She’s a singer, a pianist, an actress, and an educator. After shelving her master’s degree in Piano performance for a decade, Gina Williams “dared” herself to perform again at the Bell Performing Arts Centre in Surrey, BC, Canada on October 20, 2012. The Dare is a 65-person multi-genre performance. Tickets are still available at the door. For all other details, watch!
Langley dream-folk-rocker Jonathan Inc. released a new covers album this past Friday, April 20.
Stream or download the entire “beard-core” tracklist for free at his Bandcamp page (click the link).
Typically, unless you’re Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, no-one cares about your Top 25.
But for those hungry for great music, I’m serving bite size portions from last decade’s best independent music.
These artists, who are writing from a faith perspective, are not in the “Gospel & Religious” category assigned by the music industry. Many of them would rather not be associated with that category at all. They’re artists who produce authentic material in their own right, while not neglecting the deeper dimensions of the human experience.
1/ Misty Edwards – Relentless
Misty Edwards’ 2007 release “Relentless” absolutely rocks. It’s passionate faith sung with sonorous beauty, married with masterful guitar riffs and basslines. The quieter side of the album is just as powerful. The album comes as a double disc, with the second featuring acoustic material.
2/ Shad – TSOL
One of Canada’s best rappers, witty and eloquent emcee Shad is Rwandan-born and Ontario-raised. He articulates plenty of his spiritual insights within his clever and humorous lines of social commentary.
3/ Kye Kye – Young Love
Kye Kye’s Young Love is a gorgeous rippling indie glitch-pop wonder that’s equally performed in clubs and sanctuaries.
4/ Gungor – Beautiful Things
The album title refers to the beautiful things that God creates, but in a way it is self-referential; this is a truly stunning album. Lyrically, it is a celebration of many central and tender tensions in the Christian faith. The vision of this album seems equally inspired by the beauty of God’s works and the realization that there is yet much restoration to take place. Doubt, faith, joy and solemnity are all given their due as the listener makes his or her way through the tracklist. The heart and mind come away nourished.
This is Christian music at its finest. Gungor employ a multiplicity of styles and master them. What Gungor presents to their listeners with this release is an album that is sophisticated but unpretentious, deeply refreshing and reflective with meditation. It expresses the band’s growing understanding of a grander God and it dares the listener to open their mind.
5/ John Mark McMillan – The Medicine
For all of his lyrical and musical prowess, John Mark McMillan is not the sort of musician to produce just any song. He wrote on his blog at the time of his second album’s release, “the world has enough songs… if you have to write a song, write something that no-one’s said before”. He puts his money where his mouth is with this album as he paints rich allegory over stunning blues-rock backdrops.
6/ United Pursuit Band – Found
7/ Amber Brooks – Still I Rise
Amber’s debut album, Still I Rise, is passionate, beautiful, and a cry of the heart, personally and collectively. Find a love story in the lyrics about the mutual divine pursuit. Read my interview with her here.
8/ Audra Lynn (Hartke) – Vow
Imagine what ambient progressive instrumental music would be if it was inspired by God, then find it in listening to Sacred Mountain.
10/ John Mark McMillan – The Song Inside The Sounds of Breaking Down
The album with the song that took the world by storm, “How He Loves Us”, is filled with all kinds of good stuff. McMillan is a poet of rare calibre.
11/ The Listening – The Listening LP
With the experience of former band Rock ‘n’ Roll Worship Circus behind them, musicians Gabriel Wilson, Josiah Sherman, Chris Greely, and Eric Lemiere return as The Listening to release this creative and beautiful debut album.
Confident musicianship (You’ll hear them play in 3, 4, 5, and 7 time) paired with yearning lyrics fills The Listening LP and highlights not just the bands’ musical and lyrical maturity but their very passions and dreams. The album is filled with diverse sounds, melodies, and textures, revisiting the same echoes which could be heard in The Worship Circus’ music – Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Doves, Radiohead, and more. Each song is fresh and different, yet there is an unmistakable unity to the album. Each part articulate yet seamlessly woven together with the others; the work compliments the artistic sensitivity behind it and reminds this author of Paul’s demand of the church in 1 Corinthians 12. Whether it is the delightful metamorphosis of sound on “Triple Fascination” and “Be In Your Eyes” or the haunting musical narrative of “Lovely Red Lights”, each piece contributes to a greater vision, a vision the band has laid open to their listeners, an inspired message of hope. The Listening weave a musical story rich with contemporary insights as well as biblical allusion indicative of their spiritual convictions. One song on the album, “The Factory”, is a parable that, like the parables of Jesus two thousand years ago, followers do not always grasp immediately without explanation.
