As a new generation of Christian musicians came to prominence in the early 2000s, Downhere, one of Christian music's best-kept secrets, released their record label debut album in spring 2001. During the band's decade-long career, they saw moderate success in the U.S. and notable success in their native Canada.
Downhere went on to become a cult favorite band known for their intricate lyrics and comforting melodies. For this reviewer, while I wouldn't discover the band for several years, this album influenced me in so many ways.
Larger Than Life
Downhere arrived during a unique time of transition in Christian music. Thus, the influences in their sound captured remnants of classic '90s artists, such as Jars of Clay, and contemporary sounds of the new millennium. The band traveled a road of contrasting harmonies popularized by bands, such as WhiteHeart and 4Him, before them.
The band was fronted by two vocalists: Jason Germain and Marc Martel. Marc's soaring high vocals drove the album's rockers, like "Protest to Praise," while Jason's soothing deep lows brought reassurance and meaning to ballads, like "Calmer of the Storm."
Hearing this record from today's ears, I notice how authentic the musicians are behind the music. Guitars and keyboards drive the sound, making it feel catchy and melodic, not like sugary pop. In fact, the sound contains moments of true rock. Downhere wasn't afraid to swing their sound from pop to rock to pop again. Their live shows reflected their mastery of both high-energy and contemplative styles.
Marc or Jason usually took the lead on an individual track. But, it's the songs where they shared duties that often stand out the most. Lead single "Larger Than Life" proves this fact, offering the dueling vocalists a chance to showcase the best of their styles. The contrasting styles made for a song that showed listeners they weren't in for just another Christian radio safe play.
Protest To Praise
Downhere never shied away from direct and thought-provoking lyrics. They tackled topics in a straightforward and honest way that never felt blunt for the sake of being blunt, nor did it feel watered down. "Calmer of the Storm" captures a lot of the experiences of those who suffer from panic and anxiety disorders. Jason Germain wrote the song from his own experience with recurring panic attacks. I suffer from anxiety myself, so I've listened to this song many times over the years.
Downhere's worship on the album is very authentic. "Great Are You" is one of the unsung worship anthems of our time. I still remember the awe I felt seeing Downhere perform this at mass once. It's a song that speaks the truth plainly and worships honestly. The melody soars but doesn't get too entrapped with the extended bridges or repeating structures that characterize the bulk of modern worship. It's a song that feels plainly directed to God rather than just something that will make people want to put their hands in the air. In short, it feels truly authentic.
All The Reasons Why
So much of music is a choice between something that plays it safe but may not be very engaging or music that swings for the fences at the expense of accessibility. Downhere was a band that pulled off a balance of these like few others. Jason's songs offered deep meditations on weighty topics in a way the average heart could appreciate. Marc's songs often approached relational struggles with an everyman vibe, either through a clever wit or a pragmatic worldview that grounded songs.
Downhere's melodies are instantly singable, complex without losing their complexities. Little touches like a harmonica in "Raincoat" or the folk flare of "Reconcile" added a level of versatility and unpredictability to these songs that set them apart from standard Christian radio fare.
Perhaps other bands may have gone bigger in sonic scope, but few have met me right where I am to the degree that Downhere has. Their music was everything contemporary Christian music aspires to be and so often falls short of. This album is a great starting point to their under-the-radar career. I still revisit many of these cuts with wonder.
J.J. Francesco is a longtime contributor to the NRT Staff. He's published the novel 'Because of Austin' and regularly seeks new ways to engage faith, life, and community.
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