If you were in a genre-leading rock band that had sold nearly one million albums, tallied 10 No. 1 radio singles, 13 additional top five hits, a GRAMMY nomination, four Dove Awards and headlined nine national tours on your way to performing for three million people, what would you change about your band's approach?
That's easy: Absolutely nothing. Yeah?
But you're not Rob Beckley, founding front man and leader of Christian music's premier alt-metal-come-hard-alternative band. He knows change has played a recurring and pivotal role in Pillar's success since its formation. For starters, consider the five former members who have come and gone during this impressive run, Pillar's continually evolving post-grunge sound, or even the ease with which the band continues to move between the Christian and general markets.
And now comes Confessions, the Essential Records act's sixth studio album. Change may have been a key ingredient before, but this time around, it was a bonafide litmus test. First up, the recent additions of bassist Rich Gilliland (KJ-52, Brandon Heath) and drummer Taylor Carroll (After Edmund) to Pillar's lineup. "Every single step of the way over the past 12 years, God has always put the right people in place for Pillar to take a huge step forward," affirms Beckley. "And we can already tell this time is no different. In the past, we have had great bass players and drummers, but no one ever talked about our rhythm section as a unit." That was then. As he explains, "We're still a guitar-driven band, but now, for the first time, we have a tight rhythm section with a serious groove. Musicianwise, this is the strongest lineup we've ever had." And both on the road and Confessions, it shows. (But let's not get ahead of ourselves)
As if entering the recording studio with a game-changing rhythm section wasn't enough, Beckley and Pillar guitarist Noah Henson--the band's principal songwriters the past eight years--made an unprecedented move in pre-production by collaborating with several prolific writers outside the band. While Beckley once again handled most of the lyrics, he and Henson teamed with the likes of Chris Stevens (tobyMac, Sanctus Real), Skidd Mills (Saving Abel, Skillet), Keith Wallen (Fuel), Red guitarist Jasen Rauch, and Building 429 front man Jason Roy to take Pillar's music into yet further new territory.
"When you've got four or five brilliant minds creating songs with you, it brings magic into the creative process," says Pillar's Henson. "That's why collaboration is the ultimate musical standard these days. A perfect example is our new single at rock radio, "Fire On the Inside." Chris Stevens wrote the chorus, I wrote the riffs on the verses, and Jason Roy co-wrote the lyrics with Rob."
Given the lineup of guest writers, it's no surprise Pillar decided melody, composition and hooks would rule the day in these songwriting sessions, and insisted that emphasis continue after the band entered the studio. To seal the deal, Pillar turned to versatile producer/songwriter Rob Graves (Red, Wavorly). A graduate of Berklee, the renowned music conservatory in Boston, Graves marked yet another dramatic change by Pillar. Indeed, each the band's five prior studio albums had been produced by the brilliant Travis Wyrick (P.O.D., Superchick), and in an admirably selfless relational turn, Wyrick considered Pillar's new direction and strongly supported their desire to work with Graves.
The decision paid off in spades. Says Beckley, "I had never gotten goose bumps listening to our own music before, but the production on Confessions is just a whole other level." While the band's previous album, 2008's For the Love of the Game, was "100 percent old-school Pillar," Confessions is the kind of record that will make CHR (contemporary hit radio) listeners fans of hard music. The 11-track disc, which features songs ranging from muscular, guitar-driven gut rock to beautiful, orchestral ballads, gives Pillar unprecedented commercial appeal. Confessions may be musically intense and layered, but melody is king. Beckley offers further insight concerning the album's production. "As a producer, Graves is not only a master of the big picture, he's a formidable guitar player himself, extremely good with melodies, and as deliberate as you can get with songwriting," he explains. "He pushed us places we never would have heard us going."
While Confessions' music will be the first thing to raise eyebrows and win new fans, a thoughtful listen to the album's lyrics sheds new light on Pillar in more profound ways. "Rob wrote about subjects I've never heard him hit on before," says Beckley's longtime writing partner, Henson. He's right. As it turns out, the breathtaking changes in the band's approach to songwriting sessions and studio production, not to mention half its actual line-up, were enabled in part by significant growth on a personal and spiritual level. The catalyst for much of this growth was a confessional curriculum--called "My Secret"--taught in the Tulsa, Oklahoma church attended by three of the band's members. (Pillar's new bassist, Taylor Carroll, attends Hope Presbyterian Church in Memphis where his father, renowned recording artist Bruce Carroll, is worship leader.)
