Unto Us A Christmas Classic Is Given
Posted September 15, 2014
By JJFrancesco_NRT, Staff Reviewer
In Christian Christmas music in our day and age, it's pretty much a given that two to four major players every year will give us a full length Christmas album, a few others an EP, and several more still a single or compilation contribution. Christmas music has become significant even in mainstream, and Christmas projects often serve as a sort of career milestone. With spirits so high during those last 6 or so weeks of the year when most of us really listen to Christmas music regularly, who wouldn't want to be a part of that?
The problem comes in that the over-saturation can make Christmas releases feel incomplete or like cash-ins. While there are a lot of very terrific Christmas songs from Christian artists, few artists can really put out a full-length Christmas album that succeeds in making a memorable artistic statement as a whole. But every few years, we get a Christmas album that actually aims for and achieves more than being just your favorite artist delivering the standard holiday fare. Aaron Shust's Unto Us is just such an album.
One of the potential pitfalls of Christmas albums are general, mainstream holiday songs that have been done so many times in the same way that new renditions become white noise. Shust's Christmas offering avoids these problems by focusing entirely on Christ from start to finish, and also by having a higher dose of original content (about half the album) than most comparable records. With two of the tracks being an overture/interlude, it's important that each track carries even more weight. Luckily, Shust's songs achieve that.
Opener "Star of Wonder" is dazzling, channeling Mannheim Steamroller influences to produce a grand musical introduction to one of the most breathtaking Christmas collections you'll find this year. Shust recorded this album with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and the result is one of the most grand-scale, reverent Christmas projects in some time. I'm all for fun Christmas songs that make me think of fireside Christmas nights or decorated shopping malls, but there's something special about a record that captures the feel of choirs of angels singing in a grand cathedral.
This feeling is part of the magic of the next track, "Gloria." While at times it feels a little too long/repetitive for the lyrics (a few lines from the "Gloria" prayer), the execution is so spectacular that it works. With children and adult choirs both backing up Shust's simple worship, this is a track that succeeds in bringing you to your knees. Throw a little liturgical Latin into any song (especially during Christmas) and you score some artistry points. The slow-building track takes a simple concept, runs with it, and turns it into something truly beautiful.
Enter the album's title track and destined radio hit "Unto Us." Beginning with a piano hook that screams winter snowfall, the song is a dynamic musical smash that ranges from a calm piano hook to heavy orchestral bursts. I definitely hear some 90's Smitty Christmas influence here, among other influences from Christmas music at that time. This song is massive, with soaring choruses and bridges. It's pretty hard not to get caught up in the experience. As Christmas songs go, this one is simply magnificent. Lyrically, this song mostly draws on some basic Christmas concepts, yet Shust has managed to breath new life into old phrases. "God Has Come To Earth" is another example of this style. "Advent Carol" and "Sanctuary" offer softer originals to help offer stylistic variety to the project.
Shust's renditions of traditional carols make up the last four tracks. "Keep Silent" is a take on a classic hymn melody ("Picardy") that is surprisingly beautiful and moving, and it fits well despite not being traditionally used/known as a Christmas song. "Bethlehem" (as in "O Little Town of") again gets a new melodic treatment that mostly works while "Go Tell It" closes the album in appropriately grand fashion.
However, sandwiched between the two is another highlight in "Rejoice," which offers a more epic take on the classic ("In Dulci Jubilo") than most I've heard, complete with choral backing and a rousing chorus. A part of me actually wishes that this was the final track as I think that thematically, stylistically and musically, it fits the grand finale mold. Still, the song shines as a fine musical triumph towards the album's conclusion.
Shust set out to divide the album into three sections: proclamation, adoration and celebration. This feeling is definitely apparent when viewing the album as a whole. There's not a weak track in the bunch, and several of these could become modern classics. Lyrically, I wish there was a bit more said on some of the originals, but the musical scope makes up for any deficiencies. Overall, the lyrics are more than adequate. Take these lines from the title track: "Unto us a child is born / hope to all the world / Unto us the son of God has come / Sing Hallelujah / Everlasting Father / Name Above all Names / God is with us." From the piano-driven intros to the chilling choral harmonies, this is one record that is authentically Christmas.
Aaron Shust has created a modern Christmas classic that flirts heavily with terms like "masterpiece." Given the deluge of same-sounding efforts we've seen in recent years, it's so refreshing to finally have another Christmas album that aims to make a true artistic statement— and succeeds. Aaron Shust has truly outdone himself. Whether you're looking for contemporary songs to sing along with by your Christmas tree, reverent worship or a grand showstopping musical experience, Aaron Shust has got you covered.
Song to Download Now:
"Unto Us" (Get it on iTunes here.)
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