Holiday Passion and Substance | Posted October-27-2015
Laura Story has become a champion in the female vocalist community within the last several years. From her powerful songwriting for other artists (such as on Chris Tomlin's "Indescribable") to her very own breakthrough hit "Blessings," Laura and her powerful journey towards life, faith and motherhood has captivated Christian music audiences far and wide.
God With Us is Story's very first Christmas release, and with a 120-voice choir, 50 piece orchestra and fellow seasonal music lovers Brandon Heath and Steven Curtis Chapman dropping in to lend their vocals on a few tracks, you can expect it to be just as powerful as the title implies.
"Just Another Christmas" confronts the routineness of the holiday season, challenging us to set aside the distractions Christmas tends to entail by putting the focus on the birth of Jesus, our King.
Utilizing that 50-piece orchestra with theatrical instrumentation, "Lift My Eyes" makes for the unlikeliest of Christmas song, but captures the spirit of the season with immense truth: "His breath can breathe new life in me / And tomorrow will bring happiness, every sorrow turned to dancing."
Tossing in a few classics, Laura Story's vocals shine on the always haunting "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel," while a candid acoustic guitar drives home the melody on "Silent Night," giving it the vibe of a ballad being sung around the Christmas tree.
Musically, fans shouldn't expect much innovation from God With Us. Part of what makes Laura Story so accessible is her simple approach. That said, what this album lacks in whimsical Christmas cheer, it more than makes up for in passion and substance. Though this is Laura Story's first Christmas release, I suspect it will not be her last. Her heartfelt, worshipful vocals are felt throughout each song with authenticity, while still paying tribute to the childlike innocence of the season.
A New Talent | Posted October-27-2015
You may recognize the name from her coveted guest vocal spot on TobyMac's latest release This Is Not A Test, but teenaged Ohio native and recent Gotee Records signee Hollyn is ready to make a name all her own with the release of her debut self-titled EP.
"Alone" couldn't be a more fitting representation of what you get with Hollyn. You're getting songwriting wise beyond her years and a rich, thick voice that meets the likes of mainstream counterparts such as Ariana Grande and Duffy. Throw in the inclusion of a very grown-up sounding Truett McKeehan on the bridge, and you've got the fixings for a melodic spectacle.
"Took time out to put time in, so I turn to You when I'm worn out" -- so spits the young songstress on "All I Need Is You," with some of the most aggressive female vocals I've heard in quite some time.
"Steady Me" transitions between the pop driven R&B vibe strung throughout the rest of the EP, beginning to tone things down with some smooth acoustic punchiness.
Going into Hollyn's EP, I admittedly was on the hunt to find anything that would display her youth in areas where her craft still needed to grow. To my surprise, there were few to be found. In fact, Hollyn crafts both lyrics and beats that are stronger than some more experienced artists in her genre. While there is still a good amount of fine tuning to do when it comes to nailing down her specific sound, I suspect we'll be seeing incredible things from Hollyn.
The Kings Of Dubstep Return | Posted October-08-2015
Jon White and Cole Walowac-- best known as remix duo Capital Kings-- splashed onto the scene with a nearly flawless debut back in 2013, and they fast made a name for themselves not only in the Christian market but also in the electronic dance world. Known for their slick sounds, heartracing synthtronica and delicious dubstep drops, fans of the Gotee Records signed band gobbled them up instantly, and it wasn't long before they found themselves crowned EDM royalty.
Following three years of ceaseless touring is new album II, Capital Kings' long awaited sophomore release, which firmly establishes their unshakable reign on the genre.
The Sick Drops:
"Afterlife" (and the pulsating intro that precedes it) knocks you off your feet right from the get go. Scintillating and vocally layered, this is Capital Kings back at the top of their game.
Though it comes off as sonically repetitive, "Into The Wild" is an irresistibly catchy dance track that will instantly win over fans of the group's first album, ringing true to their electronic sensibilities while still throwing in enough of a pop gloss to go down smooth.
