Release Date: September 17th 2021
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- Wish I Missed U (feat. Anthony Green)
- Hidden Faces
- Just a Friend
- Holding On
- Half Awake
- Say It
Gone are the days where people sign record deals anymore. I mean, yes, they do, but signing record deals isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite for an artist to be discovered though. You can still have quite a number of followers, even without being signed. Because what was once done via a record label is now being done through Youtube, Instagram, Tik-Tok and other digital media platforms, all the while amassing a lot of ‘followers’ as you go, building up your craft in a digital space and being noticed by record companies in that way. I personally think that the new way of creating media (through youtube) is such a powerful way of connecting with fans and followers, and for this next artist I’m about to review an album of…well, let’s just say that I didn’t really discover them because of their original music, even though they as a band have been doing original music, on and off, and here and there, since 2016.
Concrete Castles, better known prior to this year as First To Eleven, started out as a cover band, and that is how I knew them. I think the first cover I heard them create was a powerful rendition of Avril Lavigne’s ‘Head Above Water’, and I guess everything flowed out from there- in 2021, they’ve amassed plenty of cover songs and videos over the years- enough to fill 10 albums of about 20 songs each (about 200 covers), in the span of 5 years or so. It was through this journey of First to Eleven covers that I discovered my appreciation and respect for mainstream rock music in general. Prior to this year, I was listening to a lot of Christian rock (and still do)- Skillet, Switchfoot, Newsboys, Third Day, Kutless, Audio Adrenaline, DC Talk…not that there’s anything wrong with the music that I listened to before, but I find it unique, intriguing and exciting, that I was exploring new avenues of music, and 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 listened on and off to First to Eleven for a few years, and their specialty is this- create rock covers of popular pop songs. Or just create rock covers of rock songs. Just whatever the cover, it is rock-influenced, and the original…well, let’s just say that most of the band’s covers are so professionally done, that I 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, poignancy, and uniqueness, is something that has always made this band to be one of the most talented cover bands (who specialise in rock music) on Youtube.
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’, ‘Sine U Been Gone’, ‘Blinding Lights’, ‘Take On Me’, ‘Complicated’ and ‘The Reason’. And so, I explored the band’s ability to create great covers, and as I’ve listened to this cover band for quite some time, I was surprised, but also interested, when First To Eleven created a moniker of Concrete Castles to create their original music under, earlier on during the year. They have since continued to release cover music under First to Eleven, but their original material would now be released as songs by Concrete Castles instead- same band members across the two, it’s just that now, 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 (which is rock, and heavy rock at times!). Which is why I didn’t really know what to expect when I heard Concrete Castles’ debut full-length originally written studio album Wish I Missed U. And as I listened to this album from a vocal I was familiar with; I discovered a sound that was unique and heartfelt- that I came to appreciate mainstream rock all the more.
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, even artists like Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, First to Eleven, and Concrete Castles, can be used by our Father to allow us to see that the same struggles, hopes, dreams and worries experienced by people in the mainstream music space, are just the same as those experiencing it within the confines of CCM. Wish I Missed U is 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. An album that is certain to expand the band and their reach beyond the Youtube space; Audra and the rest of the trio have carved out a debut album worthy of a listen to, 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…’
Throughout the rest of the album, we see Concrete Castles deliver songs that can easily be anthemic radio-friendly moments of musical goodness- 10 more, in fact. While ‘Just a Friend’ itself anchors this album thematically and stylistically; the band’s other songs are equally as powerful. The title track ‘Wish I Missed U’ opens up the album as Audra duets with Anthony Green (of Circa Survive) and unravels the theme of trying to move on a breakup. The song specifically talks about how someone comes back after some time away, and tries to mend a broken relationship, but the persona in the song has already moved on, and there are conflicting feelings at play. A lot of times in our lives, we often feel as though we ought to slip back into older habits and older relationships, just on the assumption that the person who’s coming back, wanting to try again, is truly genuine this time. ‘Wish I Missed U’ is from the POV of someone who has moved on, but then feels as though they should give this person another chance, just because this person says they’re ready to try again. I know I’m no expert in relationships, so I can’t really say much about it, but this song reminds us of something we need in relationships, that many may not have in abundance- boundaries. While it could seem like a short-term gain (and maybe even the right thing, some of the time) to fall back into a failed relationship, on the off-chance it succeeds this time around; ‘Wish I Missed U’ stands firm in the convictions of the track, with Audra declaring that ‘…I can’t say I miss you, I wish I missed you too…’ ‘Hidden Faces’ speaks about how people don’t necessarily mean to be duplicitous in relationships, they just naturally default to that, because people want to not be divisive, worrying that what they really feel may anger the other person. ‘Hidden Faces’ is from the POV of someone who is fed up with all the ‘hidden faces’, feeling as though the other person in the relationship is hiding how they really feel, leaving the relationship to feel a little inauthentic. The song then depicts in the chorus about what would happen if the truth of the matter in the relationship is really said- bleeding out metaphorically, crawling around on the floor, just utter breaking of someone’s heart if vulnerability and honesty were to be the main focus. Nevertheless, this is still what the person wants- regardless of a relationship that would be non-existent, what the persona would nevertheless gain, is clarity, perspective, and a newfound sense of peace, knowing that emotions aren’t toyed with anymore.
