Back in the early ‘90s, I discovered a Christian alternative music scene that existed beyond the DC Talk/Audio Adrenaline/Newsboys world that most of my youth group peers enjoyed. I also discovered industrial music around the same time; Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine had been released just a few years prior, and I listened to “Head Like a Hole” and “Down in It” on my Walkman with great frequency.
Not surprisingly, some of my first new favorite Christian bands were from Christendom’s own burgeoning industrial scene, specifically Mortal and Circle of Dust. Those bands adhered to the Nine Inch Nails/Ministry formula (i.e., a blend of metal-influenced guitars, dance-y electronics, and catchy rock hooks), but obviously with lyrics that approached life from a Christian perspective rather than a Reznor-ish nihilism.
But then I came across Life Equals Death, the 1993 debut by Illinois’ globalWAVEsystem, which went even further than the aforementioned artists. Melodies, hooks, and song structures were in short supply; instead, globalWAVEsystem opted for a harsher, more abrasive and rhythmic sound à la Skinny Puppy and Deitiphobia that focused on bludgeoning the listener with brutal rhythms, discordant noise, crushing beats, and heavily distorted vocals. The album’s songs occasionally veered into dance territory — but only if you imagined a rave taking place during an exorcism in an abandoned steel foundry.
That’s an extreme image, but there was nothing subtle or mild about globalWAVEsystem’s music. As befitting an album titled Life Equals Death, the band painted a grim picture of one’s struggle against a corrupt secular society, and more importantly, their own sinful nature. Fittingly, the album begins with frontman christian-E! intoning, “In the depths of winter/A spiritual desert/Soul like ice,” digital distortion shredding his voice and words; meanwhile, cinematic electronics and martial arrangements set a solemn, ominous tone.
I still remember the first time I heard “Soul Like Ice” at a listening station in a Christian book store. I’d selected Life Equals Death because the title sounded appropriately melodramatic to my angst-ridden high school self and it was on Intense Records, home to Mortal (my favorite band at the time). But when I heard those warped and twisted vocals, which sounded so awesome and intense (npi), I had to hear the rest of it — and it was like nothing else I’d heard before at the time, from either Christian or secular circles. It was ugly and brutish but also fascinating and gripping.
As a high schooler who felt like he didn’t fit in but didn’t want to “sell out” like the “popular” people, much of what attracted me to industrial music, Christian or otherwise, was the rebellion and confrontation inherent in the genre’s lyrics. Such sentiments, especially from Christian artists, felt like a breath of fresh air in the Church’s rarefied atmosphere, where any mention of struggle, angst, sadness, or doubt was verboten. As such, Life Equals Death’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics were like catnip to me.
“It Was Born There” transformed Paul’s lament in Romans 7:14 – 25 into a maelstrom of aggressive electronics and christian-E!‘s digitized howl: “What’s this inside of me?/Even now my mind turns against the will of God/Sin, evil, killing me/Stronger chronic cancer flesh/Every day kicking mud in the face of grace.” As a teen struggling to reconcile natural desires with an inordinate sense of guilt and shame, christian-E!‘s confessions (“All me makes me hate me/Wonder if God does too”) were my confessions, too.
There were other admissions — of spiritual complacency (“Lukewarm present laodicea/Wake up fencerider greyscaler/Wretched pitiful poor blind naked/Your time has come to die” — “Yukionna”) and being too comfortable with the world (“Have I become friends with the world/Do I hate God?/Family, security, that’s all I want/Is that so wrong?” — “It’s Only Natural”). But Life Equals Death was also filled with defiance, and if, like me, you weren’t just a teenager trying to find his place in the world but also a Christian teenager who had been taught that you had to stand strong against the world’s compromising influence, that defiance was infectious and potent — and because it was from a Christian band, it felt all the more edgy. After all, they weren’t just raging against society; they were raging against the spirit of the age.
On the aptly titled “Commitment,” the band screamed out the sort of stuff that any gung-ho Christian teen in my world would love to proclaim, or at least wear on a t-shirt (“The hate of the world should be raining on me/Should be hanging me on the cross set before me”) before concluding “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Later, on “Deathstroke to Youth” (arguably the album’s catchiest track, all things considered), the band tackled AIDS and sexual promiscuity with all the subtlety of a Mack truck.
One minute they were decrying “the condom, the savior of our way of life” and musing “so we’re going to put our lives on a layer of latex/I’m not sure it’s going to work,” the next concluding that the “time is coming to say to our children/You stay a virgin marry one stay faithful or you will die.” The song’s message eventually reduced down to a simple chant: “There is an ultimate morality… The youth must turn to morality.”
Such lyrics, combined with the ominous, aggressive music, seemed like an ultimate act of rebellion*, not just against the secular world out there with all of its sin and temptation, but also against the Church, which — to my youthful eye — was afraid to tackle reality that bluntly and honestly and instead, just wanted to resort to easy platitudes. In hindsight, my teenage hubris was obviously quite strong, but the bluntness and even crudity of globalWAVEsystem’s music remains fascinating to me, decades later.
If you didn’t grow up in the Church, globalWAVEsystem’s sentiments might seem odd, if not outright offensive. Interestingly, the band never saw themselves as proselytizers trying to reach the lost. In a 1998 interview with The Phantom Tollbooth, Christian-e! explained how he considered discipling fellow Christians as the band’s goal: “I decided that the point of the band is to bring up issues that Christians deal with, and talk about things that would help people become more holy… It’s music made from a Christian perspective, about issues that Christians deal with.” He even went to far as to admit, “Somebody who is not a Christian probably isn’t going to have much of a clue about why I’m singing what I’m singing.”
The band broke up shortly after Life Equals Death’s release, but reformed in 1996 and performed at the 1998 Cornerstone Festival’s “Industrial Night” alongside Autovoice, Massivivid, and Mental Destruction (and yes, I was there). Their final release, the HypercritEP EP, came out in 1998 on Flaming Fish Music. As far as I can tell, the band’s members basically disappeared from music after that. But when I listen to an album like this, that’s so upfront and bald-faced about its convictions, I wonder what its creators would think of it now. Would they still recognize their beliefs and convictions in its lyrics, or would the album be more embarrassing than not? Do they still hold to the same beliefs they once espoused so defiantly, or have those beliefs been tempered, and refined by the passage of time?
Whatever the case, globalWAVEsystem’s Life Equals Death remains a fascinating entry into the surprisingly vast world of Christian industrial music. And while listening to it reminds me of my youthful naïveté and foolishness, it also reminds me of that unique intensity for the faith that (for better or worse) only seems to exist during the youth group years. My peers back then undoubtedly experienced such zeal while listening to “Jesus Is Just Alright” and “Big House”; for whatever reason, I needed something unafraid to get darker and more desperate, and Life Equals Death was that many times over.
* — Case in point: My youth group was asked to make a haunted maze for our church’s Halloween party. Given that the maze was for little kids, my friend and I decided that Life Equals Death’s title track — which is basically an extended sample of a guy begging for his life — was the obvious choice for the maze’s background music, and so we played it loudly on repeat while the little ones crawled through the tangle of chairs, tables, and sheets. I remember thinking we were so cool and rebellious, and the weird looks we got from some of the adults only added to that impression. The things youth group kids do to stick it to the status quo.