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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. 

Song to Download Now:

"Silence" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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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.

Song to Download Now:

"Unconditional" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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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

Song to Download Now:

"Cages" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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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.


Song to Download Now:

"Strangers in Love" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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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.


Song to Download Now:

"Burn Back the Sun"

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Melodic Metal | Posted May-18-2017
The Letter Black initially became a contender in the Christian rock scene with spots on several major Christian tours, a record deal and their 2010 label debut Hanging On By A Thread. After another studio full-length (Rebuild) and some remix efforts, The Letter Black's time on a record label came to a close a few years ago. After some time refocusing, they're back at it with Pain, an album fueled by Kickstarter and EMP Label Group.

With Pain, The Letter Black has stated that they were unified in wanting to pursue a more metal-influenced sound. Opening track "Fear," which creatively plays with elements that could belong to a horror film soundtrack, sees vocalist Sarah Anthony taking her usual crystal-clear tone and introducing low rasps and scratched screams. It's this diversifying of her vocal range that most markedly separates this album from their past work, with later tracks like "I Am" and "Breathe" also showing off multiple vocal styles.

Musically, Mark Anthony's guitar work gravitates towards a raw and grungy sound. The building guitars in "Pain" hit like a powerful punch to the chest. "Tear You Apart" harkens back to some of the best of the post-grunge style of the mid-2000s, with subtle symphonic elements complementing the full-bodied guitar riffs leading into a well-placed solo. Some of the darker progressive metal influences are evident through eerie, borderline discordant intros on both these tracks. Strong melodies hold fast through the whirlwind of guitars and drums, with songs like "Meant for You" offering soaring choruses familiar to The Letter Black fans.

Pain is an album packed with fight songs: anthems pushing back against the harmful opinions of others (as on lead single "The Last Day I Cared") as well as against our own internal demons. One of the best in the latter category is "Kill the Devil," a haunting rock epic in which some of the strongest screams on the album push back against addictions and struggles. The source of victory is made clear in "Alive," a near-worshipful ballad singing out "I feel like I'm coming alive because of You." Album closer "Holding On" summarizes the core message beautifully over a tasteful fusion of piano and toned-down guitars, declaring "I am barely holding on, but I won't let go."

Throughout the project, it's evident that the group is still flexing their newfound heavier music muscles, working to develop the newfound dynamic of the vocals in particular. A sonic shift, even from one sub-genre to another within the broader spectrum of rock, is a massive creative undertaking, and in places the lyrics feel unusually simplified for the band as they focus on developing their sound. However, the confidence that infuses every track affirms that the steps forward Pain takes are definitely in the right direction.

The Bottom Line: Pain sees The Letter Black navigating into a heavier rock sound with a sense of renewed energy and intensity that lends fire to the lyrical themes of fighting back against anything preventing us from reaching hope. It's a refreshingly raw and enjoyable listen, hopefully just the beginning of this next chapter of The Letter Black.

Song to Download Now:

"Kill the Devil" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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Pop Ownership | Posted April-18-2017
Matty Mullins made his first entry to the Christian pop world in 2014 with a self-titled solo project that found him venturing far from the sound he had been known for as lead singer for hardcore frontrunner Memphis May Fire. That first set of songs still held moments that reminded of his heavy music background, but with his sophomore follow-up Unstoppable, Matty Mullins is fully claiming the Christian pop sound with an ease that makes it feel like he's been in the genre for years.

The songs on Unstoppable range in theme from confessional to worshipful. "I Choose You" claims the sovereignty of Christ over heartache and regrets. "Christ Be Magnified" is an upbeat, electronic track centered around the almost creed-like plea "be magnified, Christ be lifted high / the heartbeat of our praise is to glorify Your name." Bringing a funky bass groove to the table, "Brand New Fire" celebrates the new life we experience through Jesus.

