Album Review

rivers robots all things newHaving started as a solo project by Manchester native Jonathan Ogden (lead vocals and keyboard), Rivers & Robots has since gained three more members, David Hailes (guitar and ukelele), Nathan Stirling (bass, guitar and percussion) and Kelani Koyejo (drums) as of 2012 and are now releasing their first album as a four-piece group.

With a firm foundation of two strong solo albums – The Great Light (2011) and Take Everything (2012) – the expectations were high with their latest release All Things New and I can confidently say that they have met all of them and even exceeded these expectations in many places. When I first heard Rivers & Robots two years ago, what drew me to Jonathan’s music was the originality in the style and specifically the way he structured his songs. Regardless of what the rest of the worship scene was doing he always produced what he felt God had put on his heart and it always paid off. Pleasantly, with this album that remains just as true, and as a group they haven’t bowed to the pressure of writing simple songs that churches can sing all around the world but sing their own song, in their own style and it sits in stark contrast to the sound of contemporary worship music.

Starting as they mean to go on, the album opens with the chilled anthem ‘We Have Overcome’, beginning with just claps and acoustic guitar it screams organic indie worship without ever feeling forced or copied. Although it doesn’t give much description, the best adjective seems to be that it simple sounds very British – influences of bands such as Bombay Bicycle Club, Coldplay and Bloc Party reach you much quicker than any Christian music influence does and it’s incredibly refreshing!

Jumping in to the upbeat ‘Perfect Love’ followed by the charming ‘White As Snow’, it’s clear that one of Rivers & Robots values is quality, thoughtful lyrical content which firmly sticks to a specific theme.With each track they uniquely hold on to their indie roots whilst fully embracing the heart of worship music. Comparing the album to their past work, the production has also stepped up a notch, they may not be professionals but the quality of their music could stand alongside any major worship group and still shine.

On the topic of production the particular stand out track is the electronic/sample based ‘Fall Down’. Luscious ambient vibes are littered with interesting sounds like guitar harmonics to create a unique interlude from the rest of the album which works beautifully. Another album highlight is the song ‘You Hear Me’, a chilled acoustic track about prayer and how even though God knows our thoughts before we bring them to Him, He still wants us to come and speak to Him. Also, in a similar vein is ‘Keep My Fire Burning’ a gentle, intimate piece of worship that wouldn’t be out of place if sung beside a campfire. It’s in the songs like this as well as ‘Light Will Dawn’, and ‘Voice That Stills The Raging Sea’ where Rivers & Robots are really at their best. Although there are moments in the album where the tempo is upped, on the more upbeat tracks the climax can sometimes fall slightly flat, the songs may build and build but it never fully feels like it reaches where it’s heading. It’s not a huge criticism as the album works well as a calm, chilled, folky worship record but the change of pace would work nicely if the upbeat tracks delivered a little more.

Overall, this album really sets the bar high, and as a band they have produced a brilliant record. All Things New is coherent in style and the input and musicianship of the the new band members really comes through in many beautiful and subtle moments of the album (such as the slide guitar on the final track) and they haven’t made the usual mistake of favouring a pop influenced overproduced sound. Already leading worship at a few events and playing more and more live shows these guys are sure to have bigger things in store and if they continue to stay true to their organic, indie, British sound they’ll definitely be turning heads as they go – this truly is must have music.


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Rend Collective - The Art Of Celebration - 4 StarsWith the results of their musical ‘Experiment’ returning positive – as marked by the mass adoption of folk in to mainstream worship – Rend Collective (F.K.A. Rend Collective Experiment) have wisely decided to drop the third word from their name like many of their fans have already been doing so for many years. Along with this name change, the Northern Irish foot-stompers bring their latest musical offering to the table, titled ‘The Art Of Celebration’.

Inspired by a theological breakthrough this album is the bands response to learning and rediscovering that joy (and not seriousness) is a fruit of the spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Although their music has rarely been described as solemn and serious, this revelation is a great place to start any worship album at and as such it’s no surprise that the opener of this record is a track titled ‘Joy’.

