LONDON, England--It's album release day in the UK, and as if Delirious didn't have enough cause for jitters, a frantic scenario is unfolding that lives up to the band's moniker. This day also happens to be the one England's truck drivers have chosen to go on strike. Though the nation's roads are hopelessly gummed, the band is still forced to travel from its home base in Littlehampton, a southern coastal town, to London. In the big city, a crucial in-store concert awaits at the HMV music store on Oxford Circus.
If the truck traffic doesn't keep hometown fans away, a botch-up at the post office might. For some unknown reason, 30,000 of the band's mailers advertising the performance did not get delivered until the morning of the show, though the flyers were dropped in the mail far in advance.
And on arrival in London, the band is greeted by a jarring sight. On a sidewalk near Leicester Square, a collapsed pedestrian, blue from lack of breath, is hoisted onto a stretcher and carried off by an ambulance.
While any of this might rattle the nerves of lesser groups, Delirious paints a picture of intensity and composure that night at HMV. Concentrating on songs from new disc Mezzamorphis, UK's best-known Christian band makes a convincing case for its latest offering, which sharpens the edges and shatters the benchmark set on the group's 1998 U.S. release, King of Fools.
But if Delirious boasts the nerve and verve to get through a day like this, the band will need plenty more in the months ahead. Delirious has taken a leap of faith far from its roots in hopes of reaching a broader audience. Born as a praise & worship band, Delirious is now moving in a direction consistent with the members' musical heroes, which include the likes of U2, Radiohead, Blur and other big British modern rockers. What's more, the message of faith this time out is less explicitly stated, more implicitly crafted into the tone and attitude.
Swirling guitars, slicing segues and can't-miss melodies permeate Mezzamorphis. Recorded in a closed school building with a mobile set-up, the band had ample time to experiment and shape the songs along the way. And employing the steady hand of L.A. mixmeister Jack Joseph Puig (Hole, Eric Clapton, Weezer, Jellyfish) insured just the right balance of sonic grit and gloss.
Early returns on Mezzamorphis indicate a potential smash. The first single, "See the Star," entered the UK charts at No. 16. But the shift in musical and lyrical style is sure to raise questions, particularly among fans (including quite a few Americans) attracted to the band's church-oriented material. So why the transition alluded to in the disc's title?
"Everyone's got their own calling and vision," says guitarist Stuart Garrard (Stu G.). "For us, we don't want to keep what we've been given within the four walls of the church. This [album] is a direct result of that, really. We've been encouraging the people in our fan base to get out and make a difference in the world. We'd be hypocrites if we didn't do the same."
"We've got to explore different avenues to get our music heard," adds keyboardist Tim Jupp. "[The Christian scene] is a small thing in England, whereas in America you can make your whole living doing it."
And lead vocalist/guitarist Martin Smith sounds very much like dc talk's Toby McKeehan when he puts the changes in perspective: "We are artists, first and foremost, and want to create great art first and foremost. But there's a dynamic when we play that points to spiritual things, and that's our agenda: to create something that will point the way toward God."
To that end, Mezzamorphis is a bold title, for the invented word suggests not a proud achievement or victory, but an ongoing struggle of pressing toward the mark. The opening cut, "The Mezzanine Floor," could well be the album's thesis: "I'm on the mezzanine floor, never been here before, no no/It's a lonely place, but a house full of grace." The theme is amplified in the chorus of "Metamorphis": "Can I be somebody?/Not what they want me to be/Just a pale reflection of what you want me to be."
If "you" refers to God, "they" in this case means both the world at large and Christian music's gatekeepers. "We've tried to avoid being pigeon-holed," says drummer Stewart Smith (no relation to Martin). "At the end of the day, we just want to be writing and playing great music."
Put another way, "In the early days, we were leading people into worship," says bassist Jon Thatcher. "Now, what we do is worship."
For the uninitiated, a quick crash course on the band's history: 1992 saw the dawning of Cutting Edge, a monthly gathering of music and worship organized by several of Delirious' current members. Within a year, crowds of 200 to 300 were showing up to see the group--which at first had no name, but was christened "the Cutting Edge band" so promoters would have something to put on posters.
By 1994, Cutting Edge attendance was topping 1,000; by 1995, the group took on its present lineup. The following year saw the name change, and it didn't take long for Delirious to turn heads across the Atlantic. Beginning in 1997, Sparrow Records released all of the band's previous work--the fruit of seven years of labor--within a span of 24 months.
With the explosion in popularity, band members say a lot of learning and growing has gone on over the last two years. Yet growing has its inevitable pains, which have turned into headaches for Sparrow.
One new song, "It's OK," addresses spiritual vapidity with edgy language: "She's as pretty as hell and her eyes have no home." While tame compared to general market pop, that line put some Christian retailers ill at ease, and Sparrow was set to leave the song off the album. In fact, it didn't appear on promotional copies of Mezzamorphis.
Band members insist the language was not meant to offend. "That song is about life and pain and that you can't always be [all-triumphant]," Martin Smith says. "It's back on the album now, which we feel great about. It's an incredible song of healing, and we hope people will be touched by it."
Live, the lyric is tempered by Martin's understated delivery. "It's OK" is more than fine with the HMV crowd, and the dour ballad earns some of the heartiest applause from the 400-strong audience.
"Boy power!" shouts one exuberant fan.
Martin is caught off-guard for a second. He laughs, then shoots back, "I'm a man."
If Mezzamorphis is the sound of a five-man band maturing, the faithful seem eager to sample it. When the group asks for a quick show of hands, just about everyone at HMV has bought a copy before the evening's seven-song mini-set.
Afterwards, the crowd is wowed. "These songs are very prophetic," says Mark Stephenson, 38, a minister with the non-denominational Capital City Church in London. "They talk about not only what is and what was, but what is to come."
As for what lies ahead for the pride of Littlehampton, there's certainly more hard work to promote the new record. There's a 22-city UK tour and inevitable jaunts to the States. "We made eight or nine trips last year and plan to do the same this year," Stu G. says.
For now, the beat grows on. "A caterpillar doesn't think about becoming a butterfly," Stu G. says. "It just happens naturally. In the beginning, the songs were about an event, for the church. But like any Christian, we wouldn't want to be standing still, whether you're a musician or an electrician."
As the album title suggests, the outcome is still being decided, at least as Stu sees it. "I don't know if we're a butterfly or a chrysalis," he says. "But for all the things shifting, there is a rock-solid foundation keeping things rooted."
"We might get up on a big mainstream festival stage in England, and there's still that wanting to touch people's hearts," Jupp says. "Just as you do on a Sunday morning."