The innovative sound, honest lyrics, and oftentimes unusual instrumentation on The Listening LP blows a fresh breeze into the alternative rock world as well the sphere of Christian contemporary music. Overall, a fantastic record on multiple levels and should appeal to a wide audience.
12/ Brock Human – Come Away
Returning to the States from a trip with Iris Ministries in Mozambique and with the intention to record an album, Brock Human had a puzzling fall into depression and a complete creative block. With his desperate need for God to be real, God spoke to him in a dream. Brock writes, “in six days he showed me greater love than I could have imagined”. Within a week six songs were complete and the album was finished.
The album comprises simple, profound statements of faith and truth set against the backdrop of sweeping guitars, rich piano, and pulsing African drumbeats. The middle tracks are an encouragement of God`s good plans for each life, and a commitment to wait on the Lord. The album closes with a sung Apostles` creed and an instrumental progression. Let Me In is a flowing album filled with the real hope and inspiration of a real God. It is a true testament to the words of Jesus in Luke 18:27, “What is impossible with man is possible with God”.
13/ Matt Gilman & Cory Asbury – Holy
Two virtuoso voices come together to create one astounding album rich in scriptural allusion and prophetic insight.
14/ Will Reagan & United Pursuit Band – In The Night Season
Honest and unpretentious; this album set up the United Pursuit Band to become an influential force in contemporary worship music.
15/ Branches – Everything You’ve Ever Done Has Been Beautiful
Electronica wizard Jonny Hughes’ fantastic side-project called BRANCHES is ambient electronica that is peaceful and phantasmagorical all in one, well-fit for soaking (listening/meditative) prayer. This, his sophomore EP has been called a “heavenly slice of electro indie-pop” and described thus by XLR8R: “Throughout the instrumental affair, Hughes implements a bath of ethereal synths and arpeggios which is built upon using a seemingly endless supply of delicate melodies with interlocking rhythms that precisely play off each other. The first blown-out drum loop enters the procession just after the one minute marker, eventually disappearing only to pop up again in short spurts between a number of incredibly melody-washed breakdowns. In customary electro-pop fashion, the biggest burst of energy is saved for the track’s climax, where giant, glitched kicks and snares fire at will as Hughes’ melodies soar above, unscathed by the tumultuous sounds below.”
16/ Josh Garrels – Jacaranda
Sublime lyricist and instrumentalist Josh Garrels’ breakbeat folk album weaves lyrical poetic tapestries that challenge and clarify.
17/ Jon Foreman – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter EPs
Jon Foreman (lead singer of Switchfoot)’s solo project brought forth an EP for every season, and did not shy away from allowing us to peer into his own wonderings and wanderings.
18/ Extol – The Blueprint Dives
Extol’s technical musicianship earned the band a Spellemannsprisen nomination for best metal album of 2005. The progressive extreme metal band writes music in subgenres including death metal and thrash.
19/ Jason Upton – Between Earth And Sky
Have you ever heard an angel sing? At the recording of Jason Upton’s album “Remember”, there were full grown men on their faces on the ground. Between Earth And Sky contains live versions with a studio quality of some of Jason’s most powerful songs.
20/ Jesus Culture – Your Love Never Fails
Jesus Culture’s 2008 CD/DVD release featuring Kim Walker, Chris Quilala and Melissa How (Wise) helped bring fresh spirit-led worship to the forefront of CCM by using material from the likes of Misty Edwards, Sarah McMillan, Chris McClarney, and others.
21/ Nina Landis – Fly
Nina’s clarion call to the church carries the urgency of a modern prophet, calling us back to our senses and to God’s heart. It’s incredible how strong the responses one album can provoke. “Fly” is as likely to have you weep on the floor of your bedroom as to rock out in your car.
22/ Phil Wickham – Cannons
The song “Beautiful” of this album is a diamond in a field of gems.
23/ Jeremy Enigk – World Waits
Jeremy Enigk, one of the founding fathers of 90′s melodic punk, became a Christian during his time as lead singer of the Seattle emocore band Sunny Day Real Estate and made a bold move in the punk community by opening up about how he had come to love Jesus and wanted to sing about him. His conversion to Christianity was met with mixed reactions and Enigk’s faith journey continued to be a point of contention in his fanbase. He has since released a handful of albums, carrying a change of tone from his old songs with Sunny Day Real Estate. A biographical account can be found here: http://www.explorefaith.org/music/enigk.html
24/ MewithoutYou – Brother, Sister
Masters of the modern parable.
