For more than twenty years now, my brother, Andrew Peterson, has been baring his soul in his music, and in doing so he’s shined a ... Read More
A few weeks ago, I finally sat down and listened to Breaking Benjamin’s latest album Ember, and it has since become one of my favorite albums. Something fundamental clicked into place for me with this piece, and I’ve been trying for the last few weeks to unravel exactly what that is.
Bands that fall into the alternative metal, alternative rock, and post-grunge genres have been a staple of my musical tastes since I was old enough to choose for myself. Amidst all the shredding and screaming, I found the authentic expression of a deep-rooted ache—one I couldn’t quite put a finger on until I read Doug McKelvey’s “A Liturgy for Those Who Weep Without Knowing Why.” If you haven’t read it, you should absolutely go read the whole thing right now. Just in case your mouse is broken, or you’ve been assailed by a sudden onset of finger-paralysis, here’s an excerpt to show you what I’m getting at:
“There is so much lost in this world, O Lord,
so much that aches and groans and shivers
for want of redemption, so much that
seems dislocated, upended, desecrated,
Even in our own hearts
we bear the mark of all that is broken.
What is best in this world has been bashed
and battered and trodden down.
What was meant to be the substance has
become the brittle shell, haunted by the
ghosts of a glory so long crumbled that only
its rubble is remembered now.
Is it any wonder we should weep sometimes,
without knowing why? It might be anything.
And then again, it might be everything.”
Ah, yes. There it is.
I can’t tell you how much I resonate with the language of this liturgy. Dislocated. Upended. Desecrated. Unhinged. I once wrote in a poem, “The world is wrong / bent on its axle.” Yet, while many of us sense all that has not yet been redeemed and are filled with an understandable sorrow, that hasn’t been my reaction. I bear the mark of all that is broken. I see that what is best has been bashed, and battered, and trodden down. I sense the wrongness of the world, and it doesn’t make me sad.
It makes me angry.
Historically, the music I’ve found that manages to capture the tone and expression of that anger lacks the depth and discernment to make it meaningful. Christians are generally uncomfortable with anger; while sorrow and sehnsucht are largely recognized as signposts pointing toward the kingdom to come, rage receives no such consideration. At best it’s seen as an immaturity to grow out of and more often as a revelatory flaw in character.
This produces a scenario where those of us who feel anger at the broken world are forced to choose between music that encapsulates the feeling and music that comes from a place of deeper truth. We as Christians have created a cultural divide where the only music left to express such an undercurrent of rage is made by those who don’t understand why they’re angry. Most metal bands—along with their sister and sub-genres—are the musical embodiment of the rebel without a cause, grasping at insufficient explanations for the fury that fuels them and assigning it to whatever seems to meet the mark at the time. They skim across the surface, hitting on symptoms without ever addressing the disease, and leaving their listeners feeling understood but ultimately unfulfilled.
Into this gap stepped Breaking Benjamin.
With its reformation in 2014 with Dark Before Dawn, one of my already-favorite bands underwent a significant thematic shift, while retaining its traditional style and tone. Ember followed in 2018 and turned out to be the realization of something I have always longed for without even knowing it: the candid expression of rage from a foundation of spiritual truth.
I posit that sorrow and anger are merely two roads diverged in a wood, ultimately ending at the same destination. Some of us need to cry, but some of us need to scream.Shigé Clark
This album is the most honest depiction of loss and grief I’ve ever encountered. Rather than the soft, pseudo-salving tones of most grief-related songs, the interplay of music and lyrics in Ember drags the listener through a war zone—a gut-wrenching journey of light and darkness, cold and warmth, burial and resurrection. It paints the picture of a man attempting to wrench himself up from a cavernous pit. The way is twisted and obscured in shadow. Ground is gained and lost. Faith is an oil-slicked rope constantly slipping in the climber’s grip. Hope is an act of defiance. Most Christian music is in such a hurry to get to hope that it ends up feeling like a lie to anyone tuned into the devastation of the world—a cheap curtain drawn over the smoking wreckage. Ember dares to plunge you to the very bottom of the pit, leave you there to shiver, and make you wrestle and claw to resurface. When you do, the redemption feels real. The hope rings true.
Hints at the underlying source of the singer’s fury are woven through the album from the start. “Feed the Wolf” sets the story off with a rejection of the destructive, violent side of anger, which the griever is tempted to use as self-protection, drawing an immediate distinction between that and the anger that resounds through the remaining songs. Lines like “fight with folded hands” and “stay reformed, erase this perfect world” in “Red Cold River,” along with “I don’t want to live inside this hell / I was born to live inside this hell” in “Tourniquet” clue the listener in to the true nature of the battle being fought in the face of a broken world, even before the album directly addresses it. “Psycho” offers a roiling, visceral illustration of the fight for faith against all apparent logic, calling to mind the laments of Job. Here the listener finds the album’s first hints of the hope we see in Psalm 139, where even the furthest depths and darkness are not out of God’s reach.
The album reaches its nadir at “Dark of You,” where the singer extrapolates from his personal grief and at last brings the listener directly to the true source of all the pain and rage: the fallen, broken state of mankind. Reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, he groans over the pointlessness of existence—yet the song ends in pleading repetition of a single line: “Save this selfish world.”
From there, the album pivots—not into a sudden happy hopefulness, but as with a renewed strength and resolve, having focused the churning anger toward its rightful target. “Down” has become one of my all-time favorite songs.
“Into your eyes I live
Fight! We’ll fight
And bury our lives
We’ll break these chains
And wash it away
Carry me over the ground
Heavy won’t hold me down.”
Oh man, what a turnaround! I could talk for pages about just these lines (I won’t though, don’t worry). I feel like it’s important to reiterate here that this song is still angry, it just understands where the anger belongs. The faith and the hope are not the end of the pain and doubt, but defiant in the face of it. There are still four songs left. The singer isn’t done struggling, but the struggle has changed, in a subtle but central way. The next song, “Torn in Two,” encapsulates it beautifully in one line, “Broken, I crawl back to life” (with the shredding and screaming to match). The rest of the album carries that theme through, ending on a hopeful note in the final song—like the first hints of sunrise breaking over the horizon:
Hope will guide you to the end
and there will be no last goodbye
For all who live and die, leave it all behind
Take away the dark inside, and lead me to the light
I could go on. It has taken all of my restraint to hold myself back from diving into a full-scale analysis of the entire album line-by-line. I could geek out over the musical and lyrical layering used throughout to depict cognitive dissonance, the poetic compression of multiple concepts into single lines, or the individual themes within certain songs that I’ll continue to carry with me. Catch me in person sometime, and if you want to hear about it, I’ll talk your ear off. Better yet, listen to the album and experience it for yourself.
For those who feel the brokenness of creation like the battering fall of an endless rain and need to weep along with the world, I understand. For those who feel it like the searing burn of a consuming inferno and need to rage along with the world, know that you are not alone. I posit that sorrow and anger are merely two roads diverged in a wood, ultimately ending at the same destination.
Some of us need to cry, but some of us need to scream.
This album was for me like someone finally giving me that permission. In a world of rebels without a cause, Ember understands the source of the nameless anger. If Doug McKelvey will permit me, I ask,
“Is it any wonder we should rage sometimes,
without knowing why? It might be anything.
And then again, it might be everything.”
Perhaps someday there will be liturgies for rage. Until then, there is Ember, and I’m grateful we have Breaking Benjamin to plant the signpost.