All kinds of sales records were broken with 'Tales Of Wonder'. Now veteran American rockers WHITE HEART offer another sparkling album with Highlands'.
White Heart's Tales Of Wonder', acclaimed by all and described by more than one critic as "the greatest Christian rock album of all time", might seem a hard act to follow. In the States in an unprecedented surge of radio exposure all 10 songs on Tales' were issued as singles, three went to Number 1, three went to Number 2 and the rest notched at least Top 40. But rather than rest on their laurels White Heart returned to their studio between gigs of their American Tales Of Wonder' tour. Now here, less than a year on from Tales Of Wonder' comes another astonishing surge of charged rock energy, 'Highlands'.
Most of the band members joined at different times in the group's tortured history which eventually evolved into today's diamond-bright class that only the very best AOR can achieve. The current line up is surely its greatest. Rhic Florian (the lead vocalist who delights in idiosyncratic spellings of his Christian name); Mark Gersmehl (who as a composer has written literally hundreds of quality CCM songs and as a keyboard player gives class to all those power chords and sledgehammer rhythms); the veteran Brian Wooten (who's nearing 40 yet today is one of the most exciting axemen in 90's rock); Anthony Sallee (the funky dude who joined the band for 'Powerhouse' and has brought a mighty bottom end to the driving rock); Jon Knox (who seems to hit his kit harder than any other mortal) and Billy Smiley (the guitarist, composer, producer who together with Gersmehl is a founder member of the band). Smiley sees the band's momentum as expressed in 'Highlands' to be a continuing journey upwards. Stagnation, artistic or spiritual, is not for White Heart as Smiley told American journalist Chris Well shortly after 'Highlands' was released. "We've never been happy staying where we've been. Not so much that we've been unhappy, but I think it's the desire to grow and change. We have a song called 'Change The Way' which sums up the way I would hope every musician feels, changing and growing with your art, music as well as lyrics, and exploring new sounds and new directions with creativity."
In recent years the phenomenon that is 'stadium rock' has emerged, rock custom designed to be played on immensely powerful PAs to mass throngs who can collectively punch the air, thrill to the collective bonhomie and revel in anthemic hooks. In the hands of non-Christian rockers it can sometimes smack of pagan excess. In the hands of a team like White Heart, as they've proven on their immensely popular American concerts, stadium rock can excite and envision swathes of evangelical youth like few other things. But Mark Gersmehl is anxious that the band aren't perceived as purveyors of shallow slogans. "Banners are great, we all need powerful banners to rally around. Sometimes after a world tour you decide a 'Powerhouse' is an important song for you. But I really feel change takes place at a personal level, and when you look back over your life, are you going to remember when the Wall came down or the day Clinton took office...? You might remember some of those things. But probably more than that you're going to remember the day you had your first child, the day you met the person you fell in love with... those are the kinds of things that are going to be the real milestones in all our lives, because life is lived at that very intimate level of feelings."
"I don't know why," lead vocalist Florian told Well, "but there is always that constant evolution with both the music and the lyrics that we have. And, because it is personal, and our lives are evolving, we're never the same from one album to the next."
This is borne out by 'Highlands'. While staying within the AOR style confines of rock there's always an artful creative twist, from the Yes-styled keyboard intro and ethereal harmonies on "You Can See The World From Here" opener to the radio friendly hook-rocker "The Flame Passes On" closer, "Heaven Of My Heart" with Gersmehl's gruff vocals over a wash of keyboards and acoustic never sounding more haunting before Sallee and Knox take it to the sky, and most unexpected of all the Scottish folk-tinged "The Cry". Throughout, the playing and arrangements are impeccable and long before the close one is convinced that 'Highlands' is a work of maturity. Lyrically too the band goes deep. "Highland Of Love" refers back to White Hear's previous release, as Florian's soaring voice intones "A tale of wonder told..."; the lyrics also complete the circle begun in "You Can See The World", with the similar theme "There's a higher ground I see/My Saviour is calling me/I'm running to that place."
Said Mark Gersmehl, "We've always been bad about setting goals for us as a band. Not that we need to plan for tomorrow, but you need to have some aspirations. And I think even in our spiritual walk, maybe too many times we haven't tried to define what we'd like to change, how we'd like to grow. And 'Highlands' says that now that you've discovered that 'tale of wonder' in your heart... what do you do with it? Where do you go with it? I think that ' Highlands' is helping us as we go on our journey, to help us define it for each of us. The songs, hopefully, each have that thread to kind of say, 'Hey, there's a Highlands where God is and that's where you need to go.'"
Florian sees it as taking the idea that started with 'Tales Of Wonder' - of taking the Gospel message to heart - and fleshing it out. "It's like standing on that plateau overlooking this huge valley, thinking about when that change happens and what you do with it: how do you perceive the world, how do you perceive meeting needs, how do you define pain, how do you love people, how do you pragmatically follow through with that? Because there needs to be something that really truly does happen inside of you, whether it's an immediate bombastic change or it's something that's gradual, you should still perceive the world through different eyes."
For the veteran songwriter 'Highlands' took on a special relevancy when he honeymooned in Germany recently. "I get to this country Germany that I love so much. It's supposedly being reunited, where hope was being born again and I read on the walls these ugly sayings for all the people who are immigrating."
Gersmehl quickly points out he's not singling out Germany, mentioning trouble spots in the States, from Los Angeles to Tampa, Florida. "These are the signs of a civilisation that is staying where it's at and not going on to the next level. We, as Christians, as people who have accepted a 'tale of wonder' in our life, can't simply stay at that stationary point of hope; we have to push on through our desire and through discipline to get to a place where Jesus wants us to be.
"So we said, 'there's the Highlands. There's this castle wrapped in mist up on the hill. I want to see the world from that vantage point.' So the only thing that will drive me on to climb that mountain and take those hard, arduous steps, choking for breath and pushing on there, is to have this vision of what God wants us to be.
"And it's a mystical vision, it's a grand vision, in the sense that it's a spiritual journey that's going to have a reward that you can only feel in your spirit. That's what we tried to create in Highlands': let's press on, let's go there, let's set this goal and let the 'tale of wonder' grow in our hearts and then we can really deal with a world that's broken, where refugees are streaming across borders, where nuclear weapons are lying loose, where people are being smuggled on ships for $30,000 out of China and being dropped ungraciously on the shores of New York City... we can start dealing with those problems, if love has taken us to the Highlands."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.