Story time! San Diego melodic hardcore outift Being As An Ocean first came to my attention through Tumblr posts back in 2012. Joel Quartuccio’s intensely personal lyrics and their raw performances saw them gain notoriety in their local hardcore scene. The contemplative nature of their music forced a personal introspection as Joel took listeners on a journey deep into his heart and mind. As I dug into their lyrics, Joel’s relation with his Christian faith was at once engaging, convicting and encouraging in a comepletely refreshing, honest way.
Dear G-d (2012) came at a time where, for me at least, the hardcore scene was at a turning point. The heavy brutal breakdowns that were so popular in the 2000s seemed to make way for a much more self-aware and navel-gazing genre. Drawing from elements of emo and spoken word, the emphasis was not so much on the breakdowns, but on the lyrics and the groove, so to speak. Combined with quiet guitars and picking patterns, the subgenre of melodic hardcore was something completely new to me. At first, Dear G-d was a bit too rough around the edges, and at times lacked focus across the 11 tracks. However, this post-hardcore melodic thing seemed to be catching on, and Being As An Ocean were a group well worth adding to my listening library.
I was lucky enough to attend their Europe tour in 2013 with Capsize and The Elijah. The Elijah were a UK band that blended a huge post-rock sound with hardcore elements. Sadly, as soon as I discovered them, they announced they were breaking up (I highly recommend their 2012 album I Loved I Hated I Destroyed I Created). Their farewell tour was a co-headliner with BAAO, so I was 1000% keen to catch them. Of course, as BAAO fans know, The Elijah’s clean singer Michael McGough eventually ended up joining BAAO. This changed their sound greatly on their sophomore effort, 2014’s How We Both Wondrously Perish, which proved to be a much more polished cohesive record.
They may have lost some of the raw qualities from their first album, but Joel’s lyrics were potent as ever, with critics and fans hailing him as a kind of modern day melodic hardcore prophet (his mighty beard and shaved head only serving to enhance this image). The band went through a few line-up changes, but musically they became more impressive than ever.
On their 2014 European tour with Counterparts and Hundredth, they debuted new material and I remember standing there with my mouth literally agape in awe. It was so heavy and abrasive, yet still melodic and maintaining that signature BAAO earnestness. Plus, Michael’s voice creates a perfect clear foil to Joel’s screams. I hadn’t heard a more perfect pairing since the likes of Spencer and Aaron in Underoath. Critics and fans alike were excited to see where this band was going. With their third album, self-titled, out now for about a month or so, it looks like BAAO are here to stay.
A year is a relatively short time to put together a whole new album, but in between relentless touring around the world they somehow managed to do it. “Little Richie” was the first single released, and it showed a further development of the sound introduced on HWBWP. Some fans were turned off by the lighter sound, saying it lacked punch and edge. The band even incorporated electronic elements into the music, and some fans didn’t appreciate the shinier production values. I for one appreciate it whenever a band attempts to stretch their sound. No one stays the same forever. However, it was the subject matter of this song that really grabbed my attention.
The eponymous figure is based on Joel’s close friend and pastor Rich McCullen. According to Joel, Rich grew up in an abusive household, yet was able to overcome his terrible past through the power of love and Christ’s grace. An interesting concept for a leading single.
As I looked at the tracklisting and as the subsequent singles were released, my curiosity was piqued. It was only with repeated listenings of the album, that an overarching narrative unfolded before me.
Dividing it into 4 sections, this is what I came up with:
A) “Little Richie” and “Ain’t Nobody Perfect”
B) “The Zealot’s Blindfold”, “Sleeping Sicarii”, and “Judas, Our Brother”
C) “St. Peter”, “Forgetting is Forgiving The I”
D) “The World As A Stage”, “Sins of the Father”, “…And Their Consequence”
Section A introduces the story of Little Richie. As mentioned above, it is a narrative about Richie’s abusive childhood and how he was able to find peace through his Christian faith. In a miraculous way, he overcame the pain his father caused him, both emotional and physical: “Attending those Baptist services alone, in the house of the Lord, he found purpose and a home”.
“Ain’t Nobody Perfect” continues this story. It shows how forgiveness modelled on a divine kind of love was able to repair the relationship between Richie and his father. The title of the song is a reference to the way victims of domestic abuse sometimes try to rationalise the behaviour of their partners, as Richie’s mum begs him to try and understand his father’s actions, “My entire life I’ve resented you, but now I get what mum meant when she said ‘Ain’t nobody perfect. Ain’t nobody gonna be perfect'”. At the same time, it can also serve as a reminder to not hold people up to such high standards, such as to expect people to be perfect or God-like. Fortunately, Richie doesn’t leave it there and decides to finally confront his father.
The exchange goes as follows:
“Dad, something has been weighing on me”
“What is it, Richie?”
“When I was young, you were awful to me; a terrible father, a worse husband
You have to see the blood on your hands…”
“Oh my son, for what I’ve done, I’m so sorry
Just know that I’ve always loved you, if you ever can forgive me”
Thus, the opening two songs introduce the central concept of the album: that of a broken relationship between a father and child and the desire to mend it. Coincidentally, this is also the central tenet of the Christian worldview.
