Strongarm - The Advent of A Miracle (1997)
There’s no direct correlation between holy terror and “spirit-filled” hardcore, but there’s plenty of fodder for speculation: in one corner, a group of nihilistic, anti-Christian hardcore bands, welcoming armageddon; in the other, impassioned, uber-Christian bands evangelising salvation. One seems like a direct response to the other, but as Shine.Is.Dead charts out for Break the Skin 2.0, spirit-filled hardcore was basically inevitable:
The hardcore scene was quite compatible with Christianity from the beginning, even though many hardcore bands themselves had anti-Christian stances. Hardcore’s focus on brotherhood and open-minded camaraderie mirrors the early church. It’s outspokenness, and passion create a natural environment for evangelism (passionately preaching the gospel to non-Christians) and worship (praise directed towards God). Also, the Straight Edge movement’s focus on clean living is quite compatible with Christian moral codes.
Just as “holy terror” was more of a mentality than a style of music, so the notion of spirit-filled hardcore was little more than a catch-all term intended to group bands like Zao, Focused, Overcome, and Unashamed under a single banner. They took it and ran for a little while, building a fierce but fleeting community within the strict orthodoxy of hardcore, but both the term and the “movement” it represented have drifted into obscurity, possibly due to the stigma of “preachy” lyrics and live sets intercut with "sermons." For what it's worth, even even non-secular hardcore circles have these problem (replace religion with politics, and there you go), but one can only imagine how well true-blue preaching might have gone over.
If there was ever a band that took the mission of spirit-filled hardcore seriously, it was Strongarm. The Advent of a Miracle is their second full-length following Atonement, a test run for what’s accomplished here. The improvements are subtle outside of the production, which is a clear step up, providing a warm and inviting space for the listener to join in on all the chest-thumping, arm-swinging fun of Strongarm at their peak. There’s a candor here that mirrors Training For Utopia’s Plastic Soul Impalement, without the disgust that backlights that album in hellfire. No single-handed attempts at revolution here: Strongarm advocate brothership and inclusion, espousing faith not as dogma but as a solution to modernity and the idiot cycle of routine. Most of all, they ask that we seek meaning in one another (and sure, one above). Refreshingly, they mean it: although no member is clearly more talented than another, the power with which they play could light a small suburbia. Frontman Chris Carbonell’s bellows tend to crack in moments of sincerity, elevating the seismic intensity of the music.
It should be noted that The Advent of A Miracle doubles as a guide for what would come to be termed “toughguy hardcore”: belligerent riffing, big breakdowns, and overly aggressive shouting are all here in spades. The fact that Carbonell sometimes sounds like he’s shouting not because he needs to, but because the music requires him to be intimidating, compounds this issue, but you have to keep two things in mind: Strongarm are the very best at what they did and were playing to crowds that wouldn’t respond to anything less than absolute conviction. They nail that piece and hammer it home with every tool in the metalcore toolbox, opting for heavy, choppy, and direct over all. Strongarm are frugal with melody, but since the Gothenburg influence was still a few years off at this point, the melody we do encounter is primal and fist-pumping, less about showing off the band's chops than about eliciting specific reactions of pride and aggression. No fat, no frills. Breakdowns are potent and necessary, releasing tension rather than manufacturing it. This is a lesson in need of review.
Spirit-filled hardcore couldn’t sustain itself despite the efforts of bands like Strongarm, of which there were decidedly few. Eventually, it imploded under the insistent secularism of the genre, which would count as a “win” for Integrity & Co. if the Church of Holy Terror hadn’t fizzled out, too. While there is still plenty of anti-Christian metalcore to go around and pro-Christian stuff to go with it, the freshness and innovation that made both sides such exciting institutions has grown stale. Integrity and Zao soldier on, preserving the flagging light of this dichotomy in early metalcore. For a little while, Strongarm were a warm fire in the night.