‘Porcelain’, another song that is an emotional standout, 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…’ At just over 3 minutes, rock anthem ‘Holding On’ follows along from ‘Porcelain’, and speaks about this issue of unrequited love, and hoping against hope, holding onto a little shred of possibility, that the person that you’re focusing on, believing that they have some sort of connection to you, eventually does. It may or may not happen, and the song ‘Holding On’ can either be seen as someone not wanting to accept reality and wants to potentially stalk this person they are obsessed with, or it can be a sweet song of hope, and this song can be seen through the lens of ‘maybe just hold on a little longer, keep the faith that they will notice you for the good person you are’. ‘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…’
‘Atmosphere’ shows Audra delivering this upbeat song (but nevertheless emotional) about the immediate effect on the girl after a breakup, and her emotions that come from analysing the situation at hand, and why the breakup even happened in the first place. The song itself is perhaps the persona’s way of going to therapy; and getting in touch with how she feels about the situation at hand. Though not as attention-grabbing as some of the band’s earlier material on the album, Concrete Castles still provide a track that allows us to think about our own relationships that we often take for granted- and how we may not want to experience whatever this song is alluding to. ‘Suburbia’ is a song that 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 plowing 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.
‘Thrill’, ‘Say It’ and ‘Mess’ are the final three songs present on the band’s debut album- ‘Thrill’ was actually recorded way back in 2018, and under the First to Eleven banner. This song 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. ‘Say It’ alludes to the fact that sometimes in relationships, we’re afraid to say that something is final, because we want to hold out hope that maybe some resolution or reconciliation can be found, but sometimes, without us saying out loud that there is indeed some kind of finality to a relationship, the other person can’t necessarily move on, at least not properly. There is a fine line to declaring something as being over, and to hold on, praying that a miracle can happen, and the relationship can be restored. Nevertheless, ‘Say It’ reminds us that sometimes, to not say anything in hope of something reconciling, may do more harm to a person and situation, than we can often realise.
The album then ends with ‘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.
Concrete Castles have created an album so emotive and powerful, and such that the album itself is ‘under-the-radar’ and ‘out-of-left-field’, something that I would’ve never thought I would’ve enjoyed as much as I did…and I did. Though not a CCM album at all (definitely more indie rock), I feel as though these themes and undertones on an album can seem much more honest and real than a lot of CCM albums released at the moment. Not to say that albums from artists like Jeremy Camp and Newsboys are insincere, not at all. It’s just that I’ve felt that Wish I Missed U felt a little more genuine, raw and honest, than a lot of albums placed through the filter of ‘Christian’ this year- 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. Nevertheless, as much as I love artists like Newsboys and Jeremy Camp, Concrete Castles’ debut project is emotive and powerful, heartbreaking, and possibly hopeful at the same time. A gem of an album to listen to, this is a must, if you love similar artists like Imagine Dragons, Ava Max, OneRepublic, Switchfoot and Dido. Well done Audra and co. for this uniquely crafted project. Hoping and praying that God uses this album in the upcoming weeks and months ahead!
4 songs to listen to: Just a Friend, Porcelain, Thrill, Say It
RIYL: First to Eleven, Imagine Dragons, OneRepublic, Ava Max, Dido, Switchfoot