Which brings us to Section B. Winding the clock back several thousand years to the time when Jesus Christ walked the earth, we are introduced to the character of the Zealot. Initially, it is not entirely clear who the Zealot is, but between the next three tracks, it is clear that the subject is indeed Judas Iscariot: one of the Twelve Apostles who ultimately ended up betraying Christ.
The Zealots in ancient Rome were a group of political radicals, awaiting their salvation. In modern day terms, the Roman officials would have called them terrorists. The Jewish people were in political exile at the time, and were awaiting the Messiah of their ancient texts; someone promised to deliver them out of bondage. The Zealots were on the extremist fringe of things (a concept further reinforced by Track 4, “Sleeping Sicarii”). A few of Jesus’ disciples were in fact associated with this political group.
That’s why “The Zealot’s Blindfold” is optimistic and musically hopeful, as Judas witnesses Jesus’ actions and asks whether their salvation as a nation and a people is finally nigh.
This could be the Light; this could be the Fire
(The Lamb to bring the sword, blaze rise higher)
We must make this right, for our need is dire
(The Lamb to bring the sword, blaze rise higher)
The Sicarii were another faction of political rebels. The title literally translates to ‘the daggermen’, as they were known for assassinating Roman officials and soldiers with hidden daggers. The video game series Assassin’s Creed was loosely inspired by the Sicarii.
Consider the juxtaposition between a blindfolded zealot and a sleeping sicarii. Both are unaware of their surroundings, whether intentionally or unintentionally (the blindfold is either self-imposed, or put on by a captor, while sleeping implies unreadiness, listlessness or unwillingness to participate). At first, Judas is blindfolded and feels like he has had his eyes finally opened as he anticipates deliverance courtesy of Christ. However, by Track 4, he feels duped by an unfulfilled hope as Christ seems to be delivering promises different to what he expected.
Judas must awake from his sleep, even as he has already decided to betray Christ:
We’ve waited in exile, in expectancy
All eyes eager towards the Sun
Knowing things had to get better eventually
(Compliant savior; loving Father.)
Bless the spotless sheep
The shame I feel is killing me
The arc in section B ends with Judas confessing that he never betrayed Jesus for the money, even if he is overwhelmed with intense guilt. Only after the fact does Judas realise how blind he really was (“How was I so blind? How did I miss it?”). He admits that now, and only now, does he see the truth that he would willingly hang on a tree as the “spotless Lamb” did. Well Judas, hindsight is 20-20.
Section B is a fascinating, speculative portrait of what Judas went through. More importantly, it is also a way for listeners to identify with elements of his story (eg, questioning who Jesus really is, deciding where to place one’s faith…). But how does it fit into the rest of the album?
This is the core concept of the Christian faith, retold as the redemptive Gospel narrative but from a new perspective, i.e. that of Judas Iscariot’s. Just as Richie and his father had a broken relationship that needed God to intervene, so too does humanity require a fixed relationship – something that only God himself was able to provide.
But it goes even further than that. Another key concept is introduced – the idea that our actions and our sins have effects and consequences that carry down the generations. This was only loosely introduced in Section A (father sins against son, son carries that weight into adulthood), is elaborated upon here in Section B, but really gets hammered home in Sections C and D.
In a sense we are all Judases in our own lives every now and then, carrying on this Zealot’s legacy. The song title is “Judas, Our Brother”, thus identifying the band and the listeners as sharing in Judas’ position. We’ve all betrayed Christ and God the Father with our sin. And just like Judas, in our own lives, it is always after the fact that we fully realise and acknowledge our guilt and shame.
Shout-out to Rad Bar (Yours & Owls) in the Gong! Also, yes that’s me in the tie dye Hotel Books shirt.
As we enter Section C, it is perhaps the most similar to older BAAO music in the personal nature of the lyrics. In fact, “Forgetting Is Forgiving The I” is thematically very similar to “We Drag the Dead On Leashes” on HWBWP. The central concept of forgiveness first introduced in “Ain’t Nobody Perfect” is elaborated upon here and thus the major themes of the album come to the forefront here. The forgiveness little Richie showed his father set him free from his cell.
Ultimately though, it is not just the forgiveness we bear against one another, but also learning to free ourselves of the burden of such grievances. Learning to forgive ourselves is often just as hard as forgiving others. We are each in control of the light and the dark within ourselves. As Joel and the band listen to a preacher in “St. Peter”, Michael’s clean vocals soar with a chorus that is extremely hard to forget:
We are all given dark and light
A beautiful contrast of black and white
You can hide in the darkness
Or strive for healthy progress
Forgive what makes us human
We could grow an earthly heaven
Yet there is also a risk that history just seems to repeat itself forever and ever, as shown in “The World As a Stage”.
This is where things get really meta. Track 7 ends with the lines:
Writing our own screenplays
Stopping to wonder
Why are all their roles all the same?
We play the victim
We play the victim
It’s a reflection on how despite the sins of our fathers and their fathers before them, we seem to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, indulging the darkness within each of us.
