Top Two Music Picks from 2016


The two albums that have proven to be the cream of the crop of new music that I’ve listened to in 2016 surely represent differences in the perspectives and personalities of their creators, but, they also have a good deal in common.

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Original review of Playing Games With The Shadow

Playing Games With The Shadow by Kevin Max is a mysterious brew of self-reflection, espionage, jaded experience, angst, and hope filtered through the post-punk/new wave musical filter that is the mind and iconic voice of Kevin Max. One-third of DC Talk and former frontman for Audio Adrenaline, but, never one to sit still and grow stagnant, Max seems hellbent on toeing the line between what is true, what has never been done before, and what he can get away with on Playing Games With The Shadow. The assemblage of tunes featured on this album provide an intriguing experience for listeners who find themselves on the fray, surveying the heights, mysteries, and depths of their own life experiences. Tracks that showcase a heavier rock influence such as “Election,” and “Music is Magic!” are highlights for me, but, the significant new wave tilt of “William Blake” is hard not to love.

The bridge that I stand upon while writing this is the common mile marker that both Max and Steve Hindalong share with regard to their musical journeys. Max has established a developed a solo career by repeatedly stepping out of what is comfortable in favor of the undefined and unknown. Steve Hindalong, founding member and songwriter for the legendary alternative band The Choir, like Max, has sustained a musical career by routinely surveying the edges of what is possible and stepping over them on his own accord.

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Original review of The Warbler

Hindalong’s second solo release, The Warbleris a sincere, well-articulated, and vulnerable conversation that surveys the artist’s experiences, temptations, blessings, and resolutions. From the love and compassion that we feel for those we love as they struggle with life’s biggest trials (“Shellie’s Song” and “Cloudburst”), to the tensions aroused by temptation and addiction that so many battle with on a daily basis (“Into the Drink” and “Outta My Mind”), Hindalong exhibits his skill as a wordsmith, articulately dissecting the emotions of both himself and the listener, making sense of them in the form of songs that range in tone and tempo from nuanced and delicate folk tunes to unbridled rock vents complete with distorted feedback and tachometer-breaking jams. A personal favorite, for me, is “O Jimmy A,” a nod of tribute to artist/musician Jimmy Abegg. Like some of the other gentler songs on the album, the lyrics dance in combination with the song’s arrangement (which happens to feature the voice other-worldly voice of Kevin Max in the background) to create an almost ethereal sound – a real treat for the listener.

Both Max and Hindalong  masterfully articulated their experiences stepping through the dark shadows that exist in spite of, and because of, the existence of the light, on these albums, by assembling the right mix of studio musicians and production to compliment their own songwriting and performance sensibilities.

Anyone willing to invest some of their own time and pocket change in these latest reflections upon the life/musical journeys of Max and Hindalong, as featured on Playing Games With The Shadow and The Warblerwill likely be more than gratified with the comfort of commonality between the artists’ and their own stories.

Purchase PLAYING GAMES WITH THE SHADOW b y Kevin Max at Amazon, on iTunes, or at Kevinmax.com

Purchase THE WARBLER by Steve Hindalong at Amazon, on iTunes, or at TheChoir.net

Embracing “The Girl With The Tiger Eyes” by Kevin Max

I was talking with a friend recently and he brought up the point that radio stations like KLOVE and AIR1, unfortunately, are defining what is considered acceptable in the Christian marketplace by controlling such a large market share, but, exposing such a narrow template that artists who hope to be played must adhere to in order to even have a chance to survive. Because of this fact, artistry in the Christian world is on a very short leash and it is a disturbing reality since, as Christians, we are not called to reach other Christians, but, to reach the world. How can we do that when we encase ourselves in clean, pre-fabricated plastic molded for optimal marketing potential?

