Audrey Audrey Assad has long brought something unique and crucial to the table of faith-based art. From her major label days of sparkling pop-centric art to her steady shift towards the liturgical and one of...
Skillet Even if you're one of the highest selling, most critically acclaimed acts in your genre, releasing a deluxe edition is a move that can easily come off as an afterthought-- especially when it comes...
Spiritual Shelter | Posted February-06-2018
Audrey Assad has long brought something unique and crucial to the table of faith-based art. From her major label days of sparkling pop-centric art to her steady shift towards the liturgical and one of the most poignant hymns albums in recent musical history (Inheritance), Audrey has infused thoughtful theology and practiced artistry into each song she has crafted. Those elements are present in their fullest form yet with Evergreen, her new independent full length album.
In Evergreen, you'll find a sonic landscape close to what developed on Inheritance. The musical brush strokes are subtle, layering piano, occasional strings and Celtic influences underneath the clearly delineated centerpiece of Audrey's ethereal vocals. Lead single "Deliverer" is likely the most fully produced offering here, soaring through its glad declarations of freedom from our own misconceptions about God. "Wounded Healer" is equally upbeat and full as it ventures towards folk influences built around Christocentric lyrics.
Several piercing piano ballads trace out the other side of this album's terrain. "Unfolding" begins to reveal to us the Evergreen dichotomy: celebration and lament, joy and grief, the difficulty of finding deeper faith through unlearning certainty. "Unfolding" is a song haunted by self and by potentials unmet, pleading "am I the child of Your love or just chaos unfolding?" The most emotionally devastating prayer comes in "Teresa," a song that echoes the deep loneliness and spiritual isolation Mother Teresa felt for the majority of her years of service in Calcutta. From the first lines, the song is soul-piercing: "Jesus, I need you; lover, don't leave / Did you call my name just to plunge me deep into the darkness?"
"Little Things With Great Love" responds to the overwhelming grief, both personal and global, that marks some of the other songs. Audrey has been vocal in engaging the current refugee crisis in particular, and here she sings a reminder into the paralysis that can result from taking in so much pain: "this You have asked of us: do little things with great love." "River" expands on the concept, tackling the often misperceived concept of God's justice by drawing on the language of the Old Testament prophets to declare justice for the marginalized. Propaganda's exceptional feature on the bridge feels particularly appropriate given his own extensive exploration of those concepts.
Trying to process all of the themes on Evergreen feels a little like excavating gems from marble: the treasures are deep and manifold, but even the process of handling such a quality encasement for them is a pleasure in and of itself. Title track "Evergreen" and later cut "Irrational Season" both capture the wonder of a faith that has moved beyond a need for rightness and reason and simply encounters God. "When I See You" is movingly reverent worship in response to that encounter. All of it is summarized by the closing track "Drawn to You," which surveys the landscape of spiritual mountains and valleys and confesses "After everything I've had, after everything I've lost / Lord, I know this much is true: I'm still drawn to You."
The Bottom Line: If you are a mourner, a worshipper, a skeptic or in any desperate want of spiritual shelter, Evergreen will feel like home to you. Musically, the piano and vocal centered sound excels at demonstrating skillful restraint in an era of musical excess. Lyrically, Audrey Assad provides soul language for both lament and redemptive celebration, often in the same breath. Evergreen will be one of the richest musical experiences of the year.
For Fans Of: Christa Wells, Nichole Nordeman, John Mark McMillan, Ellie Holcomb
Fiery-Eyed Redemption Songs | Posted January-11-2018
In 2014, Remedy Drive initiated a profound shift in their purpose. With the release of Commodity, the newly-independent band became a vehicle for justice in partnership with counter-trafficking organization The Exodus Road. Remedy Drive's revenue became a fundraiser, their lead singer David Zach became a frontlines operative and the songs became the soundtrack for a movement.
The North Star is the second installment of this chapter of Remedy Drive's legacy, with many of the songs conceived in the heart of the battle for justice in Southeast Asia. Over the three and a half years since the release of Commodity, Remedy Drive's activism model and outlook have been refined through on-the-ground experience. The resulting collection of 12 songs could be summed up by the increasing realization that justice is always intersectional. Racism, sexism, violent nationalism and dangerous perversions of religion always walk hand in hand, and The North Star seeks to navigate these interconnected battlefields.
The scene is set with "You've Got Fire," a song breathing on the sparks of hope, fanning them to flame: "you've got fire running through your veins / don't let it die out, don't let it die out." The strong female vocal on the bridge is a new element for a Remedy Drive song, a very welcome addition given that many of the stories this album is telling are centered around women. "Polaris" is another example of a song carrying this thread of urgency, speaking specifically to everyday activists: "you use your pen when you don't have a sword / you've got your fingertips on the keyboard / you've got the sphere of your influence / nobody else has got your fingerprints."
