Momentous Mondays: Influential artists of the next 5-10 years – Week 48: First To Eleven + Concrete Castles

I’ve noticed a few things as I’ve lived my life thus far, and while I am no expert on things that I know that I don’t know about, I do know a few things as I’ve lived here on this earth for 31 years (and counting!). Something that has stuck out for me recently; is this understanding and notion that it’s ok to love and enjoy music that isn’t necessarily the ‘original genre’ of music that you maybe have gravitated towards throughout all your life, up until now. What I mean to say is this- that even if you enjoyed rock music growing up; it is perfectly ok to enjoy country music later on during your life. Or if you were heavily invested into pop from when you were born, it shouldn’t really be a problem if you start to have an interest in folk, or screamo, or opera later on during your life. Or…howabout a real kicker- that it’s ok to love and enjoy mainstream music, even if all your life, you were listening to CCM. Or even let’s take this one step further now that we are being very candid with each other- that it’s more than ok if you believe that God Himself is speaking through mainstream music, that He’s not just speaking through ‘CCM and that’s it’.

I know, a controversial topic. And I know it’s a controversial topic because there’s a lot of videos out there on youtube, discussing mainstream music v Christian music- titles like ‘Should Christians Listen to Secular Music?’, ‘Is it a Sin to listen to SECULAR MUSIC?’, ‘CHRISTIANS and secular music!? Should Christians listen to it’, ‘Should Christians Listen to Secular Music: A Christian Perspective’, ‘Where Should Christians Draw The Line With Music & Art (Is Secular Music a Sin?)’, and ‘Should Christians Listen to Secular Music? Is it a sin or nah?’, are just some of the many, many videos out there online that discuss this very issue. And while there really isn’t any hard answer on this topic about Christian Music vs. Mainstream music, there are a few POV’s out there- with one extreme being that you as a Christian, can’t listen to any kind of music, unless it speaks about Christ (not even CCM, because a fair amount of CCM speaks about Christ-like things, but doesn’t necessarily mention God or Jesus in it explicitly). And then there’s the other equally hard extreme on the other end, the one that says that because of God’s grace, love and mercy over our lives, that we as consumers of music shouldn’t take legalistic boundaries and stances, especially in music. One too strict, in my opinion, and one too relaxed. For me personally, my ideas have shifted, changed, swung too far one way, and have come back around again, ever since my brother and myself started this journey into music from 2019 onwards. It was when we discovered that music outside our CCM ‘bubble’ existed; and wasn’t this ‘evil’ thing that we were assuming everything outside of CCM was…well, that shifted everything for me, and I’m sure for my brother as well.

Yes, we still listen to a lot of CCM artists, in fact, some of my favourite bands of all time are from the CCM movement- guys like Newsboys, Third Day, Casting Crowns, MercyMe, Delirious?, for KING AND COUNTRY and Tenth Avenue North, to name a few. And then I started to ponder and begin to think. What about the artists who have had success in both CCM and mainstream, guys that have served faithfully and have created music for both the church, and outside of the church too? Skillet, Switchfoot, needtobreathe, even solo artists like Lauren Daigle, Tori Kelly, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and the ever reliable Amy Grant; are some of the artists over the years that have had success in both CCM and mainstream music, and it’s led me to this question that I’ve posed to myself (or that others have posed to me, in some shape or form)- when is it ok to listen to secular music, and is it ok to be ok with not being as ‘strict’ as you maybe once were, when it came to your stance on mainstream music as a whole? What I mean is this- that from February 2019 onwards, a new world was opened to us. We discovered and listened to artists that we only knew of in passing, songs that we heard on the radio, here and there, but never really listened to, and sat down and contemplated on lyrics…until about 2 years ago, of course. My brother and I decided to take a risk, step out of the boat when all instincts told us to stay in. Because to take on this musical assignment, if you will, a way of exploring music in all its facets and forms, by embarking on this near-impossible series, can take a toll on you…both physically and mentally. You probably would’ve guessed what series we are talking about, if you’ve read this blog up to this moment, and you’d be right.

To write about 100 artists that I believe are impactful and influential in a number of ways, to the landscape of music and modern music history, can seem a little too ambitious, and in some ways, a little foolish to even start to accomplish…because in all honesty, shouldn’t you not listen to any mainstream music at all? No seriously, the Lord is in our life, shouldn’t CCM be enough? No seriously, those were the thoughts I was having back then, and I dunno where I got them from. Maybe it’s because throughout the years, I saw a lot of things in passing about how damaged and destructive the mainstream music industry was as a whole, and how there were things said here and there, about music not being edifying in such an industry as mainstream music. Nevertheless, my brother and I took the plunge, and around 2 and half years later, my brother is working on blog #96 (out of 100) of artists that have been impactful and influential for most of modern music history (while I myself wrote blogs #1 – #80, Josh took over at blog #81 and is writing until blog #100), while I myself am writing on a whole new different series altogether. Because what we decided to do throughout our two-year music journey is this- that we’d establish a group of 100 artists that encompassed a variety of time periods, and a variety of music genres. Artists that we’d think deserve some kind of recognition and place upon a list as arbitrary as ours, as we try to cobble together names of people we think are influential in the realms of music over the past _____ years- artists like Avril Lavigne, Delta Goodrem, Guy Sebastian, The Goo Goo Dolls, Owl City, Train, Shania Twain, Michael Buble, Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys, Keith Urban, U2, Josh Groban, Lifehouse, Ed Sheeran, Rascal Flatts, John Legend, Backstreet Boys, Bryan Adams, One Direction, Sheryl Crow, even acapella group Pentatonix, opera legend Jackie Evancho, hard rockers Creed and Nickelback, and 1990s girl group Spice Girls; were all discussed over the last 2 years or so. We even decided to introduce a new series in the midst of us exploring the first blog series of ‘Influential Artists of All Time’. My brother initially (and me now carrying on) started a series about artists who are impactful and influential here and now and into the future, titling the series ‘Influential Artists of the Next 5-10 Years’, discussing artists that may be popular now, or may not have even been heard of, who all have the validity to impact and influence in the upcoming years ahead. We discussed artists like pop/CCM crossover artist Lauren Daigle, indie-pop trailblazer Alessia Cara, girl-group Little Mix, CCM/country rising star Zach Williams, deaf singer-songwriter Mandy Harvey, Canadian country up-and-comer Lindsay Ell, Youtuber and acapella artist Peter Hollens, Asian-Australian singer-songwriter and winner of the Australian X-Factor 2013, Dami Im; indie rockers Colony House, even overnight rap sensation NF, singer/actress Sofia Carson, alternative sibling group The New Respects, and British country duo The Shires…to name a few.