"Live For The Drop" is hands down the strongest song on the album and my personal "can't stop hitting repeat" track. Full of gritty edge, it shows a musically evolved Capital Kings and a darker EDM side to their unique sound that I hope to see further developed as time goes on.
Though there are a handful of highlights on this record, there are also enough missteps to make me as a listener a tad frustrated.
There are moments on II when the duo seems unsure if they want to stand apart or follow a standard. Granted, while I don't think they will ever fully be relegated to the later goal, AC palatable songs like "Forever" and "Into Your Arms" offer some confusion.
"Fireblazin" with Chris Tomlin proves this point well. Worship and electronic music are two entities that deserve to meet and married well, but when it becomes an awkward marriage blending what wants to be one thing with what wants to be another thing, it can feel a bit out of place. It's a great song, as they all are, just a bit lost in its own skin.
It's a mixture of highs and lows. While I feel as if Capital Kings' II displays some weaker songwriting than their previous album, musically, I couldn't be more impressed. Time touring in the trenches around artists such as TobyMac and Britt Nicole have done the two a world of good in helping to capture their sound, and as time goes on, I can only see it getting better and better. This is an overall successful album and one of the strongest in the EDM vein I've heard all year.
Return of the Edge | Posted July-22-2015 TobyMac struck gold with his 2012 release Eye On It. Adding to a mile long list of achievements in his 25+ year career, the massive success of singles "Me Without You," "Steal My Show" and "Speak Life" helped propel him to levels once thought impossible for anyone in Christian music, including an overall #1 charting album on the Billboard Top 200.
While the album was well received by listeners and critics, longtime fans of the once-upon-a-time rapper widely panned the album for his unabashed shift into the pop circuit, with very little urban influences felt through the project. As someone who also loves the more diverse aspects of Toby's style, I'll admit it became a sore spot as time went on.
Three years later, with yet another offering from the CCM pioneer on the horizon, both old and new fans are wondering: what's next?
This Is Not A Test brings back the eclectic musical edge TobyMac is known for that many listeners have been waiting a long time to see reappear. The album meshes the best of his pop sensibilities with some subtle nods to his once forthright hip-hop roots.
A song like "Backseat Driver" is a good example of what can happen when Toby blends several elements rather than focusing on just one. Featuring a now all grown up TruDog (aka teenage son Truett) and new Gotee Records signee Hollyn, the upbeat song talks about letting God take the wheel in our ever changing lives.
The standout track "Lights Shine Bright" also features Hollyn. Her breezy, soulful pop vocals paired with Toby's whimsical delivery make this bubbly song irresistibly fun (mark my words: Hollyn is going to draw CCM comparisons to Ariana Grande).
"Til The Day I Die" features up and coming rap artist NF in a blazing feature as this gritty, pointed tune splices with a theatrical drama unlike anything we've seen Toby do in quite some time. Think Jay Z meets EDM.
An unexpected gem is found on "Love Broke Thru," channeling an Americana vibe and syncing it with the classic style of synth beats Toby is known for: "I did all that I could to undo me, but You loved me enough to pursue me."
Of course when it was mentioned that this album would feature the first reemergence of dc Talk since Kevin Max's "The Cross" back in 2007, fans took notice. Let's not pretend "Love Feels Like" isn't the first song you're skipping to!
The song is more than fans have could have expected it to be. Kevin's soaring vibrato, Michael Tait's leather pipes and Toby's signature punchy rhyming create a modern day marriage any and all dc Talk fans should be both excited and proud to see continue-- even if it's just for one song.
The "Funky" Jesus Music:
For the handful of hits being presented here, there are a few glaring misses.
Lead single "Beyond Me" is alright on its own, but in context quickly breaks the creative flow the rest of the album has worked so hard to develop, becoming a weak link despite a strong first string. And while "Undeniable" is no doubt a fantastic song, resurrecting Toby's harder edge of days gone by, let's be real: it sounds almost a little too familiar (think Grits' "Ooh Ahh").
The press conference bridge between "Lights Shine Bright" and "Til The Day I Die" feels forced. The puns are all old hat, and as much as I missed the comedic interludes on his last record, this one just feels unnecessary.