Those broader themes work themselves out in specifics. "Sanctuary" tells the stories of refugees caught in crisis, serving as a lament and a plea. Propaganda offers an exceptional challenge in the interlude, spitting "I just need Christ personified, not commodified / the one that died, the brown-eyed one that's acquainted with my suffering." "Warlike" challenges the norm of aggressive nationalism and trigger-happy Western culture with a beautifully gritty rock and roll texture that plays like a classic U2 tune. The searingly poignant "Sunlight On Her Face" is a self-proclaimed "love song for a prostitute," telling the story of the countless girls trapped in the cycle of trafficking and abuse. A version of this song with the added voice of a cello closes the album.
Musically, this album continues the trend of being sonically influenced by the countries where the band's activism is centered, but it also digs deep into an assertive individuality that is quintessentially rock and roll. David Zach drew on the talents of his brother and former Remedy Drive member Philip Zach to assist in producing the project, and the result feels handmade in the best way, as if every guitar riff and vocal run was the product of personal sweat and blood. Even the stunning synth line in anthemic "Endless" or the softer electronic bed supporting "Redemption Song" feel organic.
Many listeners will be eager to ask what exactly The North Star refers to. These songs echo the Old Testament prophets in their use of imagery and steadfast resolve to bring into focus the blinding light of a God in whom lies a fierce passion for justice for the downtrodden and redemption of the broken. The presence of God is portrayed as manifest in the actions of His people. "Disappear" hones in on a simple plea for both the oppressed and the rescuers, the freedom fighters on mission worldwide: "don't hide Your face, I need to know You're here, and all the rest can disappear / Now more than ever, I need to feel You near, and all the rest can disappear."
The Bottom Line: With The North Star, Remedy Drive gives the concepts of redemption and justice skin and bones. The songs are sonically confident rock and roll tracks urging listeners on toward a gospel that moves, that takes the hand and meets the eyes of the oppressed without looking away.
Beyond the Average | Posted November-17-2017
Even if you're one of the highest selling, most critically acclaimed acts in your genre, releasing a deluxe edition is a move that can easily come off as an afterthought-- especially when it comes more than a year after the initial album release. Fortunately, Skillet has never been a band to do anything halfway. When the chance arose to re-release 2016's blazing album Unleashed, rather than phoning it in with low quality demos or acoustic versions, Skillet collected a full five previously unreleased tracks and three remixes. The result is Unleashed Beyond.
The best deluxe editions either complete or add dimension to an original release, and Unleashed Beyond is in that category. The new tracks begin with "Breaking Free," a duet with former Flyleaf singer Lacey Sturm (one of the first true vocal features found on any Skillet album). Stylistically, the song harkens back to a mid-2000s Skillet, with Lacey's superb screams adding a familiar texture towards the end. Thematically, the song is in the same vein as "Awake and Alive" or "I Want to Live."
New territory continues with "Stay Til the Daylight," a poignant love song that frontman John Cooper penned for his wife, band keyboardist and rhythm guitarist Korey Cooper. This easily could have stood in place of "Watching for Comets" on the original release of Unleashed, as it occupies a similar musical space but is a stronger song by far. "Brave" expands thematically on songs like "Lions" and "Famous," while "You Get Me High" serves as almost a direct sequel to the band's song "Better Than Drugs" from their 2006 album Comatose.
The best of the new tracks comes last, with "Set it Off" epitomizing the unabashedly fun vibe that Skillet set out to achieve with Unleashed as a whole. An insanely catchy vocal hook and crunchy guitars show off Skillet at their adrenaline-pumping best.
Three remixes close the project: "Feel Invincible (Y2K Remix)," "The Resistance (SOLI Remix)" and "Stars (Film Version)." The version of "Stars" is soft and cinematic, a result of its inclusion as part of The Shack soundtrack. Surprisingly, the remixes for "Feel Invincible" and "The Resistance" both chose to dial the songs back rather than pumping them up farther. Although both get the job done, there is a sense of waiting for a strong drop that never quite lands.
The Bottom Line: If you haven't bought Skillet's Unleashed yet (or even if you have), this is the version to buy. Unleashed Beyond is well-rounded, dynamic and shows a few new sides of one of the most beloved rock bands of the past two decades. There are certainly places where the new tracks fill the same role as songs on the standard release, making them not entirely necessary, but they're so enjoyable to listen to that Panheads are unlikely to have any complaints.