Most of these artists we delved into, on either blog post list, weren’t explicitly Christian, and earlier on, we had a hard time wrestling with that. ‘How can you even enjoy music if you don’t discuss anything about Christ in it?’ was the thought that was ringing through my head when I started this musical journey in February 2019. Some days I still think that. Nevertheless, I still soldiered on in my blogging, and here and there (in both the all-time influential list, and the 5-10 years into the future influential list), I managed to discuss Christian artists that have had in impact on my own life, personally, and CCM artists that I firmly believe have impact and influence on the broader landscape of music in general. Artists like Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Rebecca St. James, Casting Crowns, Newsboys, Skillet, Switchfoot, Tenth Avenue North, Carman, for KING & COUNTRY, Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, Lecrae, Amy Grant, needtobreathe, even lesser known artists (that have had a huge impact on my own faith over the last few years) Andrew Peterson and Jason Gray, were all discussed throughout the last 2 years or so, and over at the blog series that my brother started, we tackled CCM artists like Lauren Daigle, Matthew West (though I personally think upon reflection, that he shouldn’t even be present on such a list highlight artists of the future), Zach Williams, Philippa Hanna, and most recently Apollo LTD and Riley Clemmons. So I guess we delved into more CCM artists than we even thought we were gonna, and even more CCM artists than a lot of other people who maybe would’ve formulated similar lists, and wouldn’t have included any CCM artists in them, whatsoever. And that’s the beauty of lists being subjective. Because it’s ok for us to like something and for someone else to like something else. And in terms of mainstream music, that it’s ok to enjoy mainstream music, and CCM, concurrently. I know this blog post would get someone out there riled up, and personally, that’s ok if they are. Music and people’s opinions of it are very wide- you would need to exercise wisdom and discernment when listening to music on an artist-by-artist basis- because not all artists who sing and perform mainstream music are from the devil, and not all people who profess Christianity and sing within the realms of CCM are real and genuine. You can even have a plausibly believable case, where the message and morals behind a mainstream music artist/song, could even stack up Biblically and be much more edifying, compared to a seemingly generic CCM artist/album. Not everything within the confines of CCM = good, and not everything out there in the world is demonically possessed, either.

The way I see it is this- music in and of itself isn’t evil or bad. In fact, music is a gift from God given to people who can choose to use it in ways that are harmful, or in ways that build people up. Whether or not people know it, music can either be used to bring people towards God, and the pursuit of what is good, and right and true, and discuss and talk about issues and things that are pressing onto God’s heart, or they do can do the opposite. And even mainstream music can do that. My brother wrote a blog post way back in 2017, titled ‘Message Mondays: Why Christian Music and Mainstream Music Do Not Have to Be At Odds, and How God Can Use Both to Further His Kingdom at the Same Time’, and yes, I know it’s a mouthful of a title, but as what the title of said blog suggests, I firmly believe even now, that God can use mainstream music to further His kingdom, if He wanted to. As my brother wrote back in 2017, and hereby I quote verbatim; ‘…I have discovered mainstream music and realised that it’s not all that bad. It’s not sent from the devil, it’s not sent to destroy us, and mainstream music (despite some explicit language in quite a lot of songs out there!) does have its place. Both types of music are similar in some respects. Both types are written by equally flawed humans, trying to find their way in the world. And even if an artist who’s not a Christian doesn’t have the same world view as me, it doesn’t mean that their song cannot and will not inspire. Think about it. Sam Smith’s “Too Good At Goodbyes”, where he delves into the reality of him pushing people away and not being good at relationships. Logic’s “18002738255”, encouraging everyone that you have a reason to live if you’re still breathing, and not to throw your life away. Kesha’s “Praying”, which highlights the fact that no one is too far gone from love and acceptance, and we can pray for others around us to be who they used to be. And that’s just a few mainstream songs that I have discovered that are very impacting to me. Are these artists Christian? Nope, I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean that these songs aren’t impacting nor encouraging. Every song has a message. I’ve learnt that much this year. And I mean every song. Some messages are inspiring, some are warnings, some messages are simple, some are complex, some messages are just ‘have a good time’, and some are just ‘go get revenge on this person because of x, y, z’. But all songs have messages. It’s whether we should follow and adhere to what these songs promote is the question. When navigating the mainstream music scene, I reckon as a Christian, we need to use discernment. Sure, we may not know an artist’s belief, but if they write a song as inspirational as “How Great Is Our God”, for example, yet we still don’t know if they’re a Christian, do we listen to this song, even if we are inspired by it? If in the next week, the same artist releases a song with a bunch of curse words, and singing about sex, drugs and the occult, does it make the message of previous inspirational song, null and void? Can God still speak through the first song? I believe He can. It’s a tough issue, and an issue that Christians are divided about. Some still reckon guitars, drums and synth are from the devil, and only sing hymns on the organ on Sunday mornings. But the fact remains is that God isn’t limited by who He chooses to speak through. He may speak through you and me as Christians. But He also may choose to speak through those you least expect. A foul-mouthed music artist. An atheist actor. A homeless schizophrenic man. A preacher with dodgy theology. A new age spiritualist. A Buddhist. A homosexual transsexual. The list goes on. There is no limit to who God chooses to speak into your life. And that includes music artists. I know that may be hard for some to accept, and believe me, it took a while for me to fully grasp the concept of God using anyone for His glory, but I know that because He is God and is outside time, He is able. And. He. Can. Do. Anything. He. Wants. And. Use. Anyone. To. Get. Our. Attention…’