TobyMac is the reigning king of Christian pop, and there isn't much wrong he could do that would revoke his title, even if there have been moments on his past two albums that put his creativity in question. That being said, This Is Not A Test firmly solidifies Toby's place in the industry and proves that he isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Fresh, diverse and incredibly relevant, this is easily his best work since Portable Sounds. Is this going to be a CCM game changer? Probably not. But is it a game changer in the career of TobyMac? I can assure you that it is.
Shining Melodies | Posted July-15-2015
Making their official appearance with 2013 debut record Dreamers, pop/rock outfit Shine Bright Baby splashed onto the Christian music scene with their colorful summer anthem "Beautiful Love."
Having endured multiple personal and professional challenges since that time, it's been an intense two years for the band following their initial success. Though times have proven to be far from easy, the group-- now made up entirely of husband/wife duo Emily Irene and Nathan Fertig-- is back with an all new name, an all new EP and an all new vision.
Now going under the moniker SHINEBRIGHT (to better reflect the group's mission to "be a light amidst the darkness"), the Only You EP emerges after much personal growth and anticipation.
Opening track "Closer To The Sun" gives us our first look at a much crisper, more grown up sounding SHINEBRIGHT. A far cry from their punk rock days of old, the duo presents a maturity about them that sounds both fresh and authentic, while still remaining true to who they are as musicians. It might not be an older fan's cup of tea, but just wait a few more songs and you'll soon discover that they have far from lost their edge.
"Limitless," featuring cameo vocals by tech-hop rocker Brad Dring of Rapture Ruckus, is a full throttle musical assault in the most aggressive manner. Blending a nearly perfect mashup of pop, rock, techo and too many other high energy elements to list, the earworm chorus sounds worthy of club playlists everywhere. Brad's punchy raps lend flawlessly to Emily's raspy vocals to create sheer melodic bliss.
Lead single "Reckless For Love" featuring Jonathan Thulin keeps the energy flowing equally with a song bent on encouraging others to live with the boldness of Christ: "There is always something more, change is waiting at the door / We're running faster than before, 'cause we're reckless for love, yeah, be reckless for love."
Harmonious title track "Only You" is a glimmering ballad filled with a worshipful poise, while "Spectacle Of Light" burns its way into your mind with an innocently haunting melody that points to the lyrical imagery the duo is masterfully capable of, with a chorus simple enough to still pack a powerful punch: "I wanna know how it feels to burn."
Though the EP runs only five cuts deep before the rest is filled with several standard remix tracks, SHINEBRIGHT makes those five songs count in a major way. Only You offers what are arguably some of the most diverse yet unifying songs to come out of the genre so far this year. Emily Irene's jagged vocals stand out in what is a pristine pool of female vocalists in the industry, and fill each track with a raw and emotive passion.
While Dreamers helped to establish SHINEBRIGHT's sophisticated sound, this EP demonstrates how they've perfected it. Let's hope this isn't the last we hear of one of CCM's most overlooked acts!
Finding Their Footing | Posted June-22-2015
Having gained a massive following with their wildly successful song "Say Amen" (which earned southern gospel group Brian Free & Assurance several 2015 Dove Awards for their cover rendition), Gotee Records act Finding Favour is finally unveiling their much anticipated full length debut, Reborn.
Bright musical moments pop onto the scene like splatters of color across a white canvas. The techno pop opening of "Refuge" leads into a silky worship tune, reminiscent of current Phil Wickham stylings.
"Cast My Cares" is the most original offering, setting this band apart both sonically and lyrically. Mildly bluegrassy with a contemporary pop polish, the song takes all of this group's best aspects and morphs them into the highlight of the album: "I will cast my cares on You, You're the anchor of my hope, the only One Who's in control."
"Feels Like The First Time" rolls with the Americana vibe through a sweet love song that expounds on a relationship set on fire under the banner of God's grace. "Tiny Town" follows suit and offers more descriptive storytelling at its finest.
