Michael English is a voice that needs no introduction to longtime Christian music fans. His breakthrough performance of "I Bowed On My Knees And Cried Holy" in the mid-eighties catapulted him to a role as lead vocalist of The Gaither Vocal Band, and he's also recorded a string of successful solo albums over nearly three decades. Though his life has been touched by what many would call career ending or disqualifying mistakes during that time (detailed in his 2007 book The Prodigal Comes Home), he has experienced deep restoration. With Love is the Golden Rule he is back again with a record full of songs about grace and redemption, and his unmistakable voice is as present as ever.
The opening track "My Love" lets us know that we are in comfortable CCM territory; however, that's not a bad thing as English's voice sits perfectly in the smooth arrangement and the groundwork of Love Is The Golden Rule is laid. "Little Is Much" is a poignant reminder of how God values our everyday lives, and it even takes an honest look at Christian culture with the lines "No TV shows / no books to sell / just a voice in the wilderness living to tell the simple truth / preaching the good good news." The first part of the album finishes with the classic and oft covered Mike and the Mechanics song "The Living Years," and English's voice (especially in the second half) sets his version apart.
The middle section of Love Is The Golden Rule has some more upbeat songs sprinkled in, highlighted by "None Of Us Are Free" and "One Drop Of Love." The latter in particular is held together with tight and varied instrumentation, and Michael's voice is at its soaring best throughout.
Though it's a remake of perhaps Michael English's best know song, "Cry Holy" is worth the re-listen, and it bears all the hallmarks of what made it a Christian music classic in the first place. The second half specifically is a reminder of the pure power of Michael's voice. LP closer "Let Me Hold You" is a song that finds English singing from what is surely personal experience as he sings of the unending, never failing love of God.
The Bottom Line: Though Love Is The Golden Rule is certainly not new territory for Michael English, it is a solid CCM album that will be satisfying for longtime fans. It showcases his unique and powerful voice and even sprinkles in the occasional Southern Gospel touch, speaking often of the grace and love that every Christ-follower needs. For longtime Christian music fans, this one is a must listen!
A Heartfelt Entrance | Posted September-11-2017 Red Rocks Worship, born out of Red Rocks Church in Colorado, has been recording and releasing original worship music since 2014. Starting with the acoustically focused The Rooftops EP, they've released a short project annually for the last three years, but are ready in 2017 to release their first full-length album of original worship songs. Their new record Here is full of new songs and new voices that are more than ready to contribute to the modern worship movement.
LP opener "Fill This Place" is a great up-tempo song that announces the intentions of the project quite clearly: heartfelt lyrics, tight and creative melodies and spot on instrumentation (specifically guitars). The song drops into a solid half time chorus that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
"Heaven Is Here" opens with a solid guitar hook, features a memorable chorus and is one of several good mid-tempo songs sprinkled throughout Here. "Nobody Like You" opens with one of the more memorable verses on the album, serving to lead into the standout song of the project "Always And Only." Verse lyrics "The dreamer and the dream / the heart and the beat / the flame that starts a fire in me" lead into a chorus that beautifully declares our reliance upon God. A bridge sung over the top of a perfectly placed guitar part completes a truly memorable worship song.
Taking the feel back up slightly is "Right Here Right Now," with a nicely melodic guitar hook on the chorus. It is at this point in the LP that the focus on good guitar parts and tone becomes even more apparent as the classic U2 dotted eighth feel anchors the next track up, "How Beautiful Your Grace." Another album standout is next in "Not Afraid" as a soaring second verse and pulsing synth part leads us into a declarative chorus and bridge that proclaims our reliance on God in times of trouble.
The final part of Here begins with "Come Taste And See," a song about the Lord's goodness and faithfulness in our lives. One of the few prominent acoustic parts anchors "Overflow," which contains some of the better vocals on the album in the second verse. A slight stylistic changeup is in store for "I Am Home" as the intro channels something like the Fugees, with vocals throughout that are indeed reminiscent of Lauryn Hill. However, instead of singing of long lost love or heartbreak, this song sings of how we are never alone with Christ in our lives.