"The 'My Secrets' study and the small group I was in rocked our worlds," says Beckley. "We had a girl who confessed to having an abortion, a couple shared the fact that they'd both had affairs, just wild stuff coming out into the open. The important thing is, at those moments, a life-changing healing began during each confession."
The members of Pillar realized the significance of what was taking place within their church, indeed within themselves, and prayerfully decided to pay it forward as a band. Beckley begins to explain, "As one avenue of response, our church had created a message board people could go to and pour out their hearts anonymously, and the confessions there were just overwhelming." That message board served as Pillar's blueprint for engaging its audiences on tour. "As a band, we wanted to take that out on the road, do something to give our fans a way to pour out their hearts anonymously and start a healing process in people's lives at each stop," continues Beckley. "So on our next outing, we took a confessional booth with us."
During the aptly named "Confessions Tour," which took place in early 2009, Pillar spoke from stage about the importance of confession and made the special booth available so that anyone who entered would be isolated and have the opportunity to respond via blank confession cards. "If you went into the booth, it was your moment with God," says Beckley. "1 John 1:9 says, 'If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' And writing it out is an act of confession. It definitely brought kids to the point of acknowledging their sin and what was going on."
Pillar's fans weren't the only ones the tour left an indelible mark upon. The band's members read and prayed over each audience's confession cards, and, as Beckley explains, "more than ever, the experience put things into a perspective of 'what we do matters.' Pillar's veteran guitarist agrees. "We saw kids struggling with deeply painful life experiences, suicidal thoughts, cutting, addictions...," says Henson. "And we truly saw the confessions being used as a tool by the Holy Spirit." Naturally, Pillar looks to take the confessional booth out on the road again.
Lyrically, Pillar's new album picks up where the profound "Confessions Tour" left off. "Every song on this record could be broken down to 'If you just confess,'" says Beckley. "Confess your secrets." Under this umbrella, recurring themes on Confessions include unity, commitment and perseverance. Consider the album's lead single to CHR radio, "Secrets and Regrets." Beckley, himself, put it best when he said, "If there was a title track, this would be it." Thick on guitars and even thicker on melody, "Secrets and Regrets" emotively confronts the destructive cycle of hiding secret sins and the toll it takes keeping those secrets. Pillar simultaneously slows things down and turns the beauty factor up to ten with the genuinely moving, symphonic rock ballad, "Will You Be There." The song's multi-layered lyrics were born with a vulnerable, remorseful chorus Henson wrote for his wife. From there, Beckley composed a relational song about being committed to one another through life's mistakes and hardships while, at the same time, grasping to comprehend God's unshakeable love for each of His children. For the up-tempo active rock track, "Whatever It Takes," meanwhile, Beckley reflected on the extremely determined way he pursued his wife relationally while they were dating. Comparing a man's feeble efforts to pursue a woman of his dreams with the way God pursues each of us, Beckley concludes in a nutshell, "God will do whatever it takes to get you."
On an album completely loaded with potential CHR radio singles, yet another must-highlight is Pillar's cover of Collective Soul's modern classic "Shine." Whereas the original 1994 No. 1 smash was just a demo recorded on a 4-tracks complete with simplistic programmed drums, Pillar's version increases the tempo and features beefed up production with full instrumentation. While most of the song's basic arrangement is loyal to the original, Pillar's take features both a shredding guitar solo written and deftly performed by Henson and an artful scream-lyric Beckley tags on as his exclamation near the song's conclusion.
To say Pillar's emotionally attached to the Confessions album would be an understatement. Even with five previous albums, listening to their own songs had never made Beckley or Henson tear up before, but this time both have been thus moved by the new material on Confessions. "I poured my heart lyrically and vocally into these songs," says Beckley, "and a couple of them just wrecked me when I heard the overall sound, the production of the final mixes."
And his audience--how will Confessions hit them? "I believe God's going to use these songs to touch people in ways I haven't even thought of," he says with both anticipation and humility. All things considered, Pillar may be more intentional about ministry than ever. One thing's for sure, Beckley & Co. are committed to mentoring an audience seeking deeper relationships with God and others by using confessions as an entry point for a real faith. How's that for intentional? And not just intentional, but intense.
Genre: Christian rock
Members: Rob Beckley, Noah Henson, Lester Estelle Jr. II, Michael "Kalel" Wittig
Current Record Label: Provident Label Group LLC
Albums: The Reckoning (1997), Fireproof (2002), Broken Down EP (2003), Where Do We Go From Here (2004), For the Love of the Game (2004), Live at Blue Cats EP (2007), Confessions (2009)