Beneath these rich, genuine expressions of faith, the album musically reminds of recent hits by artists like David Dunn, Colton Dixon and Danny Gokey, boasting powerful and versatile vocals at the fore to lead a pop sound heavily marked by smooth electronic beds. Although you can hear acoustic guitar lending texture to tracks like the vulnerable "Until I Need You," this album is unabashedly pop. "The Best Is Yet to Come" is delightfully hooky, displaying Matty's mastery of the melodic and even breaking out some horns. 

Even in the slightly more mellow "You Can," the musical flow runs towards the upbeat with the same confidence that marks the hope-focused lyrics. That message of redemption is never offered flippantly however: the singer brings evidence of his own struggles with crippling anxiety, depression and the challenges of touring life to the table as he honestly questions "is there redemption in this valley? / 'Cause everything's unclear, and I'm surrounded by my fear. / I can't move this mountain on my own, but You can."

One of the reasons Matty Mullins was able to achieve such a polished sound on only his second project in this genre is the carefully selected team he surrounded himself with. Co-writes with industry veterans like Pete Kipley and Matthew West mark these songs with a sense of seasoned maturity, while enlisting the vocals of fresh chart-topper Jordan Feliz for "Unstoppable" aids in maintaining all the zeal of a new artist. 

The Bottom Line: Unstoppable works so well because it unashamedly, enthusiastically claims both its pop musical identity and its complete reliance on the message of hope we have through Jesus Christ. These songs convey the sense that Matty Mullins knew exactly what they were supposed to be, and that he found great joy in bringing each track to completion as a work of passion and worship. The result is an album that is in turn a true joy to listen to.

Song to Download Now

"Unstoppable (feat. Jordan Feliz)" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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Lasting Mastery | Posted March-31-2017
Demon Hunter has long been one of the most established, if enigmatic, forces in hard rock. Their influence is so unparalleled that they have maintained the ability to fall off the map for a year or two at a time and then return to a fanbase still as tuned-in and dedicated as ever. The latest return of Demon Hunter, following one of their longest gaps yet without new music, comes in the form of Outlive: a searingly heavy masterpiece backed by the loyal fans and released with Demon Hunter's longtime partners at Solid State Records.

Pre-released songs like the eerie "Cold Winter Sun" and "Died In My Sleep" are the best of the Demon Hunter sound, crushing riffs and ethereal choruses demonstrating why it is that they've been a cornerstone of their genre for over 15 years. "Died In My Sleep" also shows however that they're not resistant to change, as electronic threads weave their way through a flurry of guitar riffs.

That electronic thread is picked up in "One Step Behind" also as Ryan Clark's vocals sing like a prayer: "Breathe in, breathe out the light / And leave your shadow behind / For this day your pain is mine / So let me carry the weight." The ability to utilize synthesized elements, or later the symphonic strings that introduce end times epic "Slight the Odds," prove Demon Hunter's refusal to settle into the "heavy just for heaviness' sake" trap that many metalcore acts can fall prey to.

Make no mistake however: this is one of the most unabashedly heavy albums to release yet this year. "One Less" reminds of Summer of Darkness-era Demon Hunter with its scratched-out screams and fierce defiance of the dark and demonic. "Cold Blood" is full of the visceral imagery that has so often infused Demon Hunter's work with gut-punching power. 

Thematically, the album doesn't let up either. "Jesus Wept" instantly wins a place as one of Demon Hunter's best songs of all time, confessing sin and pleading for salvation, furiously mourning "I'm why Jesus wept." The lyrics of "Patience" are rife with relational tension, introduced by a chilling piano riff eventually picked up by Patrick Judge's crushing guitar. "Raining Down," one of the most musically accessible tracks here, recognizes the inevitability of pain. "The End" pleads for reassurance amid spiritual death and rebirth. 

The Bottom Line: With Outlive, Demon Hunter has created a heavy masterpiece devoid of filler tracks, beautifully executing every element that has made them one of the best metalcore acts of our time. Initial listens will captivate fans with the controlled chaos of hard rock mastery, while further sessions will provide spiritual depths to explore.

