Under Midnight’s Self-Titled Debut Was an Evangelical Industrial Concept Album (Review)

Some of it hasn’t aged well, but Under Midnight’s earnestness and ambition are still worth noting, even after nearly three decades.
Under Midnight

The Christian industrial music scene was quite vibrant in the early-to-mid ’90s, with artists like Mortal, Circle of Dust, globalWAVEsystem, Passafist, and Deitiphobia all releasing albums during the time period. This music tended to be a blend of metal and electronic sounds à la Ministry’s Psalm 69 and early Nine Inch Nails, i.e., fast n’ heavy riffage placed alongside programmed beats, copious samples (usually from classic sci-fi movies), and distorted vocals singing/screaming about social decay, technological concerns, and spiritual angst.

The first two Circle of Dust albums are arguably the best examples of this industrial rock style, but another, often overlooked, example is the self-titled 1992 debut from the duo of Frankie (Caesar Kalinowski) and dB Allen (Mark Robertson), better known as Under Midnight.

Kalinowski and Robertson had roots in Christian rock circles well before Under Midnight’s inception. Kalinowski was a producer for some of Christendom’s most celebrated metal acts (e.g., Whitecross, Vengeance, Deliverance) while Robertson had played with The Stand, Altar Boys, and Mark Pogue. But Robertson had also become increasingly fascinated with bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept, and Skinny Puppy, as well as cyberpunk fiction. Under Midnight was the logical end of those interests, particularly in its lyrics and storyline.

The concept album’s twelve songs spin a story set in a dystopic, not-too-distant future. A virtual reality technology called “Cybervision” has become increasingly popular despite allegations of mind control and links to a shadowy, cult-like organization called the New Way. The album’s point of view jumps back and forth between several characters: a boy (Johnny) from the wrong side of the tracks who’s trying to reveal the awful truth about Cybervision and the New Way; a former rich girl (Jamie) on the run from her dysfunctional life who falls in with the New Way; and Dr. Rubio, the Cybervision CEO himself.

It’s all a little on the nose, with no subtlety whatsoever; Under Midnight is arguably the most forthrightly evangelical album of Christian industrial’s ’90s wave. There’s even an altar call or two within the album’s narrative. But several things save Under Midnight. First and foremost is Kalinowski and Robertson’s dedication to their concept.

“Babylon USA” sets the stage with an onslaught of metal riffs and a laundry list of the world’s ills, from the rise of a one-world government and too-powerful corporations to global warming, war, and social collapse. In “Love, Pain, Truth, Fire,” Jamie (voiced by Beki Hemingway, who would later form This Train with Robertson) sings of the abuse (“Daddy use to beat me/Daddy used to yell/Sometimes he’d get friendly/Make me promise not to tell”) that led her into the New Way’s “loving” embrace. Dr. Rubio appears in “New Way” to sneeringly sing the praises of his materialistic worldview (“No need for submission/No god to obey/You can write your own ticket/Pave your own way… The only sin is the sin not to win”).

But arguably the album’s most interesting song is the haunting, atmospheric ballad “Two Worlds, One Cry,” which finds Johnny trying to convince Jamie to leave Cybervision and the New Way, and instead, find meaning and acceptance in God alone. At one point, she lashes out:

The God they preach on television seems to be a joke
The way they beg for money, you’d think that God was broke
He only loves the holy, He only loves the strong
He only loves the wealthy, it’s clear I don’t belong

By the song’s end, both protagonists join together in a single, heartfelt plea: “I have fears, can I trust you?/I want a better way/I need to know what’s real/Do I measure up?… I need love.”

Again, pretty on the nose stuff. But also kind of prophetic, if you think about it. The album’s tale of technology run amok, unchecked corporate greed and power, and people trying to find meaning through technological connections came out years before Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Furthermore, if you didn’t grow up in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, then I don’t know if you can fully appreciate the impact of lyrics that painted a less-than-squeaky clean picture of reality or expressed doubts and spiritual fears — albeit within the context of a cyberpunk concept album — on the hearts and minds of young, struggling listeners (like the one I was). That’s something I’ve come to appreciate more as I’ve grown older and consider the way such lyrics (and albums) have shaped my understanding of what it means to be an honest, faithful Christian.

As for Under Midnight’s music, it checks the necessary boxes. There’s an array of samples from sci-fi titles (e.g., RoboCop, The Twilight Zone, Blade Runner). There’s plenty of fiery guitar (e.g., “Die to Myself,” “Cybervision,” “Fear and Trembling”) courtesy of Kurt Bachman (the lead guitarist from Christian thrash metal band Believer). But there’s also some funk (“Yes, I Am”), the aforementioned cyber-balladry of “Two Worlds, One Cry,” and even a song that’s essentially a cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Blues From a Gun” (“Learning to Fly”).

Throughout it all, Kalinowski and Robertson’s production is topnotch, throwing in all manner of sonic details and flourishes, like the short vignettes that bolster the album’s narrative and world-building. (This expanded into the album’s liner notes, which included a libretto alongside the lyrics that fleshed out the storyline.)

When I write about Under Midnight, or any “classic” Christian industrial bands, I won’t pretend that nostalgia doesn’t factor in. I still remember when my friend Daniel, who introduced me to Mortal et al., excitedly told me about Under Midnight. We listened to it in his car while the rest of our church peers rocked out to Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, and DC Talk. I enjoyed my youth group, but I often felt like a bit of an outcast. I never felt like I was the “victorious” Christian that I was supposed to be. Bands like Under Midnight — with both their edginess and willingness to sing about doubt and darkness — helped me feel a little less alone.

If you find yourself getting a bit skeptical at the album’s concept, I don’t blame you. I can’t deny that some of it hasn’t aged well (like the video for “Cybervision”). But nostalgia notwithstanding, the earnestness and ambition with which Kalinowski and Robertson made the album — in a 2014 interview, Kalinowski recalls getting inspiration from the pages of Wired while Robertson described the band as the “evangelical soundtrack to Blade Runner” — are still endearing, entertaining, and worth noting, even after nearly three decades.