Final track "Love Changes Everything" celebrates that a life touched by God can't help but be changed, with the same perfect vocals and tight instrumentation that mark the whole project closing things on a high note.
The Bottom Line: Here certainly announces the arrival of Red Rocks Church onto the modern worship scene, and their full-length debut is well produced and full of heartfelt worship songs for the church. Taking a cue at times from either Vertical Church or Jesus Culture, it's well done from beginning to end, and the aforementioned spot-on guitar work and soaring harmonies are worth the price of admission!
The Next Worship Heavy-Hitter | Posted June-26-2017
North Point InsideOut, the student worship ministry born out of Pastor Andy Stanley's megachurch in Atlanta, Georgia, has been releasing quality worship music since their debut album No One Higher in 2012. Both No One Higher and subsequent release Hear (2015) found their way onto the Billboard charts, and the InsideOut band is back with a new batch of songs for 2017. Nothing Ordinary Live EP 1 is a live recording containing two songs from the recent Nothing Ordinary EP and three tracks that are newly recorded. Together they are right at home with some of the best the praise and worship scene has to offer.
EP opener "We Are Royals" is a blazing dance-infused rock song, complete with a rap breakdown in the middle reminiscent of Young and Free's "This Is Living." That's not to say it's a copy of the classic 2016 hit; in fact, it more than stands on its own merits with tight instrumentation and a celebratory chorus that leaves you singing even when it's over.
"Holy" is next, a mid-tempo gem in the vein of Bethel and Leeland's "Lion And The Lamb" or Jesus Culture's "Fierce," with a chorus that's just as reverent and singable: "Holy holy / To the One who scattered the stars / Holy holy / to the One who holds every heart." "I Fall" changes the tempo and feel, with a simple piano intro framing Seth Condrey's honest lyrics. The opening verse is particularly poignant and relevant to the daily life of many Christians, and it's followed by a few lines from the classic hymn "I Surrender All" before building to a powerful conclusion. "Sons and Daughters (featuring Emily Harrison)" continues the feel introduced on the previous track, but with acoustic guitar driving the song instrumentally. The song retains a contemplative feel throughout, while focusing on the role of God as Father.
Final song "Death Was Arrested" is the unquestioned highlight. Though it's been given the studio treatment by North Point already and also has been recorded by both Laura Story and Aaron Schust, this is the first proper live recording of Seth Condrey himself leading it. The audience is engaged from the start, and Condrey leads them expertly through a rhythmically unique verse that changes back and forth between 9/8 and 6/8. The final line of verse two sums up the theme perfectly: "He canceled my debt / He called me His friend / When death was arrested / And my life began." One of the more powerful endings in recent worship song memory helps close the song.
Live EP 1 feels like a bit of an introductory party for North Point Inside Out, as they've released a five song EP that stands up with some of the best recent live recordings from any of the big hitters in the worship movement. "Death Was Arrested," with any focused distribution, could easily become one of the next most widely sung congregational worship songs.
The Bottom Line: North Point's Nothing Ordinary Live EP 1 is full of thoughtful lyrics and heartfelt moments of worship. If this and the previous EP Nothing Ordinary are any indication, there are more songs in the pipeline, and it will be fun to see what comes next from North Point's student ministry.
A Successful Departure | Posted May-23-2017
Aaron Sprinkle is a name that needs no introduction in the Christian music scene, or even in the music scene as a whole. From his early days as a Christian rock pioneer with his bands Poor Old Lu and Rose Blossom Punch to his solo releases and albums with his band Fair, he has covered more sonic territory than most artists dream of. Pair this with his resume as a producer for dozens of well known acts (Anberlin, TFK, Copeland, Acceptance and The Almost to name a few), and you have a name that instantly turns heads. Real Life is Aaron's newest solo installment, and though it treads new territory in many ways, everything that makes Sprinkle good is still present.