I truly appreciate several of the songs that I’ve heard, so far, from the forthcoming Kevin Max album, PLAYING GAMES WITH THE SHADOW, and the fact that Kevin Max is doing what he does.The video for “Girl With The Tiger Eyes,” while it may raise a few eyebrows in some circles, is an articulate metaphor for the demons that so many of us carry around. Whether hidden in a basement or exposed for all to see, the skeletons in our past (and often our present) are most often neither pastel-colored nor family friendly. There is value in remembering and acknowledging the dark that we deal with – a therapeutic aspect. It is only when we stare down our own brokenness and sift through our own ashes that we can submit to grace and let the rebuilding begin because, if we’re only willing to reveal our surface-level, kid-glove veneers – our Sunday best, we’re lying to ourselves, to God, and the world around us. We’re offering no value. If we can’t affect others at a gut-level and reveal the holes and traps that we’ve fallen victim to, ourselves, we may not affect them at all due to our own vain hypocrisy. There’s an entire world full of drunkards, junkies, victims of abuse, prisoners, and thieves out there that Jesus sought out to spend time with. I’m glad that there are Christians like Kevin Max out there ready, willing, and able to bridge the gap between reality, art, and God in a manner that so many out there on the Road Show/KLOVE/Winter Jam/Hits Deep circuits fail to even attempt due to the fact that they know they won’t get played on Christian radio. There is most certainly a place for clean, family friendly lyrics of praise and pastoral landscapes. The bible instructs us to focus on these things in our personal lives. But, we’re also called to tell the truth.

Unlike His followers, God specializes in those with the deepest wounds. I think we’re often scared off by the possibility of becoming uncomfortable or even being inconvenienced behind our white picket fences. As a parent I know that I get very nervous when it comes to thinking about who or what my kids’ attention is being drawn to when they’re not within my reach, so, I get that. But, I also think that there needs to be a distinction drawn between youth group Christianity and mature Christianity. We need to engage the youth demographic in learning to be thoughtful and critical of what they are listening to, watching, doing, who they are spending their time with and why. I don’t want to cut my kids off from exploring various forms of art (whether music, visual, etc.), but, instead I want then to learn to think critically about it instead of rejecting everything they see and hear in a conditioned knee-jerk manner.

I believe that, if I can effectively raise my kids with that perspective, they will be more equipped to be mature Christians that aren’t driven by fear, but, instead, by truth and confidence in faith and so that they can be free to reach out and consistently show love and respect to those who are different and who may not know Christ on a personal level. If Christians could make an effort to do this as a whole, I don’t think there would be a “religious right” in American politics and Donald Trump wouldn’t have the following that he as (not that the religious right and Trump are always one-in-the-same). People tend to love less when they fear more and the current political climate is capitalizing on that fact.

Kevin Max, to me, represents an important aspect of the mature Christianity that I’m talking about. I wouldn’t say that his entire catalog of poetry and music is representative of it, but, who he is and the art that he produces is certainly a part of the spectrum. Life and the potential that each of us has to affect others and live out our faith happens, most often, off church grounds. Our art, our deeds, our thoughts, and actions should, likewise, be rooted in God (and nurtured in devotion privately each day – as well as with other believers), but, focused in an outward direction and articulated in a way that engages those on the fringe and the outside instead of scaring them off with our Christianese clique subculture.

Max’s forthcoming project, PLAYING GAMES WITH THE SHADOW, I believe, is exemplary of the kind of artful, thoughtful music that is well underrepresented in Christian music and, for that matter, music in general. Thankfully, there are enough people who get it and value the role that his music, and other music like it, plays in the real-world daily lives of so many and the potential that it has to engage those just outside in a way that is as relevant and articulate, in not more so, than anything out there, Christian or secular.

Learn more about how you can support Max’s new project,  and get eight new songs including “Girl With The Tiger Eyes”, here: PLAYING GAMES WITH THE SHADOW.

BROKEN TEMPLES by Kevin Max is out NOW!

kevin-maxThe long-awaited album BROKEN TEMPLES, by Kevin Max, was officially released yesterday and made an immediate impact on iTunes, especially considering the fact that the album was released without a major label media machine to hype it’s arrival prior to release day. Truly, it is an amazing album! But, I’m taking a couple more days to soak it up before I write my review. In the meantime, check out these reviews that have already been published and then look it up on iTunes or Amazon:

Jesus Freak Hideout – 4 out of 5 Stars

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Christian Review – 4.5 out of 5 Stars

1 Day Until BROKEN TEMPLES – A Kevin Max Countdown Retrospective: “Light Me Up,” “Infinite,” and “Kings & Queens” (acoustic)

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Kevin Max’s newest project, BROKEN TEMPLES, will officially be released on March 10. I’ll be counting down the remaining days to the release of the album on this page with a post each day exploring and celebrating, in no particular order, some of his prior creative ventures.


With just one day to go in this Kevin Max countdown retrospective our focus begins to shift from surveying the past to the present and what listeners can look forward to from BROKEN TEMPLES. “Light Me Up” is the second track on the new album that will release officially on Tuesday, March 10, and it brandishes an unapologetically pop tone that emphatically celebrates the dramatic shift that God’s grace can account for once someone realizes and yields to their need for Him as a broken temple that can only be filled and purposed by His compassion and love.