If someone wants to only listen to Christian songs, that’s fine. And if someone listens to an artist that I don’t necessarily agree with, then that’s between them and the Lord. What I will say is this- that what I’ve found throughout the last 2 years of exploring the genres of pop, rock, CCM, country, folk, alternative and the opera genre, is that the sea of music is as wide as it is vast, and on an artist-by-artist basis, you need to use a level of wisdom- music isn’t a primary issue of our faith as a Christian. It shouldn’t be a barometer or a benchmark about how to classify Christians, or even to say and assume if someone is really saved or not. I’ve enjoyed a lot of music over the years that I’m sure some of my own church family would shake their heads, and that’s still ok. I’ve learnt that God uses the things that we may write off as unusable; and will transform them and allow them to show us things about ourselves that maybe we didn’t really fully understand or grasp in the first place. And that includes music. And as I start to delve into this new artist, I’ve learnt this one thing to be true- that regardless of our viewpoints about this artist or that, that God can and should be in the business of using flawed and broken people, to reach the flawed and the broken. Can you imagine what could happen to the world, if a CCM artist were to team up with a mainstream artist and go on tour together, and deliver a message of hope and unity, all the while knowing that God can still be in it and the Lord can still be praised by the end of it all?

I’ve been a hermit in terms of my listening habits and music appreciation for most of my life. And these past few years have been unique as my eyes have been opened to the plethora of music that is out there. I still will cherish and respect all of the CCM that I was listening to throughout my teenage years and my 20s. But now as I move to be in my 30s, I’m pondering and thinking quite a bit more. Yes, there’s music that I probably won’t touch at all in my entire life. But by and large, if God can use mainstream music, then we have to be ok with that. My music experience is going to be different than yours, and I shouldn’t expect my fellow brother or sister in Christ, to have the exact music tastes compared to me. God can give you different convictions to me, depending on the season of life that I am in compared to you. And that will still be fine, if we continue to exercise wisdom and discernment when it comes to our listening experience. If 2020 and 2021 are years that we can learn from, it’s this- music is music, and whether it’s CCM or mainstream, God can use, to edify ourselves and others, and to show us things about this world that maybe the Lord wants to open our eyes to, and show us. I’ve been listening to artists like Lucy Thomas (a 17 year old Broadway-style singer who competed in The Voice Kids in Britain in 2018), The Shires (a British country duo), Amy Shark (Australian singer-songwriter that has a similar music vibe to that of Missy Higgins), Ava Max (up-and-coming pop artist whose music is similar thematically to that of Lady Gaga) and Sofia Carson (aspiring singer-songwriter who delivers pop-EDM, is in a similar Disney world that artists like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato were in when they were younger), in the last few months, even exploring the soundtrack to the movie Dear Evan Hansen that released not too long ago, and all the while still being encouraged by music from artists like Switchfoot (Interrobang), Jeremy Camp (When You Speak), Mike Donehey (Flourish), Tim Timmons (Here) and Needtobreathe (Into the Mystery), to name a few. Which brings me to this assumption that people just think to be true, just maybe because people have thought so for quite some time- that CCM and mainstream music cannot work together to better a person, and definitely cannot both be used by the Lord, in order to illuminate things about themselves that the Lord wants to fix, or to bring together people that the Lord wants in relationship with each other. Or so I thought. I used to think that CCM and mainstream were mutually exclusive. But I’m learning more and more; that they don’t have to be. Maybe my appreciation radar for music has been widened over the last few years. Maybe I’ve come to understand that I was placing limits all this time, on what I believe God can use musically and what He can’t. And because of those parameters, I was missing out. Nevertheless, now I’m a much more open-minded person when it comes to music and what artists are coming my way (through the way of a youtube video here and there, or even a random Spotify song) from the Lord that He wants me to take notice of.

First to Eleven (or Concrete Castles, as the band is known now as, in terms of original material, at least) is one such band I’ve been listening to recently that has really piqued my interest in terms of mainstream music. Comprised of lead singer Audra Miller, guitarist Matt Yost, bassist Ryan Krysiak and drummer Sam Gilman, this has been a band that’s been on my radar recently, and it hasn’t been because of anything new or flash that they’ve done (though they did release their album Wish I Missed U full of all-original material…but that’s something for another story), and it wasn’t because of any recommendation by anyone on the youtube space or even the youtube algorithm. First to Eleven, and how I was introduced to them, was through me searching for youtube covers. Yes, sometimes I do that. Search for youtube covers online. Maybe it’s because I just want to see how another person were to create a different take on a song that has become so global and well-received. Whatever the case, I find that covers in general can be a way of discovering something about a song that you may not have heard before. Especially if the artist covering the famous track, changes up the music, and delivers the song in a different and unique music style. First to Eleven is indeed famous for their cover songs of famous pop melodies; and delivering their own rock slant on each of them, while band members Audra, Sam and Matt also formed Concrete Castles, an avenue and way for them to create original material that is separate from the niche and identity that they built as First to Eleven being a rock cover band.