25/ Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus – A Beautiful Glow
Pioneers of Christian indie music, the Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus’ bizarre name clues you in to the fact that they weren’t afraid to be different. Speaking powerfully of hope for humanity, A Beautiful Glow radiates joy via Moog Synth. Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus now exists as music collective The Listening.
Love Is Patient is her new release. Available on iTunes and noisetrade, I’d recommend this album for its masterful lyrics and exquisite music – the whole album is very rich in texture, depth, and style. Brianna and her band team capture the art of a song that’s listenable and innovative. They appear not to settle for the redundancies of mainstream pop, and yet learn from it, allowing it to inform the music. Tracks “Stepping Stones” and “Let It Go” are great examples here, as Brianna’s thoughtful lyrics reflect upon coming home or freeing oneself from anxieties or negativity, but are offered in a musical package that is highly accessible and even radio-friendly. She reminds me a little of Ingrid Michaelson and Maria Taylor (who are each impressive in their own right).
Other things an audiophile will enjoy on this album are the fantastic harmonies (for example, on “Let It Go”, “Harvest Moon”, and “Find You”), and the use of piano as well as orchestral tones to enrich the soundscape, as well as the the spotlight placed on the lyrics, purposefully elevated sonically above the music to really stand out.
Opening track “Find You” is a song about waiting for someone special – but it’s not one of “those” saccharine songs about the perfect person. She asks, “Will you be true when I find you? Will you still be you?” When we meet that person, they’re going to be real! Will we allow and encourage them to be themselves, or will we try to turn them into our own selves? Listen to this track at Spirit, Ocean, Dust, Life and enjoy its lush textures and its surprises; this song is incredibly catchy and yet so distinct from the typical indie-pop hook.
That’s just one track. As the album opens up, Brianna shows us she’s not a one-style composer. “Harvest Moon” and “Home” are powerful ballads that can’t prevent me from thinking of Michael Buble or Josh Groban. And although I’ve personally not been a big fan of either of them, the fact that I hear them in those ballads is not a bad thing, because I’m making a connection to their talent and eminence in their genres, and the power that lies behind the contemporary ballad. “Home” could easily find itself on a wedding playlist.
The last two songs on the album also surprised me very pleasantly. Rich in metaphor and reflective upon the most important things in life, you’re really going to have to listen to tracks for yourself, because the message here is a tad ineffable.
Love & War & The Sea In Between is splendid. Josh is running full pace as a songwriter, surpassing prior projects like Jacaranda that were noteworthy themselves.
This is an album of highly textured recordings. Though each track is recognizably coloured with his energetic breakbeat style, Garrels’ conquest of genres is remarkable. Masterful interweaving results in a tasty and sometimes surprising euphony. Joining Garrels on several tracks is the Mason Jar Music Orchestra.
Romantic, poetic, and anthemic, Garrels draws in his listener’s mind, heart, soul and spirit. The album bears the mark of a deep thinker and/or an old soul. Intricate and mystical concepts on faith, society, and personhood are synthesized in pithy verses. Here’s a snippet from ‘Resistance’:
“Itching ears will compulsively nod in approval
When unbelief is taught in all our temples and schools
But God can restrain the madness of a fool?
He can bring His truth through the mouth of a mule
You can move an mountain without any tools
It just takes the faith of a little seed
to make a way through what might seem to be impossibility”
One of the boldest and most puzzling details about Love & War & The Sea In Between is that it is available for FREE for one year. Why? Josh discloses on his blog, “We’ve really felt the Lord asking us to give this album away for one year, and it’s our joy to do so!”
Josh is intentional about using the word “we”. He always uses it when referring to his work, a team effort with his wife Michelle, who worked on the album art and supported him throughout his series of illnesses in the past year (talk about resistance: “Hold fast, like an anchor in the storm”). Like a growing number of family music teams (Gungor, Danielson, and Brian and Jenn Johnson, to name a few), Josh and Michelle’s earnest desire for their art is to pursue the heart and will of God. “Pray for us”, Josh requests of his listeners, so that their work might go into the places where it can bring life. “Like a messenger of peace / the beauty waits to be released / upon the sacred path you came / leading deeper into the unveiling / as you’re sailing across the great divide”. At the core of God’s kingdom is family; it is this which he invites us into. We need models of family like these in our culture, who can pull others into God’s family.