Infinite” celebrates the fact that God is so much bigger than we are. It is a notion we would be wise to keep in mind as we stumble forward through our mistakes and questions about why things happen the way that they do. God’s knowledge, wisdom, providence, and love is not restricted to the confines of a political party, the understanding of scientists, or the mental constructs of men. Likewise, Max has proven with this song that God can be praised and celebrated beautifully in ways that don’t strictly adhere to the formulaic constructs of songs that fill the airwaves of mainstream Christian radio. Every element of God’s character is limitless and peace can only be found in surrendering to that fact and trusting Him. He is a creative God. I’m so thankful for those, like Kevin Max, who continue to creatively chip away at the boundaries of what we think music can be while simultaneously honoring an infinite God with their art.

While its true that I featured “Kings & Queens” once already in this retrospective, I can’t help but to include this clip, too, which features Max, with Audio Adrenaline (including original Audio Adrenaline lead singer and Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart on tambourine), as yet another example of the quality of Max’s craft. It is a one-shot, live, acoustic rendition of “Kings & Queens,” a song that is a call for Christians to live up to the mandate of James 1:27 to care for the orphans of the world and Max delivers a flawless vocal performance. His voice is amazing live as well as in the studio and his new album BROKEN TEMPLES continues to deliver unparalleled vocal performances in combination with poetic lyrics that offer a greater combination of hope and beauty to the listener that can be found anywhere else in the music world.


Stream the new album BROKEN TEMPLES at New Release Tuesday

BROKEN TEMPLES by Kevin Max - coming March 2015


Read my personal explanation about why the music and poetry of Kevin Max has been so important to me.


OTHER FEATURED SONGS IN THE KEVIN MAX RETROSPECTIVE:

2 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: The Poetry of Kevin Max and “Cave Of A Million Songs”

3 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Believer”

4 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Get On Yer Bike”

5 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Consume Me” & “Save Me”

6 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “21st Century Darlings”

7 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Just Between You And Me”

8 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Kings & Queens”

9 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “When He Returns”

10 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Day By Day”

11 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Existence”

12 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Alas My Love/The Hard Way”

7 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: A Kevin Max Countdown Retrospective: “Just Between You And Me”

Kevin Max’s newest project, BROKEN TEMPLES, will officially be released on March 10. I’ll be counting down the remaining days to the release of the album on this page with a post each day exploring and celebrating, in no particular order, some of his prior creative ventures.


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“Just Between You And Me” was a breakthrough, crossover hit on mainstream radio in 1996 for Kevin Max, Toby McKeehan (TobyMac), and Michael Tait (Newsboys) of dcTalk. The song played a significant role in propelling the JESUS FREAK album to double-platinum sales and legendary status within the realm of Christian music. The video for the song received major airplay on MTV and VH1 as well. The song showcases a perfect vocal blend of Max and Tait that, clearly, couldn’t help, but, to be recognized by the world at large, regardless of the Christian music classification.

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Join Kevin Max on NRT Live on release day, Tuesday, March 10 at 6PM PST/9PM EST

Read about what I get out of the music and poetry of Kevin Max and check out how you can get a digital download of the new project BROKEN TEMPLES (with two bonus tracks!) before the official March 10 release!

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Pre-order BROKEN TEMPLES

Purchase and Download the music of Kevin Max on iTunes

Kevin Max on iTunes


OTHER FEATURED SONGS IN THE KEVIN MAX RETROSPECTIVE:

8 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Kings & Queens”

9 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “When He Returns”

10 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Day By Day”

11 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Existence”

12 Days Until BROKEN TEMPLES: “Alas My Love/The Hard Way”

The Countdown To BROKEN TEMPLE: 12 Days To Go Until The Latest Release From Kevin Max

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Kevin Max’s newest project, BROKEN TEMPLES, will officially be released on March 10. I’ll be counting down the remaining days to the release of the album on this page with a post each day exploring and celebrating some of his prior creative ventures.