Some people may question the validity of First to Eleven (or even Concrete Castles) on such a list as this. And they’d probably be right. Because I have often debated against myself for the last few weeks as to the validity of me even writing a blog like this. Because in all honesty, can you really be impactful and influential when most of your track record is cover songs? Really? Well, let’s look back at a few artists over the few years of my brother and I writing this blog series, to see, shall we? Peter Hollens, Youtuber and acapella extraordinaire, creates covers on youtube using only his voice, and is able to layer vocal upon vocal to create a semblance of instruments even though there are none- and that, in and of itself, is something worthy to be celebrated, enjoyed, respected and lifted up, even though most of Peter’s own discography consist of cover tracks…in fact, I doubt he’s ever recorded an original song. Lucy Thomas, finalist in the British version of The Voice Kids Season 2 (2018), has arguably one of this generations most underrated teenage voices, ever, as she is able to tackle covers from artists like Mariah Carey (‘Hero’), Whitney Houston (‘I Will Always Love You’), Josh Groban (‘You Raise Me Up’), Eva Cassidy (‘At Last’), Leona Lewis (‘Run’), The Eagles (‘Desperado’) and Christina Aguilera (‘Reflection’), with such grace, poise, and a sense of effortlessness, as Lucy herself presents a sense of maturity and a vocal level that only comes around, once in a generation, if you will. Acapella artists Pentatonix started off as contestants on NBC’s The Sing Off in 2011, winning that season and going the way of Youtube just afterwards, and becoming youtube sensations, before releasing new, original material in 2015. Now they are famous for much of their covers on youtube, as well as delivering annual (or semi-annual) Christmas albums, delivering their own twist on carols and holiday songs, all the while presenting their own take on famous, iconic tracks as well (songs like ‘God Only Knows’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Sound of Silence’, ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’, ‘When You Believe’, ‘Mad World’, ‘Take On Me’, ‘Waving Through a Window’ and ‘Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)’ [to name a few], are all given the Pentatonix acapella treatment). While six-sister group (right now comprising of 5 sisters) Cimorelli made their breakout in 2009 with a Youtube cover of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Party in the USA’, and are now major role models for young people around the world, balancing a youtube career with releasing various cover albums and original material that manage to span the realms of pop, acapella and Christian music. And Jackie Evancho, who won the 2010 season of America’s Got Talent, has since created 5 studio albums and 1 Christmas album, as she delivers famous cover songs in an operatic tone of voice, and has become arguably one of America’s most pristine and poignant voices within the operatic space (equally as impressive, Lucy Thomas’s expertise would be more broadway while Jackie would fall more on into the opera category). And so I lay all this out to say, that I was a little bit worried and apprehensive as to why I even believed myself, that First To Eleven (and by that same extension, Concrete Castles) should even be considered to be allowed to be present here in such an arbitrary blog list, indeed about impactful artists both now and into the future. And even though I was worried, I just looked back at artists like Peter Hollens, Pentatonix, Jackie Evancho, Cimorelli, and Lucy Thomas, and I’m reminded that as each of these artists I’ve just aforementioned had their big break and start within the confines and realms of cover music, so too has First To Eleven, even amassing 9 albums of cover songs, and delivering arguably one of the highest standards any band in the Youtube music space could deliver, in terms of rock covers of popular current-day music. First to Eleven, and now Concrete Castles, are here to stay, as we’re reminded that now more than ever, the way to become influential and impactful ought not to come through labels and signing agreements, but maybe, just maybe, the avenues of platforms like Youtube, soundcloud, Tik-Tok, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are the way to go.

First to Eleven and their music catalogue isn’t that complicated. If any of you have read up to this point, you probably are a fan of the cover band themselves, have been introduced to them by the way of Concrete Castles, or if you love and appreciate rock music in a holistic sense. Whatever the case, this blog won’t be as long as what people assume it could be, and probably won’t even be as long as I predict it could be too. What I will say about the band is this- that Audra, Ryan, Matt and Sam have created a band that breathes and injects life into popular songs that people would otherwise not have heard, had it not been for their covers. I know that statement sounds pretty cliché, but from where I’m standing, if you can create a cover of a song, and make a listener feel as if you’ve written it, if someone can listen to a song that they would otherwise have not have liked, and fall in love with the musical arrangement to the point where they forget that this song you have covered is not created by you…then you’ve done a good work, I’d say. First to Eleven have done this, and a great ‘litmus’ test is this- if you find yourself listening to more pop music than you would initially have done, prior to the introduction of this particular artist to your Spotify and iTunes rotation…then this artist has created covers that you appreciate and admire, and has made you realise that each genre has a specific purpose in the grand scheme of music…yes, even pop music. That is the quintessential problem, isn’t it? How to create melodies and songs that bring the same vibrancy, energy, and passion that the original may have possessed in the past, but really modernise tracks in a way that it can appeal to a different musical genre group. First to Eleven have created rock covers of…well, pretty much anything that isn’t rock, and here we see Audra and co. really going after it, owning said songs and making each arrangement unique and different.