Song to Download Now:

"Jesus Wept" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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A Second Look At The Man in Black | Posted March-08-2017
Worship duo Caves has created a name for themselves playing a unique variety of events throughout the United States and Canada. Chances to play outside of traditional church settings led to adding a Johnny Cash cover to their set, an experience which created such a special creative energy that Josh McCabe and Matt Shaban decided to extend it to a full four song EP.

The track choices for the Cash EP hold more or less to the classics. "God's Gonna Cut You Down," the cover that sparked the idea for the EP, kicks the collection off on a high note. The slow build from the musically spacious opening to the aggressive, full-bodied climax causes the listener to take a second look at this familiar Cash classic. 

"Ain't No Grave" features the blistering vocals of Thousand Foot Krutch frontman Trevor McNevan, his signature searing style playing well off Josh McCabe's smoother vocal approach to create a dynamic, powerful rendering of the track. Hearing these voices take on the lyrics "there ain't no grave that can hold my body down" brings the yearning for the eternal into fresh perspective. 

"The Man in Black" dials back the energy a little while providing some insight into why a worship band connected so deeply with Cash's work to begin with. The lyrics are almost Davidic in their sense of lament, captured here in a simple ballad style that perfectly offsets the tone. "What On Earth Will You Do (For Heaven's Sake)" shows a similar deep empathy for the least of these, complemented again by a more mellow musical approach.

The greatest challenge with cover projects is the balance between reinvention and respecting the original. Caves shows a sense of musical tact in primarily honoring the structure of the legendary classics, interpreting them into contemporary tones just enough that as a listener we're prompted into reevaluating the familiar lyrics. 

The Bottom Line: Caves' Cash EP is the project you didn't know you needed in your library. This masterful recasting of one of the best songwriters of our age is addicting, thought-provoking and a genuinely enjoyable listen from start to finish. 

Song to Download Now:

"There Ain't No Grave" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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Struggle and Salvation | Posted March-02-2017
Random Hero has built their following through a consistency of work ethic and missional focus that characterizes all the most enduring hard rock bands. With an impressive discography of independent releases under their belts, for new release The Covering Random Hero turned to fan funding, leaning on the dedicated following they've garnered through a decade's worth of hard work on the road.

The Covering was envisioned as two parts: The Gift & the Curse and The Light & The Covering. That duality is definitely evident on the release. The first half has a darker tone, with songs like lead singer "Mirror Mirror" inviting introspection and establishing the need for deliverance. "Violence in Me" and "Where I Belong" further illustrate the struggles of a soul locked in addiction, calling to God for help. Musically, the band pairs theatrical, electronic elements with Joshua Bertrand's crunchy, full-bodied guitar riffs to set the tone.

The second half, which falls under The Light & The Covering heading, soars through uplifting and redemptive territory. "Chance to Breathe" holds a strong mission statement in the bridge: "The devil wants you to think you're hopeless, I believe we're not that hopeless. The devil wants you to think you're worthless, I believe we all have a purpose." Many of the songs carry anthemic declarations in that same vein; "Fire in Me" announces defiantly "death doesn't scare me anymore." 

Random Hero is at their best when they pair the heavy guitar riffs and Aaron Watkins' intense vocals with an epic, theatrical sound (a dynamic fans will recognize from their live shows, as bassist Rob McDonough famously wears steampunk gear on stage). "Violence in Me" achieves this balance well, as do stand-outs "Satellite" and "Impossible." Each of these tracks employs a vibe that perfectly sets these songs as a soundtrack for the visceral battle between sin and redemption.

I would love to see Random Hero grow and tap further into their potential when it comes to melody and vocal hooks; tracks like "Running" and "Mirror Mirror" boast exceptional, textured melodies with effortless transitions between raw screams and soaring vocals, an element I would enjoy seeing worked out more consistently across a full album in the future. 

The Bottom Line: The Covering's strength lies in its ability to paint raw lyrical pictures of the way the life-giving love of Jesus collides with our struggles, secrets, addictions and heartaches. Random Hero holds steady in a focused pursuit of offering hope to the hopeless against a backdrop of music that offers the perfect level of grit and drama to complement the themes. 

Song to Download Now:

"Mirror Mirror" (Get it here.)

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