Starting with the familiar sound of acoustic guitars and ukelele’s that bounce off the joyful lyrics, it doesn’t take long for Rend Collective to get going, quickly jumping into a mighty, upbeat chorus that sets the tone of the record. Though the music may be somewhat closer to pop than their usual folk style it’s the lyrics of the track that stand out. This isn’t just a happy sing-song that ignores grief, but is actually a complete recognition of the extremes of our emotions.

The pain will not define us/Joy will reignite us/You’re the song/Of our hearts”

Yes, Christ is our joy, and we are called to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” (Phi 4:4) but that doesn’t mean life is without pain, suffering and brokenness. Harking back to the album title, celebration is an ‘art’ to be practised, it doesn’t come by ignoring pain and just wearing a smile instead but actually comes through holding on to steadfast truth.

Though lyrically good throughout, I can’t help but feel that some tracks feel musically forced at times. The indie folk side of the band sounds great on this record but the pop influences sound less natural – the manufactured pop style may go down well with the Christian radio stations and youth conferences but Rend Collective are at their best when they sound like Rend Collective! An example of this manufactured style is the track Burn Like A Star, the lyrics are good, but musically it just doesn’t feel as natural and organic as tracks like All That I Am, Finally Free, Create In Me and Boldly I Approach (The Art Of Celebration) to name just a few.

One of the louder and triumphant songs of the album is the hugely popular worship anthem My Lighthouse. This track beautifully references the pillar of smoke and fire that leads the Israelites out of Egypt in the exodus and tries to create a similar image with the more modern imagery of a lighthouse.

My Lighthouse/Shining in the darkness/I will follow You/My Lighthouse/I will trust the promise/you will carry me/Safe to shore”

Very singable, and very true about Jesus, the only problem being that lighthouses don’t safely guide ships to shore and in no circumstances should be followed but actually warn ships of imminent danger (Rend Collective: great musicians, but not so great sailors)! Technicalities and sarcasm aside though, it’s a great, exuberant worship song bound to find it’s way into many churches sunday setlists.

With the first four tracks of the album following a similar style to My Lighthouse, the record slows things down with the track All That I Am. At first glance it may seem like the band has lost their joyful bounce and turned to the exact thing they wanted to avoid – seriousness – however the track serves as a great reminder that joy is not always loud and ecstatic. I’ll repeat that again, joy is not always loud and ecstatic, as it becomes clear upon multiple listens that this song, although quieter and less energetic than the album openers is written out of a deep joy found only in Christ.

“Selfish ambition and my pride/I’m giving up I’m letting die/In these empty hands I have it all/The pure joy of knowing you my Lord/It’s only in surrender that I’m free”

As a result, listening to this track feels like peering into the band’s personal life and joining in an intimate, genuine, deep joyful worship session. This style of worship isn’t just limited to the chilled, acoustic tracks either as it seems to continue throughout the rest of the album, occasionally  accompanied by strings in tracks like Immeasurably More and Strength Of My Heart.

The highlights of the record then occur in the songs that find the perfect balance between the quiet joy and the loud rejoicing. This is done brilliantly in the track Finally Free and again (but in a different style) in the title track Boldly I Approach (The Art Of Celebration) setting the stage for a perfect mighty finish to a strong album. However, the listener is then confronted with two seemingly out of place songs, a live version of My Lighthouse and a remix of Joy. The live track is good, but having already been released as a single in three different forms it seems overkill that it appears yet again.

Following in the recent footsteps of Hillsong United and Jesus Culture, the apparently anonymous remix of Joy then attempts to shift Rend Collective into the realm of electronica but sadly fails spectacularly by doing no more than adding drums and the occasional synth to the original. This then produces a track that’s neither indie folk pop or electronica but a strange and bland mix of both. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m personally a huge fan of electronic music (it’s no big secret that this blog was inspired by YouTube channels such as Majestic Casual) and it’s not even that Rend Collective shouldn’t be remixed at all. However, remixing is a careful craft that can produce great results but in this situation it seems no more than a gimmick.

