Review Summary: One of progressive rock and alternative rock's most underrated gems, coming from one of progressive rock's most unlikely purveyors.
Okay, so imagine this scenario. You're a singer for one of Christian Contemporary Music's (CCM) hottest-selling bands; you're making millions with two other singers in this popular alternative pop/rock group. However, because of your interest in pursuing a solo career, you and the rest of the band's members part ways. Now you're on your own, ready to embark on your own musical journey coming off the success of your former mainstream act. So, what direction are you going to take with your music? Actually, here's a better question: would you be crazy enough to ditch most of what made you famous in favor of progressive rock?
Because that's what Kevin Max did. Formerly 1/3 of the Christian band Dc Talk, Max had perhaps the most distinct voice of the trio. Also comprised of Michael Tait and Toby McKeehan (a.k.a. Toby Mac), Dc Talk were instrumental in changing the face of Christian music; originally a hip-hop act, they opted for more of a rock direction in their later years. While the rapping was still present, it took a backseat to a diverse rock sound which contained elements of folk, alternative rock, pop, soul, and more. Furthermore, they were one of the few Christian acts to cross the threshold from the CCM niche into mainstream radio, thanks to a wide range of lyrical topics such as faith, social issues, stereotypes, and so forth. When you get down to it, they were a very fascinating group and changed many peoples' (including my own, actually) perceptions about how good mainstream Christian music can actually get. Granted, a lot of the niche's music is still quite uninspired and too forcefully preachy, but Dc Talk at least wanted to break the mold a bit.
Stereotype Be, Kevin Max's big solo debut, contains a lot of elements of what made Dc Talk so acclaimed and popular, but what's so shocking is what else he adds to the mix. First of all, you have King Crimson's Adrian Belew and Tony Levin as the main instrumentalists behind the record, both contributing their signature progressive touches to this otherwise poppy recording. Then Kevin decided to add Middle Eastern world music to the record, further diversifying things... and basically, this kind of stuff what makes the album so unique. Stereotype Be is an unusually natural marriage of normally disparate musical elements, ultimately leading to a beautiful and emotional journey. Now keep in mind, this isn't exactly progressive rock in the traditional sense; there are no wonky time signature changes or extremely lengthy compositions. This is more on the art rock side of things, still retaining short and hook-driven rock arrangements while adding many progressive subtleties here and there.
Kevin Max's vocal style was always one of the highlights of Dc Talk's music, and his solo work is no exception as well. His vocal style is both very commanding and very soulful, forcing the listener to pay attention to what he has to say while exuding a warmth all his own. "Be," for instance, contains a particularly beautiful set of vocal melodies. When the second verse begins, he does a soulful vocal run over a beautiful resonating Adrian Belew guitar chord; moments like these really exemplify how well he blends with his music, something also displayed very well in "Angel with No Wings" in which his higher range soars over the clean guitar's expansive arrangement. There are also two interludes, "Union of the Soul" and closer "I Went Over the Edge of the World," which feature Max performing spoken word instead of his usual singing. Meanwhile, the instrumentation and lyrics are both incredibly diverse; you'll hear things like flugelhorns, French horns, acoustic guitar, tambourine, both upright bass and bass guitar, and much more. The lyrics aren't your typical preachy Christian contemporary works, but rather more profound depictions of faith and the meaning of existence. Many songs, like "Angel with No Wings" or "Secret Circle," are quite cryptic and will take quite a while to unravel for many listeners, while some songs like "Blind" and "On and On" are a bit more obvious.
But one thing rings true: this album is stunningly beautiful. Between the crystal-clear production and atmosphere that's either expansive or super-personal, the entire thing is gorgeously arranged and played. It's clear that a lot of passion and hard work were spent on this record, and what's even more impressive is that Kevin didn't need any songwriting help from Adrian or Tony; most of the music on this record was his, with a some help from backing musicians here and there. The only slight flaw of the record is that, toward the end of the record, some of the music starts to blend together a bit. "On and On" and "Her Game" are probably the two most disappointing songs on the record, both sounding a bit too samey AND placed back-to-back on the album. However, it you enjoy progressive rock or alternative rock, that little issue shouldn't deter you from getting this. It's an extremely overlooked record with a fantastic vocal performance and extremely high-quality songwriting, as well as great instrumental backing. The rest of Kevin Max's solo work is also great, both nothing in his discography has matched this wonderful experience.