The biggest issue at hand with Reborn is that every song feels as if it needs to provide an answer to the day-to-day struggles of life. Take a song like "I'll Find You." While it starts off raw and vulnerable, tackling the subject of doubt in God's timing, it quickly reaches a resolution that feels somewhat trite. Encouraging, yes, but somewhat forced nonetheless.
The project begins to splinter near the end, musically speaking. "Till Your Kingdom Comes" expounds on the idea of folktronica introduced to us by musicians such as Crowder, but also falls victim to feeling a little too forced. In some ways, mostly musical, this is a band that is definitely still trying to find their footing.
Finding Favour is a prime example of a band that is capable of absolutely brilliant songwriting, but finds themselves trapped in the awkward teenage stage of their career-- still trying to discover their unique signature sound and create a legacy that is all their own. While diversity is applauded (and in our industry, much needed), when diversity feels more like experimentation with very little cohesiveness, it can make it hard to enjoy an album as a whole.
That said, I think deep down, the men of Finding Favor do have a unique niche to fill. With time, that will become apparent. Despite some flaws, there are glimpses of excellence on this record worthy of your attention.
The Sound of New Life | Posted April-30-2015
If you were to sum up the status of one of CCM's most beloved groups in social media terminology, it would probably sound a lot like "it's complicated."
Audio Adrenaline founder and former frontman Mark Stuart brought the band out of retirement back in 2012 with dc Talk alumnus Kevin Max at the wheel and an all-star cast of fellow bandmates to back his soaring vibrato chops, including Superchick's Dave Ghazarian, Bleach's Jared Byers and longtime bassist Will McGinniss returning as the only original member. Allowing fans a brief period to overcome the initial shock, the group released 2013's 5 star smash Kings & Queens. Thus, AA 2.0 was born.
However, it wasn't meant to last.
It happened steadily: one by one, members of the reconstructed group began to come and go with various faces taking their places as time went on. The most devastating blow came in early 2014 when Max announced his departure as lead vocalist after just 16 months. You could appropriately say that their heart was caving in.
Fast forward 10 months: It's 2015. After a brief stint as the worship band on the Acquire The Fire circuit (with former Abandon lead singer Josh Engler temporarily taking on vocal duties), it was announced that the group has reformed for the third time, introducing us to yet another new cast with no remaining members of the original band in sight. Needless to say, some fans grew frustrated.
That doubt didn't last very long though. Spirits began to change with the release of the born again Audio A's first single "Love Is Stronger." Hopes steadily grew as those opposed to yet another change started to realize that this new formation could somehow still work.
Now composed of former Stellar Kart frontman Adam Agee, Wavorly's Dave Stovall and fresh faces Brandon Bagby and Jack Campbell, Audio Adrenaline 3.0 is out to prove that there is still life left in this group with 2015's Sound Of The Saints.
With Agee at bat, I initially feared a Stellar Kart copycat where one of the most beloved bands in CCM would be morphed into a punk act (there's nothing wrong with that sound, but it's not Audio Adrenaline). Those nerves subsided as I dove into this album and began to realize that though the edge is definitely there, there is more this four piece than meets the eye.
"Move" and "Out Of The Fire" are blazing anthems that echo the unique spirit the group set forth all those years ago. Both will be incendiary tracks when performed live and are sure to set off the spark in listeners both old and new.
Meanwhile, the title track "Sound Of The Saints" turns the tables and proves that this group can also get raw and worshipful: "From the lips of those You've saved, a redemption song will rise / With a sound so full it cracks the skies."
While the first half of the album is full of strong moments both lyrically and melodically, it begins to flatline with some filler tracks as time goes on. There's nothing particularly memorable about the second half of the project, and while it has its moments, if you're like me you'll find yourself going back to repeat the first several tracks again to keep yourself interested.
I have mixed feelings regarding Sound Of The Saints. While I fully believe in the mission Audio Adrenaline 3.0 is out to tackle, I don't feel confident in this being the strongest material they could have put forth. I feel as if more time spent as a group could have better established their developing sound rather than releasing immediately to maintain momentum.
Still, there are several bright spots on this project, and each one speaks volumes to what may be to come from this talented group of underdogs.