Lacklustre remix aside, this album is a great release from everyone’s favourite indie folk worship celebration band and sees the Northern Irish Jesus lovers push themselves into a more polished and matured sound that largely remains true to their ‘Organic Family Hymnal’ days that put them on the map. Overall, The Art Of Celebration shines brightly in the vast sea called contemporary worship music and begs for these songs to be used in churches and not just kept to the confines of hipster Christian’s playlists and youth pastor’s iPods.

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Seeker & Servant - Into Your Love, I Go - 3.5 Stars

Just over a year old, Seeker & Servant are mere babies to the worship music scene – a genre often dominated by huge corporate bands and singers – yet these three guys from Jackson, Mississippi are singing loud enough for many of us to notice. Recently undergoing a slight transformation in their sound due to the addition of Kody Gautier to the band earlier in 2013, this album seeks to combine their folk beginnings with electronic ambience.

Opening the album with a cover of ‘How Deep The Father’s Love For Us’ instantly brings to mind other contemporary worship groups, specifically ‘Pacific Gold’ (previously known as ‘Wayfarer’), though it doesn’t take long for Seeker & Servant to leave their own mark on this well known hymn. The arrangement works great, and the addition of a chorus/bridge – “I was a wretch/and then you saved me (repeat)/then you set me free” – helps to break up the repetitiveness of the track, however the slight change in melody & pace at the end of most lines feels uncomfortable, but perhaps that’s because they are altering a traditional tune.

It’s the next few tracks though that Seeker & Servant really start to come into their own, brilliantly showcasing their majestic sound on ‘Let Me Not’. Starting as a quiet, acoustic track with repeated meditative lyrics, this song plays like a powerful and intimate prayer. As the melody builds, the song is split up beautifully with a break down that ushers in a gentle whistle, repeated all through the building orchestral crescendo that climaxes with a short-lived but triumphant chant. Though the structure is much more progressive than the rest of the album, the band have stumbled on to a beautiful sound, less congregational and more responsive/personal worship, it’s a style of Christian music that rarely goes mainstream yet when done well we hear incredible pieces of music like Hillsong United’s ‘Oceans’ or (closer to Seeker & Servant’s sound) Bethel’s ‘Give Me Jesus’.

It’s clear throughout the album that Seeker & Servant have fully adopted this new ambient electronica sound, and this elegantly shines through on the instrumental interlude ‘Meditate (Psalm 1)’, although just as the synths begin to take over and the electronic orchestra starts to grow, it swiftly comes to an abrupt end all too soon gently hinting that there was something more to hear but never quite delivering it. This is somewhat of a theme throughout the album, that despite their sound being big and ambient it often stays in the background.

However, on the occasions where that awesome, powerful music is brought into the spotlight it shines brilliantly. Ironically, the only time the album fully delivers that ‘something more’ is at the climax of the last track ‘Into Your Love, I Go’. Lyrically the song speaks of entering God’s grace and being covered by love, and when the title line “Into the streams of your love, I go” meets the jubilant fanfare midway through the track, images of entering the Kingdom and meeting God face to face quickly come to mind. Ending with shouts of praise from not just the vocals but the instruments as well, the album finishes spectacularly.

Though the current worship scene is no stranger to electronic music (with many big names following the lead of indie artists) as Seeker & Servant join the pack they have managed to carve out their own path without stepping on any other artists’ toes. For such a young group, Seeker & Servant have produced a brilliant debut record, and although the album falls short occasionally, it still provides the listener with a unique worship experience.

Album Highlights: ‘Let Me Not’, ‘In Awe’, ‘Our Greatest Joy’, ‘Into Your Love, I Go

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JGivens El v. Envy Album Cover. 4.5 Star ReviewStraight out of Sin City (that’s Las Vegas for those not in the know), filling speakers with his grace-laced blend of electronic-infused hip-hop comes the brilliant emcee JGivens with his latest album El v. Envy. A double play-on-words, the title of the album itself is a reference to Las Vegas, Nevada (the acronym of which is LV, NV) and also El being one of God’s names revealed in the Old Testament and Envy representing the enemy.

