Wide Open Future | Posted May-08-2018 What You Need to Know:
Austin French is a voice a long time on the rise. From his appearance on Rising Star to his widely viewed YouTube covers to his recent radio hit "Freedom Hymn," his voice has been capturing more and more listeners. His latest in a string of singles is "Wide Open."
What it Sounds Like:
"Wide Open" is upbeat, slick Christian pop in the musical tradition of recent releases by Matthew West and Brandon Heath. Austin's vocal tone is a bright, earnest tenor.
This is a song of surrender, a message captured in the punchy chorus: "I'm wide open, here I am, send me where You want me to go / I'm wide open, I surrender all to You, my heart and my soul."
A Courageous New Chapter | Posted April-12-2018 What You Need to Know:
Jen Ledger has spent ten years building impressive skills behind the drum kit for Skillet, the best-selling Christian rock band of our time. In addition to her energetic drumming, Jen has become an essential vocal complement to John Cooper with her pure, soaring tone. Fans have clamored for years for that voice to take center stage, and with newly launched solo project LEDGER's eponymous debut EP, they're finally getting exactly what they've asked for.
What it Sounds Like:.
Listeners who know much about Jen Ledger's musical history might go into this project expecting either a decaf Skillet or else a straight-up worship project. The LEDGER EP is neither, claiming instead its own unique musical niche characterized by rock elements, sparkling synths and the most dynamic vocals we've ever heard from Jen. This is true pop rock like we have rarely heard in recent years. "Iconic" features a shimmering falsetto that is practically chill-inducing. "Warrior" shows off the strength of the lower end of Jen's register; John Cooper makes an appearance here, providing a familiar vocal pairing, but Jen carries the song so well on her own that it could have easily foregone the feature. "Ruins" is the only true ballad on the project, juxtaposing crystal clear vocals with emotionally stirring piano anchoring the instrumentation.
A consistent theme throughout the six songs found on LEDGER EP is courage: courage to own your identity in Jesus regardless of anxiety ("Not Dead Yet"), courage to live in our divine calling ("Bold"), courage to allow God to completely ruin us for the ordinary pursuits of the world ("Ruins," "Foreigner"). The songwriting is rich and frequently poetic, as we've heard from the lead single "Not Dead Yet:" "I'm not dead yet, so watch me burn / Go on trying, lying, you're so sure / I may be broken, but I'm not done."
Best Song on the Record:
"Not Dead Yet" showcases everything that makes this project work with its bold lyrical heart, soaring melody and urgent instrumentation. "Ruins" and "Iconic" come in as a tie for second, both exemplifying very different sides of Jen Ledger's abilities.
Revisit the Resurrection | Posted April-03-2018 Resurrection Letters, Vol 1 is a prequel ten years in the making. Resurrection Letters, Vol 2 came first, describing the way the resurrection of Jesus works its way out in the redemptions we live in our every day life. Earlier this year, Andrew Peterson released Resurrection Letters: Prologue, an EP centered on the crucifixion. Finally, Resurrection Letters, Vol 2 is adding the final puzzle piece by focusing on the event of the resurrection itself.
What it Sounds Like:
Resurrection Letters, Vol 1 is what you've come to expect from Andrew Peterson: raw, folk influenced singer/songwriter tunes that rely more on sheer artistry than production bells and whistles. The album stays in upbeat musical territory, which you would expect with the kind of explosive joy inherent in songs like "Risen Indeed," "Rise Up" and "His Heart Beats." This organic musical sound keeps those celebration songs grounded in an earnest earthiness.
Every song on this album is intimately centered on the resurrection of Jesus and what that means. Some songs bring us comfortably home to age-old attributes of Christ, such as in standout congregational "Is He Worthy" and "All Things Together." Others shed light on the resurrection story in a new way, as "His Heart Beats" describes the actual physical process of coming to life and "Maybe Next Year" captures the already-but-not-yet tension of the coming Kingdom of God.
Best Song on the Record:
Although Andrew Peterson seems incapable of crafting anything less than a masterclass in songwriting, "His Heart Beats" rises beautifully to the challenge of describing a familiar event in a way that makes the audience see it in a brand new way. The dynamic, steadily building melody seals this song's status as a stand out.
Although Andrew Peterson released this just in time for Easter, Resurrection Letters, Vol 1 is the perfect way to keep resurrecting joy alive in your heart every day. Every song catches a unique facet of the light of salvation as we encounter it in the living Jesus Christ.
Transcendent Electronic Rock | Posted March-09-2018
Jerry Fee is a Boise, Idaho transplant who has recently plugged his electronic sensibilities into the Nashville music community. His sound is a unique marriage between a throwback-to-the-80s-sound and the sparkling pop of the present, and that pairing most recently resulted in mini album The Bigger Picture.
