night. We just happened to be staying in the same hotel with Rick and his wife, Belinda, and we got on really well and kept in contact. In fact, my wife and I went over to Nashville and stayed with them for a few days. When Rick came over to Cross Rhythms in 1993, we did a couple of dates together."
It seems that Rick had always nurtured a desire to work with the band and, last year, their mutual admiration evolved into a practical, working relationship when Split Level were due to produce a new album.
Adrian explained, "We were thinking of using Andy Piercy who worked on 'Boomerang' and 'Call Me White Call Me Black'. Andy's diary was busy so we called Rick and he was really excited. He asked who was going to engineer the album and we said Russ Long who's worked with Steve Taylor, Guardian, Newsboys and on the 'Jesus Freak' album with DC Talk. Amazingly, Rick had dinner with Russ a few days earlier and they were saying they should do a project together."
Split Level's musical style has shifted through a few gear changes over the years from their early (pre-recordings) era involving ska and lots of synths, through their U2 heavy guitar-sound-with-serious-delay period, their anthemic stadium rock sound and now with 'glo.bal' yet another change in musical style. "I think the songs are slightly more accessible, even commercial," commented Adrian. "But, in saying that, I think the sound is a lot edgier, It's not the big, safe stadium rock sound. Everybody's doing that sound now. We needed to move away from that sound and move into 1997. We've taken away all the big reverbs and the big delays. My voice has no delay on it and, at times, it's heavily distorted. It's much more alternative, but it's still got a commercial edge which comes from Rick and the roughness comes from Russ. I'm really excited about it."
As we pondered the band's musical direction, the magnitude of Split Level's latest venture was becoming more and more apparent. After years of doing the round of clubs, pubs and festivals, the band is standing on the threshold of a potentially huge, new American CCM market keen to discover their guitar-edged, in-your-face sound. But, it takes more than a shift in musical direction for God to open exciting new vistas of opportunity.
"Moving into the American market, we've had to think about what we're trying to put across," continued Adrian. "One of the things we've really felt is that, as Christians, we've got to be more honest. The Christian Church is criticised for being pious, always right. I think non-Christians will appreciate our honesty rather than our pious-ness. In some of the songs on the new album we break all the rules of evangelism. In the song 'Twister' we say, 'Sometimes I doubt too, I know the score, I've been here before. Sometimes I doubt too.' How many Christians are going to admit they doubt?"
I could sense evangelical Christians cringing at the mere suggestion of doubt and uncertainty. Yet, God is challenging our traditions, preconceptions and, yes, our church teaching. He is daring us to adopt a more intelligent attitude to our relationship with him. Adrian's lyrics have always confronted the smug religiosity that's dominated the Christian Church in the UK.
Sensing some spiritual depth to our conversation, the 33 year-old boy from Ballymena, County Antrim, seized the initiative and moved into passionate overdrive. "How many Christians would say, 'I've never had a crisis of faith' The fact is Satan gets to us. There's nothing wrong with admitting that we're feeling screwed-up at the moment. You can call it attack, pressure or a lack of being close to God. Nearly all of us have got problems, and the Church hasn't opened itself up to admitting that. "On the other side, the song 'Healed' talks about aroma therapy, crystals, the whole thing with faith healers. Christians would say all that doesn't heal you. It's blatant that it does heal people. These methods do work, and the Church has got to open up and say, 'Yes, that person was ill. They played with their crystals for six hours in their bed at night, or they went to see the seventh son of a seventh son, and their better now. I can't deny that. But, what I can say is you're healed physically, yet how screwed up are you spiritually? Can you honestly say, like the blind man and the leper, God has healed the inner man as well as the outer man.'
"We as Christians expect people to believe what we say," continued Adrian. "If somebody goes to Rheinhard Bonke, for example, and he prays for someone and they get healed, the cynic in the world will think it's just a fix. We would say you can't deny the fact that that person is now walking, or they can bend their back. What we're doing is exactly the same thing to people who aren't Christians. The truth is that the person who has played with their crystals is now healed, but there's something deeper which they've missed.
"Evangelical Christians, if they just look on the surface of what we're saying, will think we've turned New Age. We haven't. All I'm saying is wake up to reality. Don't shut ourselves off into this little cocoon. I would not go to a spiritual healer. I would not play with crystals. I would not breathe in a nice perfume, but there is more than the Spirit of God at work in the world. We don't have to bow down and agree with it. The whole idea of the song is to say that it's true, but stay away from it."
Contentious comments from a young man brought up in the staunchly loyalist area of Northern Ireland, where some of his schoolmates became members of the UDA and UVF paramilitary organisations. Was Adrian ever tempted to go with the flow and enlist as well?
"I could have been," answered Adrian, "if it hadn't been for the prayers of my family and the influence of the church around me. It would have been a natural thing to do. It's a bit like gangland. It's very easy to get involved with these things. A lot of ideals are drummed into you by the community around you, not necessarily by your family. But, my parents had an influence on me. They encouraged me to get involved with church. Without their prayers, I know I would have struggled a lot.
"Northern Ireland is responsible for a lot of my spirituality and views. The level of teaching I experienced, and the level of friendship, was really high. I was talking to Sammy Horner about this. There's a depth; there's spirituality. It's always a homeland. It's like an Israeli thing. We used to joke that Ireland is God's country. It's just the Bible was translated wrong."
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