The first thing that struck me with this record is the electronica-influenced, west-coast style beats, tracks like Sin City Bre(a)d, The Bus Stop Song, The Pledge: “They Say” and _ _ _ End. It’s so common in Christian Hip-Hop to see beats that are copies of popular hits from yesteryear and that’s where so many artists fail – if what you’re doing isn’t new in the studio it definitely won’t be new by the time it reaches peoples’ speakers! However, on El v. Envy, I’m pleasantly surprised to hear beats that are new, and using a style that I don’t (yet) hear in mainstream music.

It’s not just those massively-layered tracks that shine bright though, the other side of this record shows a much more mellow laid-back style hip-hop. Beats that usher in a memory or two of some of the classic G-Funk era tunes. Though on this record, it’s even more stripped back, leaning mostly on just bass and drums with the occasional extra instrument making an appearance. A key example of this is, is the track Can’t Say – a testimonial piece where JGivens shares stories of his time with our Christian brothers & sisters in Egypt and how they face persecution on a day to day basis. Other tracks in a simliar vein are Bienvenue and Stop Requested, though there are clearly still many G-Funk influences littered throughout the album.

Compared to his previous releases it’s not just the music that’s stepped up a notch but his bars as well. Some of the rhymes on this record are so intricately woven that it takes multiple listens to fully appreciate and hear the full message. His flow has always been great across all his past releases, but after this album I’d even go so far as to say that he’s one of the most natural rappers currently in CHH. He covers some pretty deep issues on this record too – a personal favourite is his verse on Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re My Only Hope. where he confronts relative truth:

It may sound stupid but the truth is if I told you that truth / was an absolute and you said / “Dude, no it isn’t / ‘cos what’s true for you ain’t true for me because we’re different” /  Then it’s tangible to see that that rebuttal’s a contradiction / Stating there’s no absolute truth is an absolute / so your own argument only disproves you!

The only issue, if any with this record is that when JGivens is rapping over a trippy, synth lead beat and getting so deep into his message through complex lyricism it can sometimes create a competition between vocals and instrumental, with both demanded your full focus. EIther way, it’s not a huge problem, and by no means would I want the beats or lyrics to change, plus there are parts where the vocals and instrumentation meet perfectly despite said issue. Some great examples of which are perhaps Sin City Bre(a)d and and Stay Cool, and at it’s best it sounds like the chorus to The Bus Stop Song.

This is the kind of record that’s so fresh it appeals to music fans regardless of their faith. When an album sounds this unique it’s not hard passing it on to non-believing friends (despite the gospel centred lyrics) because JGivens isn’t just a Christian version of a rapper they already listen to, he’s himself – and more importantly his style is his own as well. Hopefully, they’ll come for the music, and stay for the message.

It’s been roughly three months since this album dropped so this isn’t exactly new but it’s given me time to fully appreciate it. Though by now that ‘new album’ shine has faded, what remains is a strong, intellectual, soulful, well-produced record, and in my honest opinion one of the best CHH releases of the year.

Album Highlights: Sin City Bre(a)d, The Bus Stop Song, Can’t Say, Friends

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Ghost Ship - The Good King Album Cover - 4.5 Star Rating
It’s no great secret that I have a soft spot for Mars Hill Music, so naturally I was rather excited when Ghost Ship announced that they would be releasing their first full length album, titled ‘The Good King’. Different in sound to the many other Mars Hill bands, Ghost Ship bring their own blend of alternative rock to the mix. However, at times it seems that they are still somewhat unsure of where they want to be musically placed, leading to a slightly disjointed first listening experience.

The album kicks off with the pop infused track ‘Mediator’, written as a sequel to their song ‘One God’ (From their EP, A River With No End). As we’ve come to expect from Mars Hill, the theology in the song is spot on, diving in to deep biblical truths so often missed in a lot of popular romanticist worship music of today and to call it catchy just doesn’t quite do it justice.

