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September 2000 Pick of the Month
The Alarma Chronicles
Artist: Daniel Amos
Label: Millennium Eight
Length: Disk One: 17 tracks / 43 min. 44 sec.; Disk Two: 23 tracks / 64 min. 53sec.; Disk Three: 17 tracks / 65 min. 20sec.

When Millennium Eight released The Alarma Chronicles this summer, I was one of the first in line to put down $40 for a piece of history. I suppose calling these four albums by Daniel Amos "a piece of history" may seem grandiose to some. After all, when these albums were first produced in the early eighties, each successive release in The Alarma Chronicles seemed to make Daniel Amos less of a market presence. And at any point in the life of Daniel Amos you could stop someone on the street to talk about this amazing band's music, and it's likely John Smith or Jane Doe would say, "Daniel who?" However, the importance of Daniel Amos to alternative Christian music cannot be overestimated. Of course, I'm repeating what many others have already said. Regardless, Daniel Amos has served as an inspiration for countless Christian bands, not only because they engender creativity with their  insightful lyrics and groundbreaking musical arrangements; Daniel Amos has served as an inspiration because with The Alarma Chronicles they committed to an artistic vision and pursued it without conceding to commercial concerns.

The Alarma Chronicles' lack of commercial recognition may puzzle some listening to the collection now; that lack probably has little to do with the sound of the albums. With a combination of earlier influences (such as the Beatles' pop sensibilities and the Beach Boys' harmonies) and cutting edge pop music (such as New Wave, eighties electronica, and alternative guitar rock), Daniel Amos seems in step with the musical pulse of the eighties, both its influences and trends. Unfortunately, Daniel Amos fell victim to a series of problems. Their musical style rapidly evolved from country rock to Beatles-inflected pop to the eclectic sound of The Alarma Chronicles. Their fan base had a difficult time keeping stride with the band (especially since Horrendous Disc, the album immediately preceding The Alarma Chronicles, was kept from release for several years). More importantly, a growing Christian music industry was trying to identify itself to its consumers even though it wasn't quite sure of what that identity would consist. The highly innovative Daniel Amos put out four albums over five years: Alarma, Doppelganger, Vox Humana, and Fearful Symmetry. They linked them conceptually and called them The Alarma Chronicles. They used biting wit and social critique and set it to music that pushed the envelope of Christian music in the eighties. Consequently, the industry and many consumers didn't know what to do with them.

I don't mean to assume a superior attitude and suggest I know what to do with them; I wouldn't want to do that. Their enigmatic quality may make them hard to market, but it also makes their music exceptional. "Central Theme," the first song in The Alarma Chronicles, signals Daniel Amos's move toward modern pop music. Yet, Terry Taylor exposes his debt to Brian Wilson with  vocals not just haunting but melodic and sweet. In some ways a worship song placing Jesus in the center of all things, "Central Theme" is immediately followed by the title song of the first album; instead of reassurance, "Alarma" provides the listener with the bad news that people are turning away from God's love and the desperate needs of others. This wake-up-call message is punctuated by fast-paced guitar riffs and post-punk vocals, unadorned and sometimes harsh. This album is filled with similar odd juxtapositions such as "Big Time / Big Deal," a New Wave diatribe on the egotism that drives Christian celebrities in a media-driven age, and "Props," a Beatles send-up that questions having blind faith in the virtue of happy endings. These collisions of style and substance are cleverly orchestrated to create music at once unconventional and perhaps even uncomfortable. In many ways, this is the project behind The Alarma Chronicles--to disorient and to see faith in a new way.

Admittedly, that makes the series an extensive undertaking. Despite the potential for the series to lead to moral pomposity, The Alarma Chronicles  maintains a fairly consistent and humble tone throughout. Perhaps the most successful album is the second, Doppelganger. Taylor signals his ambition as lyricist with "Hollow Man" (drawn from the work of T.S. Eliot), and that ambition is matched by the clever construction of each song on the album. Functioning as a sustained exploration of consumer culture, of the rhetoric of contemporary Christianity, and even of human perception, Doppelganger  ranges from acerbic satire (in "Mall (All Over the World)" and "New Car") to heart-rending social commentary (in "Youth with a Machine" and "Angels Tuck You In"). The musical experimentation continues on this album and the band's growing maturity is evident. Though their influences are as numerous as on Alarma and are again employed to create a sense of dissonance, the music has a distinctive style which allows it to stand on its own merits. Daniel Amos transcends its musical influences and creates something innovative with the tight arrangements of "The Double" and the manic "I Didn't Build it for Me."