First things first: Real Life is different than anything Aaron Sprinkle has ever done before. Though his previous exceptional album Water And Guns can in retrospect be seen as a bridge between the acoustic guitar-driven 2004 album Lackluster and this new LP, Real Life eschews overdriven guitars and rock drums for synth lines, loops, drum machines and all manner of glorious electronic implements.
The first track "Invincible" lets us know right away that the landscape has changed, featuring an intro full of electronic hand-claps and drum sounds along with a pulsing, synth-driven chorus. It also features ethereal backing vocals from Elle Puckett to complete the picture. "Washed Up" is the first standout of the album, a classic Sprinkle song but with loops and programed drum sounds front and center instead of standard rock instrumentation. One of the more catchy choruses anchors "Never Alone," and classic electronic auto tune hints even more at the direction the album is taking.
Title track "Real Life" is next, and it's another classic Sprinkle cut. You can almost hear the pounding half time drums and guitars on the chorus, but the space is filled instead with perfect guest vocals from husband and wife duo Sheri DuPree and Max Bemis alongside a catchy synth hook. It's the first glimpse of the rock vocals that Aaron is known for, as he belts out the bridge lyrics.
"Not Listening" contains some of the best lines on the album as Sprinkle explores the idea of leaving our past behind on a daily basis. Lyrics like "There's an ocean in this room / and I'm the anchor tied to you" and "If the hope is lost and hate begins to win / I'm not listening" illustrate the daily battle between our past our present. "Someday" features more vintage and honest Aaron Sprinkle lyrics wrapped around a textbook pop song, warbling auto-tune chorus, while LP standout "Steady" has one of the best lines on the album: "you know I tried to keep it on the level / a tempo change would just bring trouble / so steady, steady my heartbeat."
By now it is becoming apparent to the listener that the starkly different instrumentation of Real Life will last the course of the album, and the theme continues on "I Don't Know" with a beautifully haunting guest appearance from Stephanie Skipper (currently of the duo Copperlilly). "Step Here" contains one of the best instrumental hooks of the record and a delightfully 80s-instrumental breakdown partway through. Final track "Wander" is stripped down instrumentally, but Sprinkle's voice and his appropriately wandering lyrics are front and center with a chorus that features his voice on several different octaves.
With Real Life, Aaron Sprinkle has succeeded in creating something different than he has ever created before without forsaking what makes him who he is. Musically, it explores new space while putting the focus on the strong and meaningful lyrics that have always been the foundation for Sprinkle's work, no matter the configuration of the band or the style of the songs. Real Life is certainly worth a listen for any fan of his past work, and for anyone who appreciates his writing style, they will find plenty to like. Though the instrumentation and execution is markedly different from anything else he has ever done, it's a bold and artistic choice that puts Aaron Sprinkle's talent as a songwriter and singer front and center.
The Bottom Line: Though it is a departure from Aaron Sprinkle's tried and true sound, Real Life is a record full of meaningful lyrics and catchy synth-pop songs.
Forthright Rock and Roll | Posted April-11-2017
Colony House burst onto the scene with their 2014 full length debut When I Was Younger, and they have steadily forged a path into the hearts and minds of listeners everywhere since. With an appearance on NBC's Late Night With Seth Meyers, a supporting role on the 2015 Tour De Compadres (NEEDTOBREATHE, Ben Rector, Switchfoot and Drew Holcomb) and more than 10 million Spotify streams of lead single "Silhouettes," When I Was Younger put Colony House on the map quickly. Add the immediate success of the debut record to the fact that two of the band's members are the sons of Christian music pioneer Steven Curtis Chapman, and you have a formula for a hotly-anticipated sophomore album and major label debut from the Franklin, TN quartet. Spoiler alert: Only The Lonely may be one of the best releases of the year, albeit with one caveat for Christian music listeners.