TODAY: A clip from the dcTalk era that showcases some of his early poetry in combination with what I would have to classify as one of my personal favorite dcTalk songs, “The Hard Way.” Just as this post features a hybrid of Max’s creativity as a performer and a poet, “The Hardway” is a song that appealed to me at the time of its release specifically because of its articulate and meaningful portrayal of the dynamics of spiritual life: the grace and hope of God juxtaposed against the darkness and struggle of the world. Max’s body of work as a whole, with regard to the various vehicles he’s chosen to express himself through, but, also, in relation to the soul journey that he has continued to document honestly over the course of his career, continues to be a hybridization of pure light against the tangible backdrop of a dark world – a modern-day Caravaggio. He consistently keeps the conversation relevant for a segment of society that hears the call of the spirit, but, has been become jaded by the shortfalls of pop Christian culture. Despite the apparent odds, God can still work miracles through each of our own personal broken temples.

Read a bit about what I get out of the music and poetry of Kevin Max and check out the new project!

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Providence In The Shadow And A Pledge Of Allegiance To The Music And Poetry Of Kevin Max

BTmkUJUIcAA35aGThe progression of life’s journey can easily be analogized as a series of doors one walks through. The number of doors that anyone has to choose from at a given time varies just as much as our abilities to open one door, but, not another. At first glance, it may seem like there are countless different possibilities, but, as we walk down the hall we find out that some doors are propped open while others open and close at seemingly random intervals. Still, others remain closed and, try as we might, we can’t get them to budge, so, they remain shut, leaving us to wonder what might be on the other side.

I first learned about Kevin Max Smith when he was one-third of a Christian hip-hop/rock group called dcTalk in the early 90’s during my adolescent years. I found comfort in the encouraging lyrics of songs by dcTalk, as well as the likes of  Michael W. Smith, Petra, Stryper, and others that were the face of contemporary Christian music at the time. But, as an impressionable teenager with the challenges of life lying in wait a little further down the road, it wasn’t long before my comfortable bubble burst in the face of my parents’ bitter, ugly divorce, my newfound college freedom to experiment, and an over-zealous enthusiasm for drinking alcohol to the extreme whenever the opportunity presented itself, I found myself walking – no – running away from everything that I knew Christianity to be: an organized group of flawless models of morality, slow in exercising compassion, but, quick to judge.
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It was during my first semester in college, when a small part of me was still trying to hold on to my fragile teenage faith, that I found myself in my local Christian bookstore picking up a book of poetry called At The Foot Of Heaven which featured poems by Kevin Max Smith and paintings by Jimmy Abegg. As a college freshman with a concentration in art, the idea of a book being available in a Christian bookstore that featured contemporary art and poetry captivated me. At the time my interest was much more inclined toward the paintings, but, it only took a few minutes with the book before I found myself intrigued by the poetry, too, and it was soon after that I discovered the potential poetry held in terms of providing not only an additional creative outlet for me, but, more importantly at that time, a therapeutic valve for me to sort out my thoughts and emotions with regard to all that was changing in my life: circumstances and variables that I wasn’t comfortable addressing with anyone else, but, that I knew I could release on paper under the cover of words.

Over the next decade I continued to stumble my way through life, medical issues, relationships, and alcohol abuse all while continuing to try to distance myself from any spiritual ties. Somehow I managed to find an amazing girlfriend (who I couldn’t possibly deserve any less, but, amazingly, would later marry) and, after surviving a ruptured pineal gland cyst in my brain, a month of radiation, and brain surgery, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a major in elementary education and a concentration in art history. It was by sheer grace, and the therapeutic power of poetry to help me sort out my demons in the form of words arranged on paper, that I made it through those years until my daughter was born in 2003.

It was, in fact, her birth that caused kevin_max-2me to realize just how far off course I’d traveled and how high the walls were that I’d tried to construct between God and I. But, it wasn’t until I randomly stumbled upon a Kevin Max MySpace page around 2004 or 2005 and I read a post he’d written about an author named Brennan Manning that the door to my own personal broken temple began to budge open and allow the light to trickle in. The message of grace in Manning’s books The Ragamuffin Gospel, Abba’s Child, and Ruthless Trust was like a sledgehammer to the calloused shell I’d built up around my soul. It was at that point in my journey, while studying Manning’s explanation of grace and employing Max’s album The Imposter (an album lyrically inspired by Manning’s writing) as a soundtrack to my days, when I learned that despite my deeply rooted sin and ever-present flaws, God still loved me. My sin wasn’t as strong as His grace.