What it Sounds Like:
Some of your favorite future summer anthems arrived a little early. This is electronic music with just the right amount of grit to keep it grounded. "Learning to Love (Like You)" shows off the forthright vocals, soaring synthscapes and refreshingly organic drum and electric guitar tones. Worshipful "Wildfire" adds a bit of swagger through both the vocal stylings and the bass line. The tempo is consistently upbeat but calculated. A modern day Depeche Mode might be one of the best sonic comparisons for the fusion of electronic pop and classic rock elements.
These songs are bursting with encouragement to embrace our God-given identities and callings, encouragement that consistently comes off as earnest instead of trite. Smooth "Color the World (This is Our Time)" invites us to "give like the Maker who made us." "The Bigger Picture" pleads to see the world from God's perspective. "Ignite" emphasizes the empowerment that comes when we step into that perspective.
Best Song on the Record:
"Learning to Love (Like You)" encapsulates best what this record is all about, both in its musical groove and its theme. "Never Gonna Quit" marks a close second for me in replay value with its delightful swagger and sense of determination.
The Bigger Picture frames a call to see through God's eyes of love in pop rock tunes that bridge musical eras. You'll want to have this in your arsenal for spring and summer roadtrips--and keep watching for more from Jerry Fee.
New Vision | Posted March-02-2018
The mini album El Compadre begins the new era of FF5-- an era fueled by shimmering pop soundscapes with the classic Family Force 5 attitude still intact, led by brothers Jacob and Joshua Olds, who now helm the group as a duo. It's been a tumultuous several years between projects for the brothers, who have endured label difficulties and amicably parted ways with their longtime band members since 2014's Time Stands Still. But with El Compadre they're out to prove their own track true: "This Is My Year."
What it Sounds Like:
El Compadre is a pop project, but don't let that fool you: this is nothing like lowkey, house music-influenced sound that has dominated the past year or two of pop charts. There's a delightfully playful edge provided by the Olds' brothers trademark funk influences and southern sass. Even when building atmospheric electronic beds, there is never a moment that feels overly repetitious. "Fire on the Highway" is a slickly produced, chilled out electronic masterpiece. "Sweatband" and "Tiger Night" are urgent, infectious and propelled by thudding bass lines likely to have an impact on your heart rate. "Stardust" and "Nearsighted" fall somewhere in the middle, riding on instantly memorable midtempo beats.
Creating music you can dance to that is also noticeably squeaky clean is a rare feat in and of itself, one that FF5 has carried over from their Family Force 5 days. Beyond that, last year's chart topper "Out of This World" is vertically intentioned, honoring God as the greatest reason for celebration: "Maybe this could be supernatural / Zero gravity, it's so magical / Feeling my heartbeat three-dimensional / I'll go anywhere You go."
Best Song on the Record:
"Tiger Night" might epitomize this new era with its combination of electronic elements (including some features by Mr. Talkbox) and a lot of swagger. "Out of This World" comes in as a close second with its addictive chorus and use of Jacob's full, dynamic range.
Listeners shouldn't go into El Compadre expecting to hear Family Force 5. They should expect to hear FF5: an electronic pop duo with an edge that offers new focus, new vision and seven insanely infectious new songs to wear out on your spring playlists.
Unified Praise | Posted February-23-2018 Evidence, the latest release from Elevation Worship is being released under the name Elevation Collective--and there's a good reason for that. The team at Elevation Church joined forces with some of the world's biggest names in gospel music to create unique new versions of their recent worship hits.
What it Sounds Like:
This is exactly what you'd expect from the list of features: it's arena-sized worship colliding with some of the most powerful gospel voices we've ever heard. These new arrangements feel a little more like traditional "Church music" than their original renditions, with keyboards and power-packed key changes abounding. The sonic highlight is consistently the unbelievable singing. Evidence stands as a plausible lesson in how to do vocals right.
The collaborative nature of this project ensures that the atmosphere is that of the Body of Christ unified in praise. It's easy to get swept away in the moments created through vertical lyrics and the building avalanche of musical vamps, creating an experience that is participatory for the listener.
Best Song on the Record:
Although there are no weak offerings in this tight 7 track collection, Israel Houghton's re-imagining of the hit "O Come to the Altar" stands out as a slow-building highlight that is, to use the cliche, even better than the original. The Walls Group's take on "Resurrecting" is a close runner-up.
For Fans Of:
Israel Houghton, Travis Greene, Hillsong Worship
Sunday morning is often referred to as the most segregated hour in America. Evidence joyfully shatters that stereotype with a beautiful collision of gospel and contemporary worship that sees the unified Church praising a God who relentlessly loves all of us--a collision we as listeners are invited to be a part of.
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