 In my estimation, Daniel Amos took a radical step with Doppelganger toward being the exceptional band they would be in the late eighties and early nineties, lyrically sophisticated and musically superior to most of their contemporaries. This makes the third album in The Alarma Chronicles  somewhat disappointing. An interesting experiment with being in but not of a technological world, Vox Humana uses eighties synth-pop to scrutinize the role of faith in a time driven by technology. Unfortunately, this approach gives the album an extremely dated sound and limits its general accessibility. However, this deficiency doesn't deny the place of The Alarma Chronicles as a unique happening in the course of CCM. Millennium Eight's deluxe treatment of this collection is justified. The four albums are contained on three compact disks and the accompanying book contains all lyrics, liner notes, and text of radio shows associated with The Alarma Chronicles. In addition, the book includes commentaries on the albums by various critics who have charted the course of alternative CCM. The Alarma Chronicles' mini-novel, written by Taylor in segments accompanying each  album as it was originally released, isn't Tolstoy, and Taylor obviously tired of writing it. However, it works well as a connective device between the albums. And Taylor obviously never tired of making the music that comprises The Alarma Chronicles

 The final album, Fearful Symmetry, contains some of the best music of The Alarma Chronicles (such as "A Sigh for You" and "Shadow Catcher"),  indicating the caliber of the music they had yet to create. Though Daniel Amos's strongest work would follow these four albums, this book set represents a watershed moment more people need to know and experience.

Terry Wandtke       8/4/00 

The Alarma! Chronicles_ Book Set is an impressive collection containing: four historically significant albums by Daniel Amos on three discs:

  • Alarma! (1981 - Newpax Records) 
  • Doppleganger (1983 - Alarma! Records) 
  • Vox Humana (1984 - Refuge Records) 
  • Fearful Symmetry (1986 - Frontline Records) 
  • nearly three hours of musical enjoyment 
  • an 169 page companion book with: all the chapters of the original Alarma! novelette story that accompanied the albums
  • original and additional artwork
  • complete lyric sheets for all the songs
  • production and band credits
  • comments on the project by principal author and songwriter Terry Taylor
  • transcripts of the Alarma! and Doppleganger Radio Specials hosted and produced by Bruce Brown
  • a number of articles about Daniel Amos and the Alarma! Chronicles by industry folks and critics like Bruce Brown, Randy Layton, Tom Gulotta, Brian Quincy Newcomb, and John J. Thompson. 
Looking back almost twenty years to when this song cycle began, some of the music now does have a dated Eighties sound and verges into art rock grandiosity at times; however, there are other musical moments that are purely timeless, extremely well crafted, and as infectiously catchy as the day they were first received by eager fans. There is a wealth of material here, with songs that are more brilliantly written and above average in quality than otherwise and a whole lot of cleverly composed, witty lyrical bits to wrap your head and worshipful heart around. One of the too many to mention highlights is "New Car," with its whimsical yet relevant stab at the health and wealth mentality of many, perhaps well-meaning, but misguided church goers:

    Well, I know what I want, I know what I need
    I want a miracle, I know what I need...
    Give me a Johnny Jacobs (New Car!) 
    I'm one of the kings's kids
    (He wants a blessing!) 

Taylor suggests rightly, however, that Doppleganger's "Youth with a Machine," is the lyrical centerpiece of the collection:

    A future generation of children is in danger
    Danger of being tempted by the siren song of technology 
    In danger of dashing itself against the rocks of its own technological revolution.

This compelling theme runs throughout the entire collection, particularly in the two middle albums.

Nevertheless, it is the very first song of the Alarma! Chronicles, "Central Theme," that, as the title suggests, provides the project's ultimate focus:

    Central theme, the most important thing...
    Shining in the center, my Lord in the center
    Jesus in the center, revolving around Him
    Always revolving around Him
    Who is on the throne you find, the King of Kings
    He's the one I have in mind, the central theme
    Lord of Lords...

This focus on our Lord opens, runs through, and closes the collection, being revisited most obviously in the  Fearful Symmetry's poetic "The Beautiful One." In the weight of such obvious and impelling evidence, it's hard to imagine now that Christians at the time thought the band had abandoned the faith. Nothing could be further from the Truth.
 
The complete discs, the stellar content, the pithy articles, the many extras...all of this is well worth the $39.98 asking price, and doesn't begin to touch on the sentimental value that such a collection represents for the fans who've longed to own this collection on CD.  The larger question is whether those currently unfamiliar with the chronicle ought to check it out. In the included article "Here I Am...There You Are," Taylor remarks that the core of the Alarma! Chronicles is one of commercialism and consumerism compromising the Church's ability to champion truth and show compassion and love in our modern culture. This message is indeed as powerful and relevant today as it was in the Eighties. More so. And most of these delightful songs 
are still able to bring a smile to your face, a giggle to your heart, and a whole lot of ecstatic air band action. Consequently, in a crass and ironic endorsement of commercial consumerism, I urge you to purchase this 
collection. This unpaid advertisement has been brought to you by a devoted fan of the band who believes in both the sheer artistic merits of the work and the power of the Spirit to use this musical collection to inspire your heart again and again.

Steven S. Baldwin   9/15/2000 


 
 

 

 
 
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