But, it should be noted that it was the sometimes ambiguous nature of Kevin Max’s lyrics on The Imposter and Between The Fence And The Universe that enabled me to connect with the music. It was a decisively different direction from the music he’d been a part of as a member of dcTalk and I’m thankful. Lyrics that reside on the surface level of interpretation often offer little challenge to the audience and, subsequently, neuter a song’s ability to relate to the listener on a unique and personal level. Praise and glaringly positive lyrics have their place, surely, but, so, too, do more textured lyrics that connect at a deeper level with the listener. Max’s knack for striking the right chord with the disenfranchised, jaded masses that live just outside the walls of America’s churches is a critical connection for so many like me who, at that point, wanted nothing to do with the over-the-top evangelical blatancy of artists like the Newsboys and other Christian radio darlings.

The basis for my loyaIMG_2890lty and support for the poetry and music of Kevin Max, however, is rooted in more than just well-arranged words and edgy arrangements.  It was, after all,  At The Foot Of Heaven, Kevin’s first book of poetry, that sparked my own writing habit and, consequently, gave me a way to sift through the challenges of life – a therapeutic release valve that I employ to this day, twenty years later. And it was Max’s reference to the writing of Brennan Manning that eventually lifted my head to the light of God’s grace, turned me, and directed me home as a prodigal son to God – my Abba.

Where I was in life just over a decade ago, it wasn’t going to be a Sunday morning sermon, a Billy Graham television crusade, or a bible tract that would turn me and lift my gaze back up to God. No, instead it would take the weathered, frank, and grounded grace of God, as explained by Brennan Manning, an alcoholic who persistently admitted his failures until the day he died, and the honest and broken questions humbly fleshed out in song by Kevin Max, to realize that I was not alone in my daily wondering and grapples with truth and meaning. Doors being opened for me and the passage of time, shielded by God’s grace, were necessary for me to understand my purpose in life and, standing on the other side of the doors holding them open more than a time or two, were the words and music of Kevin Max.

In fact, it was Kevin’s personal response to the loss of my Dad, a victim of brain cancer, in 2012 that would have another monumental impact on my life and purpose. It was roughly around the time that Kevin took on the role as the new front-man for Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline that he introduced me to an organization the band started in 2004 to care for orphaned children in Haiti called The Hands & Feet Project. After caring for my father in the manner that I had for the past sixteen months, my priorities and understanding of what is really important in life shifted dramatically and the scripture verse found in James 1:27 became a lightning rod of clIMG_3594 - Version 2arity for me in terms of where my attention should be focused.

It was Kevin who put me in touch with director Mark Stuart when I inquired about how I could best channel a modest donation for the greatest effect in support of the work of Hands & Feet Project and it was that initial donation, through what I can only describe as a series of divinely orchestrated circumstances aligning in a manner that I couldn’t have dreamed up on my own (with due credit to the generosity and compassion of Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart), that led to further fundraising, a kitchen named in honor of my dad’s memory (“Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen”), and the first two of what I expect to be annual mission trips to work with The Hands & Feet Project in Haiti for the rest of my life.

On top of all of this, I’ve developed a number of significant friendships with wonderful people who also respect the music and poetry of Kevin Max and embody a similar recognition and appreciation for the integrity of life and the questions that we all ask in relation to creativity and our understanding of God’s purpose in our lives.

So, what is my point in telling you all of this? It is, quite simply to lend the truth of my story in support of the livelihood, poetry, and music kevin-max of Kevin Max. All of these doors that he at least had a hand in opening in my life have been opened, not because he has spent his career trying to walk in step with the status quo of the pop Christian industry and, as a result, garner big bucks from royalties, but, because he has consistently maintained the integrity necessary to ask uncomfortable questions, push the boundaries of what is safe, and fully employ his God-given talents.

At this point in his career Kevin Max is readying the release of his first solo album in several years, BROKEN TEMPLES. It is an album that, because of the narrow vision in the current Christian music industry, doesn’t have the backing of a major record label. But, it is an album that deserves to be heard and he has kicked off a Pledge campaign to support the release of the project which, in return for your support, offers some nifty perks.

His work is relevant and, as evidenced in my life, can have a significantly positive influence on those who don’t necessarily spend every Sunday in a pew or have their radio station tuned to the likes of KLOVE on a daily basis, but, who are willing lend an ear to hear his one-of-a-kind voice. Lyrically, it speaks to the prodigal journey that so many of us know so well and that so many need to hear about so that they, too, might find the inspiration and the courage to stop, turn, walk through the opened door, and find their purpose, too. Watch the video below for an explanation from Kevin himself and then please visit the Pledge campaign to see how you can get involved.