As these fans connect to the songs and check them out themselves, the artist can only wish for this one thing to happen- when you forget for a moment or two, that the song you’re listening to is a cover, then the cover artist has succeeded in their accomplishments, even if you ‘forgetting’ the original artist, is only for a fleeting moment. Nevertheless; this band has amassed a lot of popularity within the digital space- 1.23 Million subscribers on Youtube, 166K followers on Facebook, 12K twitter followers…that’s a lot of social media clout, for a band that primarily creates cover music (with the exception of their full-length originally written album). In all honesty, that just means that their covers aren’t something to be dismissed, right? Correct me if I’m wrong, and maybe I could be out of line, but what I’ve seen in modern society, is that there’s a stigma around people covering other people’s music. People in a general sense, value original music in a higher regard compared to people who primarily create cover music. The way I can see this issue is that it takes a whole lot of skill, heart, passion, enthusiasm, and bravery to create a cover, because whenever someone is listening to the track, they’re constantly comparing it to the original- subconsciously or not. And maybe that can be the impetus for people to rise or fall in terms of them creating good cover music or not, and the way First to Eleven has handled this, is through extreme hard work, and grace given by a lot of people who listen to their music. These covers are simply that, covers, and First to Eleven try their best not to emulate the original artists. And yet their covers have something unique about them that a lot of their pop counterparts don’t necessarily have- emotion and heart.

There, I said it. A lot of pop melodies right now don’t have the same heartfelt passion that I’ve seen in decades of music gone by. Songs from the 80s and 90s have a different vibe and atmosphere to songs in the 2000s, and thereby songs from the 2000s sound drastically different than songs from the 2010s. Each decade is different, and unfortunately, as the decades have gone by, music is becoming more mass-produced and more electronically influenced, and less created originally with actual instruments. What First to Eleven (and other cover artists like Cimorelli, Lucy Thomas, even guys like Penatonix, Jackie Evancho, and Peter Hollens) have (that a lot of up-and-coming popular pop artists don’t) is this way of being ingenious, creative, innovative, and artistic, all for the sake of creating something unique and different compared to anything that is mainstream at the moment. What I’ve found is that the artists that start their careers through the way of Youtube, have a hard-working ethic about their music that reminds us all, that for anyone who starts off trying to build something themselves (as opposed to another artist who was maybe handed a record deal off the bat), they have a hunger and a passion that maybe couldn’t have been possible if they received fame and stardom through ‘easier’ means. You see the hard work that First To Eleven displays in each youtube cover- and with a few costume changes and lighting effects, you can film in the same room for two different cover videos, and have two different atmospheres when you watch them both. First to Eleven in the grand scheme of things is by no means popular…they’re probably the exact opposite of popular. But what they are is a band that creates something familiar in a uniquely different way. Through this band, I was able to appreciate and enjoy rock music- not that I didn’t enjoy rock music before, I was listening to Skillet and Switchfoot, even a bit of Building 429 and Kutless, every so often. But maybe I was incorrectly taught…and thereby assumed, that rock music generally is from the devil…and it isn’t.

Yes, there are some rock bands like LINKIN PARK that have heavy imagery and speak about things like suicide, death, drugs, alcohol, depression and cutting (and thereby shouldn’t be something to listen to on a consistent basis), but by and large, rock songs (and pop songs for that matter) are just songs by imperfect humans, just as much as CCM rock and CCM pop are by imperfect humans also. Listening to First to Eleven and their rock takes on famous tracks, has given me a newfound appreciation for rock bands I was previously listening to (for the sake of me writing about them in the past few years)- artists like Switchfoot, Lifehouse, U2, Train, OneRepublic, Daughtry, Hanson, Goo Goo Dolls, Hoobastank, Creed, Nickelback, Jon Foreman and Coldplay. Artists that have something to say, both during their heydays of 10-20 years ago, and now as well. First to Eleven delivers a different perspective on songs we already know, and a perspective on songs that we may not have known before, and that’s ok. A cover can make you look at the original song in a more forgiving way, or a cover can cause to you check out the original song for the first time. Or it could just allow you to listen to more of said cover. Whatever our reaction and assumptions towards covers in general, First to Eleven (as well as concurrently, Concrete Castles) are here to stay, hopefully for a few more years yet.

I find it unique, intriguing and exciting, that as I was exploring new avenues of music through First To Eleven, I was discovering, recognising and understanding, that God the Almighty can and may use mainstream music (even mainstream rock music) to encourage us towards something, or even use the songs to illuminate something about ourselves and highlight things about other people as well. I’ve been listening on and off to First to Eleven for a few years (ever since they created their poignant cover for Avril Lavigne’s ‘Head Above Water’), and their speciality is this- create rock covers of, well, anything! Let’s just say that most of the band’s covers are so professionally done, that I often prefer them to the original. Lead singer Audra Miller’s vocals are always on point, and the band’s professionalism and ability to take a well-known track and cover it with such precision, is something that has always made this band to be one of the most talented cover bands (who specialise in rock music) on Youtube (add Cimorelli, Peter Hollens, Pentatonix and Lucy Thomas, and I think you have the top 5 ‘up-and-coming’, or even established, music youtubers at the moment). The band has covered a range of songs from a range of musical styles and time periods throughout their tenure on Youtube so far, from songs like ‘Sucker’, ‘Sweet But Psycho’, ‘Cool Kids’, ‘I Don’t Care’, ‘Somebody You Loved’ and ‘Circles’; to others inclusive of ‘Sk8er Boi’, ‘Lose You To Love Me’, ‘Beautiful People’, ‘Numb’, ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, ‘Since U Been Gone’, ‘Blinding Lights’, ‘Take On Me’, ‘Complicated’ and ‘The Reason’. The band also created a moniker in 2021, Concrete Castles, to create their original music under…I guess from now onwards, I affiliate First to Eleven with cover music, and Concrete Castles with originals. But in effect, they are the same band. They do have the same sound; and listening to Wish I Missed U just recently (I am about to review the album, very soon!), I discovered a sound that is across both First to Eleven and Concrete Castles, that is unique and fresh, as it is reliable and familiar.