An Atmosphere of Contemplation | Posted November-08-2017
For the most part, worship music is understood as providing much of the structure for our personal prayers and expressions of praise to God. The usage of Swedish duo Salt of the Sound's latest project, In Prayer, is quite different. These seven songs provide instead an ambience, a soundtrack, which we as listeners build our own structures from.
The project is largely instrumental, but where there are words, they take the form of simple yet rich refrains. "Be Still, My Soul" features Anita Tatlow's vocals drifting, voicing the words of the song's title over a dreamlike sonicscape. "Lamb of God" repeats a simple, classic liturgical prayer: "Lamb of God, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, grant us peace."
In a time when often worship music seems to tend towards the bigger, louder and brighter, each track on In Prayer hums with a uniquely meditative vibe. Songs like "Solace" and "Rest" create exactly the atmosphere the titular words describe. They lay the groundwork for building personal prayers from a place of soul stillness. "Hope" pulls at inner spiritual longings, singing quietly "Oh my soul waits for you, all my hope is in you."
The ethereal vocal style and abstract, cinematic instrumentation throughout the seven songs reminds of Enya, with hints of the Celtic ballad style modernized by Celtic Woman and Loreena McKennitt. It's an auditory palette we don't often hear in faith-based music, and it works beautifully in the context of contemplation.
The Bottom Line: If you're looking for a gentler, less structured soundtrack to your personal prayer times, Salt of the Sound's In Prayer EP will lead you deep into a place of meditation and rest.
For Fans Of: Enya, Moya Brennan, Gungor, The Brilliance
Finding Wilderlove | Posted September-30-2017
The intermission has lasted a full three years since we had truly new material from John Mark McMillan, but this year's Mercury & Lightning picks up from 2014's Borderland without missing a beat. You'll still find the cerebral musings of a spiritual wanderer here, but those concepts get applied to the very tangible realities of things like relationships, the current refugee crisis and ideological divides.
Lead single "Wilderlove" has set that tone well, declaring "the wilderlove is hidden within us / we wrestle with it, we wrestle with it" over a dreamy soundscape of muted guitar, drums and harp. That theme of the daily struggling with the divine is echoed in opening title track "Mercury & Lightning," which expresses an ache for true wonder and the supernatural. "Fumbling Towards the Light" serves as a near-perfect sequel to "Borderland," capturing the innate spiritual instincts we live by.
McMillan's artful wrestling with social issues is perhaps more pointed here than any of his past efforts, but always still refreshingly humble and personal. "Gods of American Success" has a delightful 80s-reminiscent synth pad and deceptively cheerful melody as it mourns a culture that is perpetually grasping and coming up empty. Album highlight "No Country" encapsulates the heart-rending cry of the displaced the world over. "Body in Motion" plays as an indictment against today's Pharisaical elitists.
Critiques are always pointed first and foremost at the artist himself however, and the theme of needing the Spirit of Christ to overcome the death in us is captured through a set of tracks dead center in the album: "Persephone," "Death in Reverse" and its reprise "e s r e v e r n i h t a e d." "Persephone" references the traditional deity of springtime, death and rebirth, continuing the mythological themes introduced by "Mercury & Lightning." "Death in Reverse" offers the core truth all the other songs on the album are spun around: "But You raise me like a baby / like a fiery phoenix bird / oh, and You lift me up like Lazarus / You love me like death in reverse."
It's easy for albums with rich and weighty lyrical material to become difficult to listen to, but John Mark McMillan is a master song-crafter with the ability to balance reflection with a genuinely enjoyable listening experience. From the quirky tones of "Raging Moon" to the upbeat moments in "Gods of American Success" to the almost cinematic scope of "Magic Mirror," Mercury & Lightning is consistently both spiritually resonate and genuinely listenable from beginning to end of its 14 track runtime.
The Bottom Line: With Mercury & Lightning, John Mark McMillan has yet again proven himself to be one of the most profound voices currently singing at the intersection of art and spirituality. This project sees the songwriter giving voice to his hallmark themes of struggling through redemption like never before, matched at every step of the way by musical experimentation and thoughtful lyricism that make listening a sacred joy.
Rock Longevity | Posted September-08-2017
Few bands have had the level of steady longevity that Spoken can boast. The title of their new record IX, roman numerals for nine representing the number of studio albums they've released, speaks to the reality of their work ethic and faithfulness to the calling of crafting hard rock centered on messages of redemptive hope.