Counter-intuitively, projects done for no pay are often those done with the most passion. Just ask Google about the ideas that came from “20% time” projects. True to form, it seems like like Josh has put the most work into this album; at 18 songs, it’s double the number of tracks on a standard LP, all which required polishing, rehearsal, mixing, and mastering. Josh recounts on his blog, “The process of creating this album has by far been the most rigorous mental and spiritual struggle I’ve known as an artist”.
In the year ahead, they have bigger plans for this project: among other things you can read about on his blog, Love & War & The Sea In Between will eventually be published in the form of a lovely hardcover book. Individually stamped copies of the CD will be given away at concerts.
The album contains diverse subject matter. Some songs are darker and deeply reflective, matched beautifully in the music, while others recall the simplicity of the gospel. Again, this music is coming from a man of prayer and thought who sees both the world’s problems and God’s solutions. Here is a dose of hope from ‘Beyond The Blue’:
“So lift your voice just one more time
If there’s any hope may it be a sign
That everything was made to shine
Despite what you can see
So take this bread and drink this wine
And hide your spirit within the vine
Where all things will work by a good design
For those who will believe”
Being free, there’s no reason not to download this album.
United Pursuit Band
Producing music out of their home studio on Bank Street in Knoxville, TN, the United Pursuit Band was birthed out of a common desire to seek God and enjoy expressing worship to him through music. More of a collective than a band with a set lineup of musicians, the United Pursuit Band has a large number of members whose involvement is fluid.
The concept behind Radiance is creative and unusual; different members of the band take turns leading and directing particular songs, so the album is highly textured. Each track is stylistically distinct whilst they share commonalities in terms of theme, tone, and instrumentation.
The opening track `Even Now` begins hushed and almost forlorn, before a surreptitious swell, metamorphosing into a truly rocking chorus filled with anthemic lyrics of passionate surrender inspired by God`s goodness.
The message of this album is what unites it. The title says it all: pursuit. Rather, it is a double pursuit; God pursuing us and us pursuing God. Joy and honesty characterize this album. Whether it is in the delicately plucked strings of `Waterfall` or the driving rhythms of `Fill Me Up`, the fact that these kids believe what they`re crying out is tangible.
Still I Rise [MorningStar Music]
Amber’s debut album, Still I Rise, is passionate, beautiful, and a cry of the heart for one and for many. One will find a love story in the lyrics; a love story about the pursuit of God, knowing not only that He will not disappoint, but that he has already been pursuing us.
The album’s sound is intense and beautiful. The lyrics communicate an experience with God’s overpowering love. The music boasts a rich diversity of sounds and styles. Piano, guitar and percussion are the staples of this album but Amber’s soaring voice is paired with much creatively textured instrumentation. Listeners of John Mark McMillan, Mute Math, and Misty Edwards may enjoy some of the musical similarities.
Loud driving moments feature the wailing guitars and crashing cymbals that accompany the chorus of “Like You Promised”, the growing wall of sound that comes in like a tidal wave in “Branded”, and anthemic album closer “Heavenly Places”. Tight discordant harmonies segue into richer resolved ones as they accompany a farewell to unfulfilment in “To Whom It May Concern”. Intricate rhythm patterns fill “Hallelujah, Still I Rise” and “Vagabonds”.
Out of Amber’s aim to put words to the experience of God’s consuming love come lines like, “I don’t have all the right words to say / to provoke you to want me / any more than you already do” (“Like You Promised”) and “why are you begging him for mercy / when you could be rejoicing? / The love of a Father has brought you home” (Why Are You Weeping”). God is near, she reminds us, and his heart towards us does not grow cold because what we do or do not do. His heart is always set towards relationship and reunion.
I had the very special opportunity of interviewing Amber about this unique and powerful album:
Craig Ketchum: As I listen to the album, I’m hearing echoes of many different artists and styles. Tell me about some of the influences you have had in songwriting.
Amber Brooks: I grew up on a lot of different genres of music, from rock, to rap, to gospel, to classical. The list goes on. I love style and diversity. Anything from Radiohead to Ella Fitzgerald, you can hear glimpses of them and everything between somewhere on the album as far as sound is concerned. Lyrically, I’m wanting to learn how to say things the way they’ve never been said…but still make sense. I’m trying to learn to communicate things that make people think. Sometimes, we sing and say groups of words that roll off our tongues very quickly because we’re used to saying certain things a certain way. I want words to get their meat back. That’s a learning process for me, I’m getting there slowly. Philosophically and thematically, I was expressing my heart towards God and understanding His heart towards His kids. I might not always get it right, but like I said, I’m learning.