 

That doesn’t mean that I’ll stop listening to artists like Skillet or Switchfoot- more so the contrary- in listening to Wish I Missed U, I’ve come to know that even God is somehow present in these songs, even if the band doesn’t know it, or even if we at a glance dismiss an artist like this…because how can God even use mainstream music, and allow such a thing to exist, right? I’ve learned to be a lot less ‘legalistic’ in what I believed God could and couldn’t use (to further the Kingdom of heaven) when it came to music- because in all honesty, the Lord can use an artist like Third Day, MercyMe, Newsboys, or even an artist like Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, First to Eleven, and Concetre Castles. These people who create mainstream music have the same struggles, hopes, dreams and worries experienced, compared to those experiencing it within the confines of CCM. The band’s various cover albums, alongside their debut of original songs this past week, are certain to expand the band and their reach beyond the Youtube space. Who knows, maybe listening to First to Eleven (and Concrete Castles) can encourage people to listen to artists like Skillet and Switchfoot, and vice versa.

To date, First to Eleven has released 9 volumes of cover hits, and with the number of stand-alone covers that they have now, a tenth volume of covers, is sure to be on its way. But let’s be honest and frank here, as I’ve always been. I haven’t listened to all of the cover songs from First to Eleven that they’ve released thus far. Quite frankly, it’s been only in the last year that I’ve been checking out their cover songs across these 9 album volumes, but from what I’ve heard, these guys from Pennsylvania are some of the most enthusiastic and hard-working cover music artists on Youtube (artists like Cimorelli and Peter Hollens would also be in that category as well). To choreograph rock versions of songs that weren’t necessarily rock in the first place, requires a lot of skill and talent, and these guys definitely have it. Even Audra Miller, who is currently 20, is as talented as anyone else in the Youtube space, maybe even more so than the common person who wants to make it on youtube. Especially at her age, the way that she lends her voice to be the lead on all these rock songs, and then to sing them with such poise, grace and ease, it really encourages us all not to judge, because in all honesty, we’d automatically assume that songs sung in the rock format would be better off sung by guys, right?

The vocals of someone of that age (20) is a timely reminder that there are great up-and-coming artists, we probably only need to look to youtube to see who the next rising star should be. In Audra’s case, she’s definitely a talent of the future (and of now)- to sing rock renditions of anything, when you’re that young, requires a lot of talent, and a huge, freaky gift, and Audra has both. In fact, dare I say that a lot of the most emotive and prolific rising voices of the past few years, have come from Youtube more so than any other platform/competition? First to Eleven and their rock re-interpretations of pop songs, rock songs, and just songs that people generally know, is what brings people in, especially when people want to listen to different arrangements of music, versions of their favourite songs, that are a little different than we’d obviously know them to be. Across these nine volumes (and then a few more), Audra and co. have crafted songs that we are all familiar with, delivered in a new light…and that’s ok. Sure, it may take a few listens to get used to rock versions of songs like ‘Toxic’ (Britney Spears), ‘Someone You Loved’ (Lewis Capaldi), ‘ME!’ (Taylor Swift), ‘If I Can’t Have You’ (Shawn Mendes), ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ (Ariana Grande), ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ (NSYNC), ‘Over The Rainbow’ (Judy Garland) and ‘Billie Jean’ (Michael Jackson), but I’m sure once people take some time to really listen to these expertly crafted covers, you’d understand as well as I, of why First to Eleven (and by extension, Concrete Castles), needs to be here in this blog post series.

Not because of the fact that they create covers- anyone on the internet can create a cover to a song. It’s how it’s professionally done, and how uniquely choreographed these songs really are. Some of the corresponding music videos of these songs, are ingenious, clever, resourceful, and inventive- the band dresses up as characters from The Wizard of Oz for their cover of ‘Over the Rainbow’, while the band dress up as characters from Aladdin for their cover of ‘A Whole New World’.  It is in how they create their covers, that First to Eleven are as up-and-coming as they are. And while they are still not as popular within the realms of music in general, their fanbase on Youtube have really recognised the quality of their work. You don’t have to take notice of everyone to deliver meaningful and heartfelt music, you just have to make an impact wherever you are. In this band’s case, they may never get to the status of Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift. And maybe they don’t have to. All they need to do, is to create covers as best they can, and also be the best Concrete Castles as they can.

Once they remind listeners that it’s ok to be a little bit quirky and different (how many up-and-coming indie-rock bands have you heard, that have had their start on youtube creating over 200+ cover songs over the last 5 years, before they obtained their first big break?), we can finally be ok with appreciating artists who come up the ranks through the hard work they display. Not that there’s anything wrong with artists who win big in competitions and then go on their merry way to stardom, but I often find a lot of respect is given to people that grind and grind and grind for a while, and then become music stars out of that. While the band will forever be famous for their cover albums (and continuous cover material released under the banner of First to Eleven, every week), they recently just released their debut full-length album Wish I Missed U under the moniker Concrete Castles (a few days ago). Not having much but just their covers to go on, I was at least intrigued about how this original album release would go for Audra and co., and what I listened to was something emotive and powerful, unique, and heartfelt. While I didn’t know what to expect when I heard Wish I Missed U, what actually eventuated was this- an album that can hopefully gain more traction because of the success of First to Eleven, and an album that gives us one of the most hauntingly refreshing and compelling mainstream albums that I’ve heard in a while. An album to be enjoyed by anyone who has appreciated the band’s cover material recently, or people who love artists like Switchfoot, Skillet, Imagine Dragons or Ava Max, Wish I Missed U is certain to expand the band and their reach beyond the Youtube space. Maybe we all ought to listen to this album, at least once. Who knows, maybe this’ll be one of the most out-of-the-box albums that is to come from 2021, thus far.