Only The Lonely can be best described as a straight forward, unabashed rock n' roll record. Colony House covers all sorts of sonic territory throughout its 13 tracks, and it's the spiritual successor to When I Was Younger in every way. Album opener "Cannot Do This Alone" finds Caleb Chapman's signature vocals sitting on top of a drum groove and crunchy guitars that set the tone for what is ahead. It transitions smoothly into "1234" with a classic whistle intro and a subtly meaningful final chorus where Caleb sings to his wife about the ups and downs of life.
"Lonely" brings a standout arena-sized intro on an album full of them and contains one of the best lines on the entire record in the first verse: "Is this a heart attack, or did my troubles find a way to paint my heart this black?" It's a song that powerfully explores the concept of feeling alone in a crowded room, or (more likely for this group) on a stage in front of a crowd.
The next stage of the album kicks off with one of the best tracks, "You & I." At this point, it's starting to become apparent how skilled Colony House is at fitting creativity and musicianship into the framework of a three-and-a-half-minute rock song. From the intro with the funky accent on 1 underneath a spacey guitar groove, to the growling bass throughout and the perfectly delivered line "I'm not scared of fighting / I'm just a little bit over this conversation," this song is everything that's right about rock music.
The LP takes a contemplative turn next with "Where Your Father's Been," which finds Caleb reflecting on who his earthly father is as well as his heavenly Father while also dropping into an epic U2-style finish. "You Know It" ramps the tempo right back up. This is where CCM fans might want to approach with caution as there is a minor curse word in the first verse, although it is followed by a reference to God: "Nashville to San Francisco is a h*** of a drive / but don't worry / the Lord is good when the road is long." While the choice of words could be debated, it's a catchy song with a great chorus that the band has absolutely nailed in various national TV appearances.
"3:20" is a jam song and the logical next step to the previous album's 2:20, similarly built around a guitar riff that it continually returns to. "Was It Me" returns to the surfy feel that we heard two tracks earlier, this time with perfect Beach Boys-style backing vocals on the chorus. "I Want It All" continues in the same vein, with Caleb singing of true love and maintaining it over distance and time.
After three straight fast and fun songs, the album takes a different turn for its closing section. "Follow Me Down" finds the band singing "I'd rather have life to give / Than only my life to live," while seemingly asking for God's help at the close of the song. The theme of living life for more than just recognition continues with "Remembered For," an incredible song that points towards living for a heavenly reward with lyrics like "I don't want to be defined by all the things I've done / I'd rather be remembered by the ones I love."
The closer "This Beautiful Life" brings the spiritual content more clearly into focus and deserves special mention as a spectacular song that perfectly contrasts the tension of this world with the longing we all feel for something more. The final line of the record is hopeful and beautiful: "There must be more to this wonderful, terrible, beautiful life." Indeed.
The Bottom Line: With Only The Lonely, Colony House has crafted a great rock record. It's a more than worthy successor to When I Was Younger, but doesn't rest on the band's past success in any way. Because of the language noted above, it might be better targeted to the general market than CCM, but it also contains elements of faith, hope and especially love throughout. Anyone who is looking for a great rock album with positive themes scattered throughout out should check out Only The Lonely, as it's any early contender for the best of 2017.
An Album of Influence | Posted March-17-2017
Elevation Worship, born out of Elevation Church in 2007, has steadily forged their way into the mainstream contemporary worship scene since their beginning in 2007. "Give Me Faith" from 2010's For The Honor was their first song that gained widespread traction, and songs like "Only King Forever," "I Will Look Up," "Raised To Life," "O Come To The Altar" and "Resurrecting" have helped the band's ministry match the meteoric rise of the church they are attached to. There Is A Cloud is poised to take Elevation to another level still with expertly crafted, vertically-focused worship anthems that will quickly find space in contemporary churches everywhere.