Releasing less than two years after 2015's exceptional album Breathe Again and drawing on some of the same team, IX doesn't stray too far from the tone established on its predecessor. However, Spoken has never been one to stop pushing themselves, and there's enough evolution on this project that it strikes the difficult balance of familiar and fresh. Single "Stronger" exists in that beautiful tension, with searing guitar riffs and a melodic, urgent chorus: "sometimes you hurt so long you don't even notice the pain is gone." "I Will Not Fade" has similar strengths with ferocious riffs shoring up a theme of relentless determination.
One of the way this album moves forward is by exploring new territory in both guitar and vocal tones. "Pages of the Past" sees heavy distortion on the guitars bleeding into electronic accents, creating an eerie and aggressive atmosphere that begs to be recreated live. "This Is Not the End" shows off Matt Baird's incredibly versatile voice, soaring through a message of enduring hope.
With IX Spoken manages to transition between heavy and heartfelt ballads effortlessly. Worshipful "In My Sight" closes the record, following in the tradition of vertical musings of praise we've heard on Spoken records past. The song has a sense of rededication as it sings "I will trust that You are in control / I will leave all of my doubts somewhere behind / somehow along the way, I'll keep You in my sight." "Sleepless Nights" is also mellow and almost calming, even through the detailed guitar work in the bridge.
The themes on the album range everywhere from the worshipful tone of previously mentioned "In My Sight" to the angry ache of "Silence," which scathingly calls out someone who has a complete lack of sympathy for those who are hurting. All of the themes remain tethered to the concept of an eternal hope in Christ that runs deeper than any betrayal or pain. "Dying Without You" phrases it this way: "I was not alone, I held the hand of all creation / Say my name, and I will run to You, fall into You / I'm to blame, and now I know it's true / I'm dying without You."
The Bottom Line: IX shows Spoken's continued ability to stay grounded in their history while expanding into new corners of rock excellence. If you've ever wondered how to achieve staying power in a shifting industry landscape, you can find a perfect case study in Spoken's dedication to ultimate redemption paired with their ability to keep moving forward musically.
A Guided Encounter | Posted September-01-2017
Urban Rescue has made waves far beyond their native L.A. with a worship sound that is at once both experimental and grounded in the deepest truths. Their latest release City Sessions (Live in Los Angeles) continues in that tradition.
The seven songs on this EP find their unifying musical theme in synth patterns that create an otherworldly ambience. The opener "Holy Ground" features that electronic landscape accented by clear vocals from Meaghan Maples behind lead singer Jordan Frye's steady tones. Melodically lush "The Reason" offers that same sound complemented by percussion with a slightly faster tempo.
Urban Rescue knows when to employ organic elements as well however. The acoustic guitar in "Never Stop" evokes the sense of a campfire worship session, singing "You cross the canyons of my fear, over the oceans of my tears / like the wind that moves the trees, your love is chasing after me." Redemptive ballad "Up From the Ashes" employs a very traditional piano tone over the synths paired with claps as percussion to root the song in familiar musical territory.
Thematically, Urban Rescue does an exceptional job of structuring a natural progression in the tracks. Opener "Freedom" is an ethereal invitation into the freedom we have through the Spirit--freedom that is a necessary precursor to praise. "Up From the Ashes" celebrates our redemption, then "Unconditional" follows directly after to show that same redemption through the eyes of a God who loves unconditionally. "The Reason" offers resolve in the lyrics "From darkness into color, you've opened up my eyes / You're everything I seek, you're the reason I'm alive." The project concludes with worship turned to action in "Walls," a collaboration with rapper Derek Minor that challenges us to extend the love of God to others. This thematic progression creates a sense of fullness and completion in just a seven song run time.
The Bottom Line: City Sessions guides an encounter with a fiercely compassionate God. Urban Rescue excels at crafting intentional yet poetic lyrics and carrying the listener through a cohesive journey. In the overflow of worship release this year, City Sessions is a soul-nurturing experience you won't want to overlook.
A Well-Rounded Addition | Posted August-10-2017
NEEDTOBREATHE's 2016 album HARD LOVE further cemented their status as one of the most fast-rising, widely-appealing groups in both the Christian and mainstream markets. Their traditional folk-influenced alt rock sound has become tempered by some pop/country vibes, an evolution that they've handled with a steady creative hand that keeps fans assured at every step that this is a band they can trust for consistent quality. HARD LOVE was a piece of such excellence that it left listeners wanting more, and with the HARD CUTS EP that's exactly what we get: stand-out songs originally created for HARD LOVE that didn't quite make the original album.
