When the trivia question is asked as to which Christian artist released the first CD into the Christian market the answer is usually Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith or possibly Carman (it was the 80’s you know). But oddly enough the answer is a band that only recorded one album on a relatively independent label called Refuge, the Front.
There are very artist that make this list with only one release to their name. iDEoLa was the brain child of the iconic Mark heard and Moral Support was fronted by Andy McCarroll who had previously released to solo projects along with other group and duo albums. Same is true for The Front as they would also release a follow-up album under the name “What If” on RCA to the mainstream market and the band is actually a “supergroup” or sorts.
The mind behind The Front was drummer Bob Wilson who had made a name for himself leading the very popular jazz pop group, Seawind, and also released a pop Christian album with his wife as Bob and Pauline Wilson. The Front would be a departure musically for Wilson as he joined forces with keyboardist/saxophonist Larry Williams (Seawind), former Whiteheart and prolific session guitarist, Dann Huff, amazing young guitar hero, Michael Landau and session and Airplay vocalist, Tommy Funderburk.
It would be Funderburk who would shine on this project as he took center stage and blew audiences away with one of the most powerful voices in pop, rock and soul. There is both a sweetness and sincerity to his voice that combines with a raspy, aggressive passion that sets Funderburk apart. For those unfamiliar with Funderburk more than likely have heard singing background vocals for everyone from REO Speedwagon and Yes to Melissa Manchester and Amy Grant, including a very memorable performance on the latter’s “Wise Up” single.
The Front was an album for the times as the electronic drum styling was short-lived and dated, but that does not discount the wonderful songwriting, incredible musical performances and poignant and stirring lyrics. Other artists were producing similar musical ventures, including DeGarmo and Key, but none with the pure raw energy packed into 8 songs. And after the first song the electronic drum sound is simply not as noticeable as the initial response.
I was able to see The Front perform twice in Southern California, including one show with Leslie Phillips and Benny Hester. The musicianship live was extraordinary even though the band make up was markedly different as a touring band, but included the always impressive John Andrew Schreiner and Seawind members filling out the band. But like the record this was about Tommy Funderburk and his voice.
The songs on the album were also unique because they did not have a familiar pop/radio format to them. This was more AOR with pop sensibilities than normally commercial music. Imagine corporate rock like Foreigner but without the repetitive musical indulgences. Funderburk’s hard-edged upper register would normally be a turn off to Christian radio at the time, but for some reason they continued to be embraced by radio and garnered several moderate Christian radio hits.
All this while maintaining intensely difficult content to swallow for the modern evangelical radio listening audience. This album was not filled with popular worship ditty’s and affirming song of tribute to the great things the Christian church has done. rather the opposite it may have been one of the “heavier” records lyrically for its time.
The album kicks off with “It’s Hard to Take,” an impassioned plea to share the Gospel. Funderburk pleads with the audience to share the Gospel to friends and family noting the agony of knowing that many would spend an eternity lost without Christ.
Some will put Him down
Some just don’t understand
And we, the keepers of truth
Just where do we stand?
That there could be a Christ
And some will be without
It’s really hard to say it’s so
To draw the line between reality and doubt
And watch them go…
It’s hard to take
Til the end of time
It’s hard to take, it’s hard to think
That some will lose their lives…
As much as the lyrics themselves are a passionate plea nothing matches the intensity and raw emotion that Funderburk exudes as he pleads the case of Christ knowing many, quite possibly close to him, will lose their lives.
“Holy Light” follows and contains the most commercially viable track on the project. This is a straight ahead corporate rock single in the vein of Foreigner or REC Speedwagon. A borderline rock worship anthem, “Holy Light” is probably the most uplifting and hook driven song on The Front. This is a song of redemption and fits perfectly against the previous song’s darker and more intense content. In fact, there is a wonderful doctrinal position in the song as it points to finding Christ in the Old testament and revealed in the New Testament.
Holy Light, You’re a cloud by day and a fire at night
Holy Light, You’re the measure of time between wrong and right
And now I know
“Holy Light” would be a hint to Funderburk’s future work in the modern Praise and Worship field.
“All Under Him” slows things down a bit and sounds musically like it could have been composed by Bob Farrell with its heavy keyboard driven chorus. The song features some amazing backing vocals by Bob Carlisle (Allies), Tata Vega and Andrae Crouch. This anthem is once again a call to evangelism, reminding the audience that the Gospel is for all men.
“King of Glory” is an Easter pop song with the most jazz influenced sound on the project. This could have easily fit on a Chicago album of the same era. Again the focus here are the vocals of Tat Vaga set against the higher range of Funderburk.
The gates of Hell, cannot withstand
All the mighty power of God’s righteousness
Jesus died, but He rose to rule again
The Church needs to be reminded exactly what the resurrection provides and note the promise that the gates of Hell will not withstand the Church’s attack. This was a far cry from the standard “the world is going to hell in a hand basket and we’re just waiting for the rapture” content that dominated the Christian music scene at the time.
“The Promise,” one the heaviest songs on the album, is also the centerpiece for the project. The album contained a printed dedication on the cover to the thousands of unborn aborted everyday in the United States alone. The song also contains Funderburk’s most impassioned vocals. But this time the content is king. The song starts off by relating the death of the innocents in history, including from the very beginning of time.
As long ago as Cain and Abel
Voices crying out to me, never to be found
This proof that’s laid upon the table
Is this what I require of you, their blood upon the ground?
Love the children
I know their names
If you harm them
Then I’ll know…
The song then shift to the present as the complaint is made against the current generation and their refusal to do anything about the current slaughter of the innocents.
And so the lie remains among you
All for being innocent, what a price to pay
I promise you I won’t ignore it
If you know what’s going down, look the other way
Love the children
I know their names
If you harm them
I’ll hold you to blame!
At the bridge it’s Funderburks time to represent a righteous God that will not and does not stand idly by as a nation’s sins go unheeded. This may also be Funderburk’s best vocals on the album.
Feel the fury as I rage against your land
For what you’ve done to them
Everyone of them was precious in my sight
I will repay…
How much longer can you let this madness go
Oh, how I loved them so
Everyone of them is precious in my sight
It hurts me so…
Love the children
The song fades out with Funderburk vamping on top of the repeated chorus…“can you hear them crying/ Tell me why…they’re crying, they’re dying…”
Moving in a different direction musically, “Silent Night” follows with a great mid-tempo pop styling, once again similar to Chicago, but with once again poignant lyrics, this time dealing with those on the “outside.” This is a song about “the least of these,” and the Church’s reaction to them. Here the chorus makes the point of who it is the Church is called to reach.
As another one falls to the ground
Another is left to die
Another one calls out “is God alive?”
A baby is left all alone
In the midst of a silent night…
The beautiful and comforting “Tonight” follows with Funderburk’s softer side. This is a classic 80’s ballad that if it was about a girl would have been a wedding song classic or long-standing radio Top 40 smash. But keeping in the tone of the project the song deals with those whose everyday struggles have left many on the brink and reaching out. But the hope is brilliantly illuminated.
Tonight, as the tears of heartache fall
Tonight, when there seems no hope at all
Tonight, let the God most high prevail
And the love of Jesus will carry you tonight
The album finishes with the upbeat and stirring, “How Long.” This song is a simple call from Christ to those who have started to slip away from His love. This, like most of the project, ultimately points to those that claim the name of Christ to do the work of the Great Commission. It also contain Dann Huff’s best guitar work on the project.
From start to finish, this much too short 8 song album, delivers in every possible way. The very limited release of the Cd has made it an “ebay” gold mine. Like many great releases of its time it was not really appreciated until much later.