I hear the incorporation of different genres too. There’s some really gritty southern rock flowing through the album, but it’s interpolated with contemplative piano, folksy and country vibes, and such.
I went into making the album knowing that I wanted a lot of diversity, and I knew I would get it with who all played on the album. I always like to hear what people bring to the table based out of their own creative ability.
Did you open up your compositions to their creative play?
The producer, Elijah Mosely, and I just wanted to let the creative musician be themselves and interpret the sound the way they felt it. 9 times out of 10 it was absolutely incredible and added more personality to the song. It was honest and raw, which is the way music is supposed to sound.
Describe the preparation, rehearsal and recording process behind this, your debut album.
It all started with me sitting down with Elijah for a few days just hashing out my influences and getting acoustic cuts of each song. We basically treated it like a science project from there. Throwing away some sections of songs and moving things around; writing lines that make you think and so forth. The songs were already breathing but a lot of the album arrangements were built organically. The recording process was meticulous, which I appreciate in the long run. We would literally spend hours on sections of a song that ended up lasting 30 seconds or less. I had been in a studio before doing backing vocals for other artists, but I never realized how complex making a studio album could be.
What instruments do you play and what do you like about each? What do you compose on?
I play piano and acoustic guitar. I pretend to know how to play other things but those are my main instruments. I mainly compose on guitar, I’ve been playing guitar for about 6 years and I’ve never had lessons. I just play out what I hear in my head. I enjoy playing piano much more. It’s my “happy place”. I could get lost sitting at a piano for hours just making up little things and learning classical songs by ear. I remember being 2 years old and beating on a piano and screaming at the top of my little lungs having the time of my life. Nothing has changed really.
The album is a really interesting collection, renditions of hymns, parables…could you speak to its themes and content?
Essentially, the album is a compound of 2 years of my life. 2 years of living is a lot of experiences that can seem to last a while. Out of those experiences came a song. The songs weren’t meant to be thematic in nature, it’s just where I was in my walk with the Lord at the time.
What have been some of the most significant teachings or revelations that have shaped you as a worship leader (and thus shaped this album)?
Amber: I think the most amazing thing that was taught to me as an artist was “write like yourself, sound like yourself, create like yourself and don’t be afraid to be honest about it” When we start to walk in the slightest glimpse of who God created us to be, that in itself is worship. It’s not just the 3 or 4 songs we might sing on Sunday morning before the offering is taken up. What I do when I lead worship (as it is with every worshipper) is a direct result of my relationship with the Lord. It’s honest, it’s raw, it’s vulnerable, it’s beautifully terrifying, it can be wild; but that’s what Love does to people. We are individuals for a purpose. We all interpret things differently, and that’s okay. God loves diversity; if He didn’t, we’d all be robots.
What do you hope this album brings to its listeners?
The title itself hopefully encapsulated the mood of the album. It’s about the overcomer. Overcoming fear, heartache, disappointment, false responsibilities, loss, fear of failure, thru knowing God’s heart for His children, not only as a whole but individually. The attitude of “circumstances won’t shut my voice down from loving the Lord”. My hope for the album the whole time was and is intended to bring hope itself. Encouraging people that life is going to be life and sometimes it’s not fair and sometimes we won’t understand everything; but God’s love is bigger than our understanding. His love is bigger than any circumstances and the whole time we are walking out our relationship with the Lord and learning how to love more, He is cheering us on the whole way, even when we mess up…no…especially when we mess up.
What do the words “worship” and “worship arts” mean to you?
Worship is a loaded word in my opinion. It’s complete adoration to something that you put your faith, hope and trust in. It’s not just an outward expression; it’s a posture of your heart, mind and emotions towards a God that we don’t always understand. Worship is loving and trusting God when it’s hard to. Worship is believing and honoring God when it feels hard. Worship is adoration. Like I said before, it’s not always music and it’s not an experience in a moment. It all boils down to recklessly messy love for God in who He is. Worship Arts is individual expressions of that.
You are a graduate of MorningStar University. What has it opened you up to?
MorningStar was literally life changing. It taught me how to search the deep things of God out for myself in a safe place and encourage me to step out into giftings and experiences that I never thought I would have. Worship leading is a prime example of that. Since I was 13 years old, I was always a back up singer. When I came to MorningStar, I decided I’d audition for back up singing, since that was what I always did; and Leonard Jones (the worship leader) saw potential in me, and encouraged me to dive a little deeper in writing and music. And I’ve continued to grow ever since. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities for me, an album being one of them as well as ministry trips and being on GodTV. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to share my heart towards God with the masses. It’s very humbling.