Released as the first single from the album, ‘Just a Friend’ is the first song released by First to Eleven, under the moniker of Concrete Castles. A rock anthem through and through, Audra sings from the perspective of someone in a relationship that is questioning and skeptical of the other, and how this persona wants to ask the other person in the relationship, if the people that they are talking to (that are not the persona) are more than friends or not. It is something that couples in relationships often get jealous over. Sometimes, someone in a relationship can start to worry that the other is probably spending a little too much time with other people, even if they still insist that they’re just friends. Even though they may not necessarily be believed, Concrete Castles implies this message, that a relationship built on distrust, worry, uncertainty and jealousy, is probably doomed from the start. As the band impart to us about what the song means for them, we see that the track ‘…is about having trust issues and making a problem out of something before it even begins. It’s being skeptical about a partner and not having enough trust to let them have friends or interact with anyone if it isn’t you. Being so scared that there are other people they may think are better than you…’ The band also deliver another emotional standout in the song ‘Porcelain’, which  speaks of this issue of standing up for what you believe in, and not being afraid to be cast against stereotypes, to break through the assumptions people make about you and to hopefully prove people wrong if they assume that you are like porcelain, both in a physical and mental sense. As Audra herself unveils herself, we see that ‘…‘Porcelain’ is one of my favorite songs (it helps we recorded it on my birthday!). It was such a cool way to express myself and just tell people that you don’t need to be fragile & you are allowed to stand up for yourself and have feelings. Feeling something doesn’t make you weak or fragile, like ‘porcelain,’ it makes you strong enough to handle yourself and be independent. It’s all about breaking through stereotypes…’ ‘Half Awake’, one of the band’s songs released as a single prior to the unveiling of Wish I Missed U, is presented as a way to express a sense of artistic endeavour amidst people trying to speak negativity instead. This song is perhaps a personal one for the band- maybe the band was wanting to explore something creatively and they were told not to, for whatever reason? Audra the lead singer sheds more light on the song, detailing that ‘…the inspiration behind this song was all about having self confidence. Even if you’re going against everything that seems to be correct or the correct path for your life, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong! It’s all about believing in yourself and not letting other people bring you down because you are unconventional in comparison to their views. With this second single, we wanted to show our darker, heavier sound in the instrumental and verses, but still keep the upbeat pop vibes in the vocals and breakdown…’

Concrete Castles also deliver a song called ‘Suburbia’, one of their most meaningful songs on this debut project, as the band speaks to a certain issue in society that we often try to sweep under the rug- settling for mediocrity and being average, because you’re too afraid to try something new, exciting, and enjoyable, because you’re afraid what might happen if you succeed. We are always told to keep our head down and play our parts in life, as if our roles in society and this mechanism called surburbia, seems to be decided for us. This song is a reminder that we don’t have to settle for average, and I’m reminded that God Himself didn’t call us as people, to be average too. I am reminded in the Bible (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12) about how we are called to ‘…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody…’ We are called to add value to the places and spaces we are in- we are called to not worry about this or that, and to keep ploughing away for the next season- sowing to reap. We shouldn’t just be living this mundane life, thinking that this is all there is, because it isn’t. For as we work with our hands and give back to a certain area of society, we are then given a sense of satisfaction, knowing that we’ve actually done something that we’re very proud of.

Concrete Castles also unveils the song ‘Thrill’ (a song originally released in 2018 under the First To Eleven banner), which alludes to the title of the band ‘Concrete Castles’, and speaks of the urgency we ought to have, in terms of doing what we love and knowing full well that we don’t want to wait until we are incapable, to start doing something we know we are passionate about and want to contribute our time, talent and treasure towards. ‘Thrill’ speaks about how when we do what we love (doing what we love comes after we are in a place where we love what we do…then we can grind and have resources to undertake doing things that we love), we don’t do it for any fame, money or adulation, but rather for some kind of thrill, knowing that what we undertake matters, and that what we contribute that we can find satisfaction for, can in fact help and impact someone else’s life- and that result alone ought to give us motivation. The band also introduces album-ender ‘Mess’, a look at the reality of a broken relationship, and the cause of it- which is something that people generally in society have to address, sooner or later. Because people generally have baggage, even a series of partners and failed relationships; when two people come together to form a relationship bond, they’re bringing with them all the unsaid expectations and assumptions along with them. So if someone has a ‘one that got away’ person in their past, the current relationship and that person won’t ever live up to a certain idealistic (and maybe even unattainable) standard, and when you place something on someone that you know deep down that they can’t even reach, that is when they walk away. And we become shocked when our relationships fail. ‘Mess’ chronicles a relationship at its worst; and highlights the things we need to do to change it all- don’t have expectations of a partner to reach the standards of a previous one. Easier said than done, this song ought to be one to reflect upon, multiple times, as maybe in our own lives, we’re placing expectations on people that we don’t even place on ourselves- for to always live in someone else’s shadow can really create a sense of mistrust and distrust in any relationship someone has, going forward.