The first four full songs of There Is A Cloud are about as solid as a worship album can get. The songs are musically intricate, but also as easy to sing as anything recently released. The mid-tempo album opener and title track "There Is A Cloud" is a beautiful representation of a common prayer for many Christians, singing "For the dry season is over / There is a cloud / Beginning to swell."
Absolute record highlight "Overcome" is next, checking every box on the great worship song checklist: the infectious synth hook, perfectly placed rhythmic accents, powerful chorus and soaring bridge are all there. Following closely is "Do It Again," a song that many have already heard in advance that is truly powerful lyrically. Closing out the powerhouse first four songs is "Fullness," a piano-driven ballad that could have a future at summer camp altar times.
Even after the exceptional first four tracks, there is still much more to come. "He Is Lord" takes the tempo back up slightly, the fastest song on the first half of album. It contains a declarative and rhythmically interesting bridge that starts the next part of the album on a high note. "Yours (Glory and Praise)" notably gives the congregation a chance to carry part of the song, once more on a spectacular bridge. "Uncontainable Love" is the first of four female-led songs on the second half of There Is A Cloud, and one of three truly fast, praise type songs. It's catchy and clap- worthy, while also channeling--just maybe--some familiar pop sensibilities.
Kicking off the final part of the album is "None," taking more of a contemplative tone with lyrics scattered throughout like "No sacrifice can now repay the debt / or earn this gift of righteousness / that was your own." One the few fast songs is next, with "Grateful" containing the catchiest chorus with a synth part that completes the song perfectly. "Mighty Cross" is the best female-led song of the four and would be at home next to something like "Stay Amazed" from Gateway Worship or "What A Beautiful Name" from Hillsong, and it launches into one of the most soaring bridges on the entire album.
"Here In The Presence" is placed perfectly at the end of the live portion of the album. It feels like a successor to the previous album's "O Come To The Altar," containing a hope-filled bridge that every Christian needs to hear, singing out "I know your past is broken / You can move on, it's over now / Here in the presence of the Lord." This song also contains some of the best guitar work on the album, and it overall serves as a nearly perfect end to a great album.
Not to be forgotten are three acoustic tracks at the end, stripped down but faithful interpretations of three of the best songs on the album: "Do It Again," "Yours" and "Fullness."
The Bottom Line: In There Is A Cloud, Elevation Worship has created one of the best worship releases in recent memory. This is a band that is excellent at writing songs full of hope and faith, with instrumentation that's intricate enough and yet still accessible to many churches. Elevation's heart has always been to contribute to the worship movement as a whole, as evidenced by the fact that they provide both official chord charts and snyth/piano loops free of charge to make the songs easier to pull off in a regular church setting. There Is A Cloud is full of songs that have the potential to be sung anywhere and everywhere, while always keeping the focus on Jesus. There Is A Cloud is an album that could prove to be very influential throughout the praise and worship movement.
Making Love Loud | Posted November-22-2016
It's only been two years since Ginny Owens' last release, 2014's I Know A Secret, an album that was widely recognized as one of the best of her storied career. However, 2 years has been more than enough time for her to craft an album unlike anything she has released before. Just one listen tells us that she has never been better.
To hear Ginny herself tell it, those 2 years have been something of a sojourn, and God has begun to do new things in heart and in her music. "For the last two years, God has had me on quite a journey, insisting I move out of my comfort zone, never to return," Owens shares. "All the songs on Love Be The Loudest reflect this. They all speak to how God has been challenging me to change, teaching me to understand that I'm alive to give to others and to trust Him with everything."
After a short prelude that comprises the first track, it's immediately apparent that the new season has arrived as "Coming Alive" wastes no time in announcing the pure pop intentions of the record. The layers build with synth and programmed hand claps into a pop chorus that lays the foundation for the 11 songs that are ahead.
"The Loudest Voice" continues the pop journey, but with a chorus that is an anthem for the present state of our world as Owens sings "Love is drowning out my fear / Drowning out my fear / With the loudest voice I hear." "Love Looks Beautiful" is next and continues with love as a central theme while also owning one of the most singable choruses of the 13 tracks. It's also the first of six collaborations on the record, tastefully featuring Ellie Holcomb's voice throughout.