Ruckus Rousing | Posted April-23-2015
The New Zealand native lads who make up the group Rapture Ruckus have treated their rabid fan base to the release of their Invader Part 1 and Part 2 EPs (in 2014 and 2015 respectively).
Coming just a few short weeks after the release of the second installment, the group has compiled the two EPs to form the full length Invader.
Right off the bat, "In Crowd" shows a clear evolution in the band's sound, while still remaining consistent in both their uplifting message of anti-conformity and their signature electronic elements. The brief appearance by former Family Force 5 frontman Solomon "Soul Glow Actiavatur" Olds is a nice touch, and no doubt his feature will catch the ears of a few more listeners.
The addition of the new high energy track "Volcano," featuring the soaring vocals of Jonathan Thulin, make this the only real selling point to fans who might not have purchased the EPs separately. But it's certainly a stellar draw, serving as one of the most ruckus-rousing pieces on the project— no pun intended.
"Everybody Get Up" serves up a modern vibe atop a funky 70s beat, while the lyrics are the true star of the show. Cheeky and unapologetic at best, some listeners might be surprised by the brutal honesty. Once you get past the shock factor however, what you'll find is clever song about giving up any false fulfillment the world tries to offer and living for Christ regardless of what we might have to lose.
The bubbly, synth-pop "In This Together," with the guest vocals of Chicago-based female vocalist Shuree, will be a fun song to rally a crowd if played live. Frontman Brad Dring's abrasive rap vocals attack you as "Fire to the Night" embraces the underlying rock grit this band has always been at good at while toning it down in favor of more bubbly pop elements.
"Boomerang" doesn't take itself too seriously lyrically, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in sheer musical splendor. This is a full-on four on the floor song, and it's near impossible not to hit repeat once the songs ends.
"Minefield" runs with their roots as a rap act and channels the likes of old school Thousand Foot Krutch with its in-your-face lyrical assault: "It's like this whole wide world wants to see me silenced, keep me focused on its drugs, sex, scandal and violence / But the all-seeing eye sees an act of defiance, 'cause they'll never get complete compliance."
"Parallax" takes what Rapture Ruckus is notoriously good at— pop music— and revamps its tired sound. This song is the perfect blend of what makes this band special, and if you're not wondering again why the band doesn't have more exposure at this point, you probably never will.
I had the privilege of reviewing both of Rapture Ruckus' Invader EPs months back, and while I'm not 100% sold on the idea of morphing them into a "new" project per se (especially when both are so vastly different, as I mentioned in my Invader Part 2 review), I applaud the musical diversity you'll find when you place them both together. This group runs the gamut melodically, and Invader is a fine example of that.
Kevin Max: Reimagined | Posted March-09-2015
Few names are as synonymous with eccentricity as Kevin Max's. Always one to push the creative and spiritual boundaries of the industry, the CCM pioneer has made waves once more following his sudden departure as frontman of Audio Adrenaline 2.0 after only 18 months, citing a change in direction and a deep desire to pursue different artistic endeavors.
Many questioned his motives, especially those still on the fence about his return to Christian music after having spent so many years proudly on the outskirts. However, what many don't realize is that Max's musical journey is a mirror image of the spiritual journey he's taken in the last several years as well.
"After dc Talk, I went through a period of finding myself and learning the hard way that without a team around me, left to my own devices, I could easily get lost in myself," he offered in a statement shortly following the announcement. "Lost in my own ego, God found me and broke me of my pride. [I] have no desire to run from what I have continued to pursue in the Christian Arts. If anything, I feel that these last two years have given me the tools and desire to make the best art I can within this industry."
Fully fan funded through a lengthy (and ultimately successful) PledgeMusic campaign, Broken Temples is the vocalist's first solo effort in over three years. This project not only displays a new and improved Kevin Max lyrically, but finds him sonically in realms he's never before ventured alone.
"Good Kings Highway" is a solid example of what fans can expect from the rest of the project. His legendary vibrato soars over a brilliant fusion of classic K-Max rock n' roll grit with a bright pop melody, making it the standout right from the start: "You're tried everything to find the truth, your bruises are the proof."