Hit song "HARD LOVE" has two updated incarnations bookending the b-sides on this project. Many listeners have already heard the version featuring Andra Day, which has gone to radio and was the chosen variation for the music video. "HARD LOVE (feat. Serena Ryder)" sets out in a different direction, stripping the song back to an acoustic format that gives it a distinct back porch vibe. The gospel-flavored vocals from Serena Ryder make this track feel like something of a deep south spiritual.
The b-sides stay in much the same musical vein as the tracks on HARD LOVE. "Waiting" features a pop-styled melody that serves as a fun juxtaposition to some raw drum tones. "Count On Me" could thematically be a sequel to NEEDTOBREATHE's hit "Brother" with its themes of leaning on each other for support and the church-choir style backing vocals.
Some of the songs that have found a home here are more spiritually direct than the cuts that made the full album. "Cages" frames reflection on personal failure and a need for redemption in a stripped-back, piano-driven musical setting. The song concludes "Went looking for attention in all the wrong places / We were needin' a redemption / All we got was just cages." "Walking on Water" is a more upbeat offering centered on the concept of faith, treading almost worshipful territory and revisiting NEEDTOBREATHE's roots with lyrics like "though I falter, You got me walking on water."
The Bottom Line: Encompassing a surprising musical breadth and spiritual depth in the span of six tracks, HARD CUTS is the perfect addition for anyone who can't get enough of HARD LOVE.
A Triumphant Return | Posted June-23-2017
It's been four long years, several social media rumors and one reunion show in Mississippi since the last time we had new music from Wavorly. Now it seems the stars have finally aligned for the alt rock group to stage a comeback, and Movement One is the first step.
Movement One is a two track cross between a single and an EP. The first of those tracks that fans heard, "Pressure," is a swaggering rock track with a hint of a throwback vibe similar to the fusion of House of Heroes' recent work. Every single member of Wavorly had a hand in writing the track, with some additional help from Josiah Prince (Disciple). The bravado of the chorus feels custom-made for summer nights and underground rock shows as Dave Stovall sings "nobody's going to push us around / we're taking over / we are the ones they warned you about."
Recapturing the more mellow, ambient side of Wavorly's sound, "Strangers in Love" captures the melancholy and confusion of distance in a relationship. Although guitar riffs certainly drive the majority of the track, the outro is carried by a haunting piano line from Ryan Coon. This duality re-establishes a crucial element of what made Wavorly stand out before.
The Bottom Line: It's difficult for a band to make a comeback without their music feeling overly nostalgia-driven and dated, but Wavorly has overcome that pitfall with a confident musical chemistry that proves what we already knew: this comeback was long overdue.
Raw Musical Strength | Posted June-08-2017
I have long been of the perhaps controversial opinion that one of the key things a hard rock band needs to be able to do well is produce acoustic versions of their heaviest tracks. The stripped back format is where they have to display sheer songwriting strength, vocal chops and raw emotion. These are elements Decyfer Down shows off beautifully on their new Acoustic EP.
The five track EP features offerings from each of the band's past albums and was originally recorded as a kickstarter perk for the release of last year's The Other Side of Darkness. Fittingly, it begins with a re-imagined "Anchor Me" from that album. This version manages to lose none of its force though presented in acoustic format.
Two of the strongest acoustic renditions come from 2009's breakthrough album Crash. "Fading" and "Crash," which both charted at number 1 when they first hit radio, have become so well-known that the band really stretched themselves to deliver the familiar lyrics in new ways. "Fading" gets a tempo tweak and restructured guitar licks that will have listeners doing a double-take on the eerie, redemptive classic. "Crash" is slowed down and mellowed out to become haunting and borderline contemplative as it shows off how truly versatile TJ Harris's vocals are (and utilizes the full breadth of his range, from falsetto in the intro to low, half-growled moments in the verses).
"Scarecrow," from 2013's album of the same name, takes on a fun southern front porch vibe. Though drawing on a lot more twanging bass than the other tracks, it still fits in well with the collection. The project wraps with "Burn Back the Sun," a true Decyfer Down classic from their debut End of Gray, where it was first sung by original vocalist Caleb Oliver. This acoustic version has already been heard as the closer to The Other Side of Darkness, but its inclusion here still feels fitting, particularly as the rendition is so exceptional. The stripped down format perfectly fits the hollow sense of the lyrics: "burn back the sun, bring back the fire once blazing inside this hollow cage. Burn back the sun, You were the only one to love me with passion's quiet rage."
The Bottom Line: As far as acoustic EPs go, this is easily the best to come from the rock genre in several years. It draws fresh attention to familiar lyrics while demonstrating Decyfer Down's ability to truly own diverse musical contexts.