Some years back, alt rock cult favorite Wilco released a song titled “The Late Greats.” It paid homage to a set of fictitious artists, all creators of tremendous albeit unknown musical achievements. The 77s did a cover version of the song that is vastly superior to the original:
There are many real life bands and artists whose career bore, or bears, the hallmark of near anonymity in a world slavishly devoted to commercial garbage. They should be heralded music royalty (for example, The 77s). Instead, it requires an archeological expedition to find out they ever existed or continue to press on. It is of one such band from the past we speak of today: Barnabas.
Unless you are a devotee of ‘80s Christian metal, it’s a real life ripe dead certainty you’ve never heard of, let alone heard, Barnabas. It did little touring; its albums were not smashing sales successes. But it persevered far longer than most would have, or did, under the circumstances, releasing five albums during its nine year run that ended in 1986.
Barnabas first came to public attention beyond whoever attended one of its L.A. club shows following its 1977 inception when in 1980 Hear The Light was released on the well-intentioned and utterly incompetent, hence short-lived Tunesmith label. Band founder, guitarist, and leader Monte Cooley, accompanied by the husband and wife team of Nancyjo Mann on vocals and Gary Mann on bass and later keyboards, along with Kris Klingensmith on drums, put together an effort rewarded with the only negative record review in CCM Magazine’s history. In retrospect, although it would be utterly eclipsed by subsequent albums Hear The Light’s raw mix of punk and metal wasn’t that bad:
The band moved from L.A. to the Midwest, following which Cooley called it a day and quit. The three remaining members decided to carry on, recruiting guitarists Mick Donner and Kris Brauninger while Klingensmith assumed lyric writing duties. Although this lineup was short-lived, it did release 1981’s Find Your Heart A Home, a huge step up from Hear The Light in color and scope. Klingensmith’s lyrics were sophisticated and occasionally brusque. For example:
The conflict of desire sucks the spirit dry
Inside, madness haunts us; outside, eyes are dry
Hungry little baby cries throughout the night
But mother’s breasts are busy because the price is right
For some unfathomable reason, this didn’t get much airplay on Christian radio. Neither did “Southern Woman,” which if there was a shred of fairness in the music business would have been a smash hit on regular as well as Christian radio:
Brauninger left the band after Find Your Heart A Home was released. Donner stayed on, with Brian Belew joining the band as first an additional, and then its only, guitarist as Donner bowed out at the end of 1981. Belew was a dive bombing fret-shredding metal player of the highest order, his addition bringing Barnabas to a place where it could accomplish most anything it wished. And oh, did it wish.
1983 saw Barnabas signed to the Light label and recording music that was anything but light. Approaching Light Speed was manna from heaven for metal fans. It blended straight ahead crunchers with prog metal, sometimes rolling both into one song as was the case with the epic “Subterfuge:”
1984 brought Feel The Fire, further exploring the multiple facets of Barnabas’ metallic diamond. Somewhat oddly, the album’s standout track was “Hearts,” a relatively gentle keyboard outing that, as was the case with “Southern Woman,” should have been a smash hit on both Christian and regular radio:
Sadly, the lack of deserved success finally broke the band apart in 1986. However, it still owed Light one more record. The band vented its full fury on Little Foxes, setting most all of its quieter and prog notions aside in favor of a blistering assault in tracks such as “China White:”
And that was that. Everyone went their separate ways, including the Mann’s whose marriage disintegrated. All indicators pointed toward Barnabas being forever nothing more than a fond memory for those who still cherished its LPs and cassettes.
A funny thing happened on the way to the “whatever happened to” file, however. A fan put up a web page, Klingensmith came across it, and for several years a thriving online community site reminisced and rejoiced. Presently, Klingensmith and Nancyjo Mann are active on Facebook. (WARNING: Brief moment of shameless promotion ahead.) Yours truly interviewed Klingensmith, Nancyjo Mann, and Donner for my book on the early days of Christian alternative rock as Barnabas, while metal, were definitely pioneers. No, Stryper didn’t invent anything.
It’s sadly fitting that for the most part, bringing Barnabas’ recorded output into the digital age has been for the most part a complete botch. First there was a compilation of Approaching Light Speed and Feel The Fire that left out “Lights” and even more egregiously replaced Klingensmith’s powerhouse drumming with a puny drum machine. Next, the now thankfully defunct Millennium 8 (or M8) did its usual hack job, releasing discs with atrocious sound quality and such little attention to anything that one of the songs from Little Foxes, mastered from vinyl as the original tapes have long since gone missing, had three painfully audible skips on the record from which the CD was made that no one noticed or cared enough to correct once those who bought the CD pointed it out. It was not until this year that all five albums were done right on CD by the Retroactive label, yet even there with a catch: the number of discs made was small, and are already becoming difficult to find save on the secondary market.
Chances for any kind of so much as a one-off concert reunion are as close to guaranteed never as it gets due to lack of interest by, and strained relationships between, assorted members. Yet this, and until late last year the near impossibility of finding the band’s recorded work in listenable condition, have not dimmed Barnabas’ light. It was the band that should have, but was never allowed to. Its music has aged well, still fresh and vital some thirty plus years after the fact. Barnabas was a brilliant metal band, arguably the best such band that sadly very few knew existed. It truly is the greatest lost metal band of all time. If you have any affection for the hard stuff, go find them. You will be glad you did.