Lead singles "Light Me Up" and the catchy "Infinite" display the diversity you'll find on this project, with the first possessing more radio favorability than the latter.
"Just As I Am" sharpens the electro-pop-vibe Max has tinkered with on past efforts and spins it into format that makes it easier on the melodic palate, sounding much cleaner and more like modern acts such as Echosmith or the short lived Lost Colors: "You meet me just as I am, that's how You take me, I'm in Your hands even when I'm shaking / When I bend and break, it's all for heaven's sake."
"I was a troubled rebel son and all my kingdom had come down / But that was then and this is now, and I've grown somehow." These transparent lyrics on "That Was Then This Is Now" sound the most personally vulnerable.
Remixes of "Just As I Am" and the bass heavy "Clear" by longtime friend and CCM vigilante Derek Webb make a welcomed appearance, but cut the album down to a short eight new tracks. While it would have been nice to hear more, the material presented is strong enough to suffice.
Many of the songs on Broken Temples possess the sound Max helped champion in the reimagined Audio Adrenaline, mostly because a good portion of them were penned before his departure. The moody pop vibe suited him fittingly then, and it still suits him incredibly well as a solo artist now.
While the lyrics feel a bit safer than what most of his fans are used to at this point, they still boast the tried and true fingerprint of honesty and artistry that his work is known for, and indeed do display a rejuvenated and spiritually awoken Kevin Max. The singer has returned once more, and CCM is all the better for it.
Diamonds In The Rough | Posted February-25-2015
With 2013's Made, Hawk Nelson managed to successfully reinvent themselves. Guitarist Jon Steingard's transition to lead vocals after the surprising departure of founder Jason Dunn caused a musical ripple effect in the group. Known for their aggressive punk edge with the occasional cheeky lyric, Made presented a crisper, more mature version of the group, highlighted primarily by their hit single "Words."
Though the group has grown up and moved on from their grittier ways, this doesn't mean that they have lost sight of their mission. In fact, they're more focused now than ever before. Diamonds continues the melodic maturation they achieved with their last release, shedding the final skin of their punk days and leaning heavily toward their upbeat side.
A song like "Only You" perfectly pinpoints the marriage of old school Hawk Nelson ballads with the infusion of pop found on their newer material.
"Live Like You're Loved" carries the weightiest lyrics aboard this LP. Going out to every person who feels like they're in way over their heads in the constant quest for perfection, the encouraging chorus speaks truth straight into the center of the battle: "Go ahead and live like you're loved, it's okay to act like you've been set free / His love has made you more than enough, so go ahead and be who He made you to be."
"Count On You," lead single "Drops In The Ocean" and title track "Diamonds" all showcase Hawk's musical growth, even since their last project. They've proven to listeners once and for all that they can not only do pop music, but they can do it well. Props to the band for innovation!
Diamonds In The Rough:
Unfortunately, that innovation feels a tad lost at times as some of the songs begin to flow one into each other, making the overall sound at times repetitive.
The catchy alt rock riff on the front of "Just Getting Started" promises to deliver something on the grittier side, but falls back into the pop waters without much effort. "Sold Out" doesn't fit in with any of its counterparts, feeling almost forced onto the album. Diversity is a praiseworthy aim, but when said diversity is delivered less with confidence and more like a test, it can feel a bit confusing to the listener. The same can be said during other moments on the album, leaving you wondering which style of music the band is going to gravitate towards as time goes on.
If you're looking to hear the rowdy, raucous Hawk Nelson of days gone by, Diamonds might come as something of a surprise. While the guys are as fun and whimsical as ever, the brash edge that earned them such a loyal fan base in the punk rock world is all but gone, and left in its place is a brighter and bubblier Hawk Nelson tackling all new subjects— less heavy, but still as relevant.
With that said, this album proves that this new version of Hawk Nelson is still trying to find their footing sonically. Still, what Diamonds lacks in diversity, it more than makes up for in heart, and at the end of the day, that's what this band has always been about. I guarantee it won't be long before Hawk Nelson 2.0 nails exactly what they're going for.