Christian metal isn’t such an unusual thing these days, and that is in large part due to Living Sacrifice. They weren’t the only Christian death metal band, but they are among the best known and most influential. The band formed in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1989 and drew not just Christian fans but metalheads in general with their unabashedly heavy music, even if non-Christian metal fans would give caveats like “Ignore the lyrics.”
Early on comparisons to Slayer were common and not misplaced, considering the fast, razor-edged thrash assault of Living Sacrifice’s self-titled debut (1991) which perfectly mimicked, or some even said improved on, Slayer’s characteristic sound. This was of course ironic considering Slayer’s vehement anti-Christian stance – or perhaps that was precisely the point. Maybe Living Sacrifice was trying to be the anti-Slayer?
With their second album, 1992’s Nonexistent, Living Sacrifice incorporated more death metal elements, with a much slower, churning style and low growled vocals. In 1995, vocalist Darren Johnson left the band and guitarist Bruce Fitzhugh took over vocals. The band’s sound evolved again, and 1997’s Reborn displayed more of a metalcore style, with screamed vocals and riffs alternating between hammering and groovy. In 2003, the band broke up as the members became involved in other projects, but in 2008 the band reunited and has been going strong ever since. Their most recent album, Ghost Thief (2013) is a very diverse effort, ranging from the catchy and melodic “Screwtape,” to the much heavier thrash pounding of the title track and “The Reaping,” to the death metal churning and growling of “Straw Man” and Gothenburg-esque flights of melody in “The Mask.” Overall, their style has become cleaner, more polished and much more melodic, compared to their early releases.
While Living Sacrifice has moved between genres through their 25+ year history, they are best known as one of the first and foremost Christian death metal bands. What would motivate someone to start a Christian metal band in a genre that also boasts bands such as Deicide (who show their opposition to religion right down to their band name)? The band has stated their early influences to be (old) Metallica, Anthrax, Testament and Slayer, and said that with Ghost Thief, they aimed to make a thrash album. It’s pretty obvious how much Slayer appealed to them sonically considering the sound of their 1991 debut.
Their lyrics may give a clue as to how they bridged the divide between Christianity, with its message of eternal life, and death metal, with its morbid focus. Christianity has its morbid aspects as well. “Second Death” from Living Sacrifice’s self-titled debut describes the torment of unbelievers in hell:
Vile stench begins to fill the air
Demons gather with a hideous glare
Assembled to inflict verbal torment
Reminded of salvation seeds forever dormant
Now seeing through their black lies
Realization of eternity bleeds into cries
Of course, they also have unabashedly worshipful lyrics, which seem a bit strange in the death metal genre:
O Lord, a resting place, arise
O Lord to be forever glorified
Undying worship, a continued offering
Christ above all, wisdom exalting
(“Emerge/Enthroned” from 1992’s Nonexistent)
Ultimately, though, Living Sacrifice paved the way for modern Christians to participate in metal and metalcore – both as listeners and musicians: bands such as Demon Hunter, with whom Living Sacrifice performed their first tour after reuniting in 2008, and Underoath built off the foundation laid by Living Sacrifice. Members of Living Sacrifice also went on to play for other Christian bands, such as Norma Jean and Soul Embraced.
Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bruce Fitzhugh has stated “We would like to be regarded as one of the best metal bands, period.” (CMJ New Music Report, Dec 9, 2002, pg 22) More than anything else, this perhaps explains their success and influence in merging faith and metal. Through undying devotion to music as well as their faith, they blazed a path and continue to forge ahead today, making heavy music that can appeal to any metal fan.