As if Section C literally set the stage for us, Section D flows directly on. It begins with the description of a graphic murder scene. As the closing bookend to the album, it is a hyperbolic reflection of the opening story. Little Richie’s abuse in Section A and the betrayal of Section B leading to death, are combined here in the way this man murders his 3 year old daughter (even the police officers are overwhelmed, vomiting on the front lawn).
Gentle grace, met with violence (met with violence)
In this dark place, I feel Your silence
Furthermore, Joel references Little Richie himself:
That little girl was his redeeming grace
The thing to help him forget the misery
Cause he was never shown it
which links with the refrain from Track 1:
How can we know Love when we were never shown it?)
It’s as if Joel is challenging us to consider” if no one goes that step further to make sure we show love to our children and to one another, this is a horrible, horrible example of what exactly can happen. This is the action of a monster, not a man – but perhaps the scariest thing is that it could be any of us if not for some kind of divine intervention, as Richie (and to a certain extent, Judas) experienced.
With Sections A-D played out now, this is how it all goes together: the loss of innocence and the graphic nature of the murder is set up like a stageplay, which is a reflection of the story of Judas betraying Christ, which is in itself used as a reflection of a broken relationship between a father and his child, which as a whole is used to describe man’s relation to himself and to his God. You following?
This is my favourite use of imagery on the album though: the Christmas tree (the description of a cold winter night and the presents and tree in the room suggests it is Christmas time on “Sins of the Father”) is a symbol of Jesus’ birth. The purpose of Jesus’ birth was to save humanity from our sins by his death and resurrection ( recall: “Oh, Brother Judas, woe to thee! I’ve handed over my Savior, damned to hang from a tree”).
Most notably though, in the context of the whole album, the tree is also a warning of how we live our lives in balance of light and dark (the album art also supports this concept, as a shadowy light figure seemingly overwhelmed by darkness). The final track title completes the triptych of Section D, whose titles can be read as one continuous poetic phrase: “The world as a stage. Sins of the father…and their consequence”. As Joel screams on Track 8:
Observe the theatrics
Witness the play of man
We’ve turned our shame into rage
It’s we who set the stage
And the consequences of our actions, whether we wish them to or not, do carry onto the next generation. The closing lines of the album is a haunting refrain that forces the listener to consider how the story of the whole album impacts their life:
Red flows down the family tree
It is a haunting, vivid image, particularly given the use of the murder as a poetic setting. But here’s the beautiful thing. It’s not just about our sins and crimes – “The darkness of man, obscene, the blood on his shirt staining darker”. The image of blood running down a tree is paradoxically also an image of hope.
(I would also like to point out that the image of the tree also ties into Judas admitting to willing to be hung on a tree, and BAAO’s previous song “We Drag the Dead On Leashes” – “Oh fallen acorn, lost and alone, can you still be kissed by fire?”).
In Christian theology, it’s the blood of Christ that offers salvation for a broken and guilty humanity. Yes, we each have a balance of light and dark within us, exactly as Judas did, or Richie’s father, or the murderer from Section D. However, just as condemnation came through one man (Adam), salvation comes through one man too.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24
On this, their third album, BAAO have crafted a rich text that not only confirms their musical growth, but when you sit down and pick it apart, it reveals itself to be as challenging and informative as a C.S. Lewis apologetic. It is a beautiful meta-story, weaving theological, spiritual and emotional concepts into a complex collection of songs that are much more than the sum of their parts.
This album has been a strong reminder for me to sit down and appreciate the lyrics behind the screams. The stereotype of this genre tend towards simple misogyny or self-pity, but BAAO do so much more. Granted, you might need a list of lyrics to follow along, but it is well worth it. And now if anyone ever tells you they don’t get heavy music, or how Christians can be a part of this particular scene, you have a perfect case study to throw in their ignorant, close-minded faces.
When a band releases a self-titled album, it should be taken as a statement of sorts. Being As An Ocean have come into their own, and they are a force to be reckoned with. The subject matter has been treated with maturity and with a surprising undeniable cerebral strength, and hopefully some of us learn something along the way. Lyrically and musically (I love how the duality between Michael and Joel’s voices is used as a conceptual tool, and not just a musical one too), the band uncovers the truth that our lives are fraught with dichotomous tensions – the struggle between light and dark, man and man, man and himself, and most importantly, man and God.
In that sense, it could even be considered a modern collection of Psalms. The album definitely encourages introspection and at the same time, reveals something of God’s character too. Just as King David did in his hours of deepest despair, Joel Quartuccio has been screaming his heart out to God (and for us) since their first album. Yet, it’s in a manner that allows us to listen to a brother’s struggles and failures, and experience grace, love and truth all at the same time. The closing track is a way for Joel and Michael to pause and reflect on the previous nine songs they’re compiled. Joel begs us to listen to what they have had to say, to take on board the story of Little Richie, Judas, BAAO and all the stage actors to “break the cycle of rage”. It’s a haunting exhortation, and for this listener at least, it has done its job well.
NOTE: this was also posted at Selah Seventy Seven, the blog where I sporadically write about Christian music and stuff.