There’s nothing much else to say about First to Eleven (and Concrete Castles), aside from their compelling and enjoyable covers and their debut full-length all-original album Wish I Missed U, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe sometimes for an artist to be successful, impactful, and influential, they need not necessarily do more and more things, but rather, a few things to a very high calibre. What I mean to say is this, that sometimes when an artist accomplishes a fair amount of things, they can often be perceived to be ‘too big for their boots’, selling things so much and so often, that maybe along the way, they would have had to change their genre, change their sound, even change the reasons why they created music in the first place, in order for them to have the accolades they so desperately wanted. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if an artist like Taylor Swift stayed in the country genre; or undertook pop from the beginning. What would’ve happened to her career? Would it have been more authentic, or would it have skyrocketed, would she be an even bigger star than she is now? Taylor Swift is just one example, but you understand my point, right? Maybe it’s ok for First To Eleven and Concrete Castles to be just the way they are at the moment. Maybe it’s ok to break the stigma and remind people that creating great covers (and releasing the odd few original albums here and again) is ok, welcomed even. Because when you craft something and focus on it wholeheartedly…well, that’s when the creative juices start to flow. Audra and co. have amassed one unique brand (and one up-and-coming one) for themselves.

Because covering artists like Michael Jackson, NSYNC, Hoobastank, Britney Spears, Ed Sheeran, Echosmith, Post Malone, Skillet, Halsey, Ava Max, Linkin Park, Whitney Houston, Green Day and Kelly Clarkson (and many, many more), is no easy feat. It takes skill to take an already-famous song from an already famous artist, and then to create something so unique, so familiar, and so different (all at the same time), it means that these artists are worth listening to. Rarely do you find cover music that is comparable to the original versions. Aside from artists like Peter Hollens, Cimorelli, Pentatonix, Lucy Thomas, and now First to Eleven…I dunno if there are many more that actually stand out (to me, at least) as much as these 5. I mean, sure, there are tons of cover bands out there, from Halocene, Jonathan Young, Anthem Lights, and Caleb Hyles, to Megan Nicole, Boyce Avenue, Kurt Hugo Schneider and Tiffany Alvord, and many of them, may be good in and of themselves. But there are some cover artists (who also record originals as well) that stand above the rest. And these 5 are it. Maybe I’ll change my mind in a few more years. Maybe I won’t. But one thing I can count on for the foreseeable future, is the continual release of great rock covers by First To Eleven, and hopefully a follow-up to Wish I Missed U by Concrete Castles, that is just as emotive and poignant as the band’s first original album. Who knows, maybe this artist could go out on tour and sell out arenas and tour with whoever is the most popular of the day. But even if all that didn’t happen, I’d still say that this little ol’ cover band from Pennsylvania has reminded me of how much music there is out there that I don’t know. And in knowing that there is music out there that I’m not aware of, it keeps me humble a bit.

That means that there’s more to learn. More to explore and discovery. More artists and music that I firmly believe the Lord can speak through. Because He does speak through mainstream music, even if a lot of people around the world who are Christians claim that He doesn’t. Even if the artists who create the songs aren’t professing of the same faith that I am, doesn’t mean that the Lord can use even the unlikeliest of music to wake us all up and show us things that maybe we may not have understood or really learnt; if it wasn’t for mainstream music. Because in all seriousness, I feel as though you can be more honest in mainstream, as opposed to CCM. Nothing against CCM per se (it’ll always be one of my favourite ‘genres’ of music, because I grew up with it), but I’ve felt recently that a lot of mainstream music, especially this new album from Concrete Castles, feels a little more genuine, raw and honest, than a lot of albums placed through the filter of ‘Christian’, in quite some time. Maybe it’s because albums that are faith based have this added pressure to be presented in a hopeful manner, and thereby what is normally created is an album full of vague spiritual accomplishments, and never really delving deeper past a surface level to expose and explore feelings, vulnerabilities, emotions and poignancy that can be found (in droves) in a mainstream album? Maybe I’m surmising too much, but since I’ve taken the leap and explored a lot of mainstream music over the past couple of years, I’ve found a fair chuck of CCM to be not as compelling as it could be- and seeing a lot of vulnerability in music outside of the church.

Generally, in CCM, there’s always a lesson learnt. Always a nice, neat bow tied up at the end of the song. Always something obvious to learn from it. Always a spiritual lesson. But in mainstream music, there’s less of that. There’s more wrestling and questions, doubt and worries. There’s not necessarily a nice, neat end to songs, because in life, things aren’t always that rosy that we can often think life is, if we’ve lived our lives through the echo chamber of CCM and the church. Nevertheless, me listening to cover artists like Peter Hollens, Pentatonix, Lucy Thomas, Cimorelli, and now First to Eleven (and Concrete Castles), has made me appreciate music that I may not have heard, music that can be as equally powerful and heartfelt. Music that still stirs the soul and still asks questions that a lot of other CCM artists ask. Music that challenges us as humans and hopefully calls us to become better people in the end. Audra and co. have since found their niche in rock covers of songs, as well as their original three-piece indie-rock outfit. Maybe they’ll continue to create more originally written music. Maybe the Concrete Castles album is a one-off and they’ll continue with more cover albums in the upcoming years ahead. Whatever the case, Audra and the rest of the band have created 9 cover albums and one studio album, that reminds us all, that it’s ok to receive your start from Youtube, that your career shouldn’t be thought of any less than other people who received their leg up from more ‘official’ means. This little ol’ cover band is impacting and influencing more people than even they thought they could, inclusive of me. And if I can listen to these songs with such joy and hope, to be ok with not knowing as much as I think, and to be even excited for listening to older songs redone in a new light, then this artist has undertaken a job well done.

Does First to Eleven and Concrete Castles make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Influential Artists of the next 5-10 years’ list? Is there any song, like ‘Porcelain’, ‘Half Awake’, ‘Thrill’ and ‘Just a Friend’, that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

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