The middle section of the album starts with another collaboration, this time featuring Mike Weaver of Big Daddy Weave and containing some of the most hopeful lyrics on the entire LP. Ginny Owen proclaims in the chorus that "God doesn't see things the way we do / His perfect love defines what is true." The tempo picks back up with Fearless, featuring a relentlessly catchy chorus and slightly more rock leaning instrumentation highlighted by the bass guitar perfectly complementing Owens' heartfelt prayer during the bridge.
Next up is "The Fire," a standout ballad with a chorus that many Christians would do well to sing: "Thank you for the fire / Thank you for the night / Thank you for the trial / That I don't know how to fight / Thank you that you lead me / To the end of my own strength / This is where you meet me / And carry me again." The powerful chorus was born from Owens experience walking through challenges with her vocal chords, and it will comfort many that are currently in a similar valley. Taking the tempo right back up is "Go Be Light," with a half-time feel on the chorus that you don't know you need until it starts at the perfect place.
There is still more pop landscape to explore as "Made For Loving You" begins the final section of the album with a tasteful guitar-driven feel unlike anything else we hear on Love Be The Loudest. Another collaboration is next, as Meredith Andrews joins Ginny for the hope-filled "How Much More." The two voices couldn't complement each other much better than they do here.
Longtime Ginny Owens fans will love the next two tracks, as they are beautiful re-creations of two of her most well-loved songs: "If You Want Me To" and "Wonderful Wonder." They are both true to the originals, but also contain some of the most poignant lyrics Ginny has ever written. "Wonderful Wonder" is as honest and heartfelt as ever as Owens writes and sings within the context of the blindness she has faced since age 2, singing of the hope she has of regaining her sight in heaven.
The album closer "God Is Love" is a beautiful collaboration with worship powerhouse All Sons & Daughters, and completes the sentence the short opening track began. The harmonies here are effortless as the three vocalists end the record with a re-imagination of the 1800s-era hymn.
The Bottom Line: It's apparent from the very beginning that even though Ginny Owens is new to the pop scene, she can write great pop songs. It's even more apparent that she has the vocal talent to go toe-to-toe with the best in the entire music industry, and though this is nothing new to longtime Owens listeners, her powerhouse voice together with such well-crafted and thought-provoking songs is a potent combination. The production is top-notch throughout, but never over the top, and it never needs to be with Owens' signature vocals shining throughout. Woven through Love Be The Loudest is the central message of God's hope and perfect love, and the album is one of the best offerings of 2016.
Something old, something new: A welcome comeback for The Waiting Kind | Posted November-07-2016
"Come be the fire in my soul / Come be the life in my broken bones." The stark prayer wastes no time in announcing the return of Boise, Idaho-based band The Waiting Kind after a five year absence from the Christian music scene. Though it's been awhile since we heard from the band (2011's The Waiting Kind EP), they pick up where they left off while simultaneously maturing their sound with the new single, "Heartbeat."
From the first note, "Heartbeat" lets us know that it's a new day for TWK, as a stylistically divergent hooky synth line finds perfect space throughout the song and knits it together at every turn. However, the driving drums and bass along with well placed guitars let us know that it's still The Waiting Kind we've known since their 2009 debut release In The Land of Hope.
Vocalist Derek Henbest effortlessly pulses with the understated feel of the verses before soaring into each chorus, and the bridge breathes prayerfully into lines inspired by Psalm 23. Overall, it's a great synth-rock track with just enough balance of electronic elements and guitars to keep it from leaning too far one way or the other.
"Heartbeat" marks a hopeful new start for the band, and a video for the song has dropped along with its release on Nov. 1. The Waiting Kind has plans for the single to lead an EP in 2017, with more songs already in the pipeline. For now, "Heartbeat" is a perfect placeholder for more music from TWK!