It’s after this opening track though where I feel that Ghost Ship really come in to their own, leaping from one huge song to the next. This starts with ‘Orion’ which musically wouldn’t feel out of place on a Kings of Leon album. Lyrically, this song also sets the tone for the majority of the album by questioning pain, suffering and doubt but ultimately knowing that God has answered our call and holds us close throughout. It’s this attitude of worshipping through the trials shown in the lyrics of this album that makes it a real challenge and encouragement to the church, and it’s a welcome change to worship music in my opinion.

Moving on to the third track and another personal favourite is the epic rock song ‘Lion Man’ which a friend rightly pointed out sounds ironically like Black Sabbath. This focuses on the power of God, and how when Jesus walked among us “He could have killed us where we stood” yet in humility and out of love He instead came to serve us and bear the wrath that we deserved. Epic indeed!

It seems that the frontman Cam Huxton’s talents in songwriting lie in theologically rich depictions of what it actually means to live a worshipful life rather than just singing worshipfully. If the overall album feels like the band wrestling to discover their true sound, it seems that they are most comfortable in the less orthodox worship songs like ‘Son Of David’, ‘Orion’, ‘Lamb Of God’ and the most beautiful ‘Where Were You’.

In fact it seems rather fitting to use the word unorthodox when describing Ghost Ship – it’s on the more experimental tracks where they seem to find their true style. For example the booming organs at the end of their rendition of the hymn ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ would be completely out of place with any other worship band, yet seems perfectly natural on this album. This then leads to the indie-pop songs like ‘The Gospel’, ‘Mediator’ and the cover of ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ (though as great as they are) seem slightly unnatural to Ghost Ship’s style, and sounds more like the type of worship I would expect to hear from another Mars Hill band such as The Sing Team.

It took multiple listens for me to fully appreciate the excellent offering that Ghost Ship deliver with ‘The Good King’, but even now that I’m there I still feel that the best is yet to come from this relatively young worship band. Despite saying that though this is still a brilliant debut, and though ‘The Good King’ may be a slow grower, I truly believe that over the next few months it will gradually emerge as one of the most exciting worship releases of this year.

Album Highlights: Orion, Lion Man, Son Of David, Where Were You

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Pompton Lakes - Rest Cover - 4 Star RatingFormed in 2011, Pompton Lakes is the musical union of Jeff Martin, Dan Desrosiers, Isaac Strader, Vinnie Lupoli and Dennis Archer. Previously, Jeff Martin had been the frontman for the rock band This Day & Age from 2001-2007, and so brings a wealth of experience to Pompton Lakes.

Listening to Rest, it’s clear that despite this being Pompton Lakes‘ first release, the band have truly found their distinct sound as the album – though varied – does have a strong coherence from start to finish. Comparable to bands such as Death Cab For Cutie or (Pre-X&Y) Coldplay, Rest also brings to mind many Brit-Pop bands of the early 2000s, such as Doves, Feeder, Travis and Starsailor – just to name a few.

Lyrically, Rest is a very intimate exploration into the singer’s relationship and perception of God. On songs such as Searching there is a real sharing of struggles, often not expressed in mainstream Christian music with lines such as If I don’t see anything, does it change who You are?/Can I be in Your house while I still have doubt? The opening track Home is also of a similar nature as Jeff Martin sings Lately I’ve tried to find hope/In places where I know it can’t be found.

Other songs such as Trust could be compared to modern hymns with worshipful lyrics like – I trust in Your name/Lord, You are worthy of my praise/I don’t have much to give/But what I do, I offer it to You. Though worshipful in lyrics, by sound alone you could quite easily not notice that Pompton Lakes are praising the God they very much love if your only experience of worship music is from a contemporary church service. However, this is still an album that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of faith. As Christians all that we do is considered worship, and so though the album isn’t always ‘Worship’ music it still seems fitting to give it that label because it’s clear that this album is all for God’s glory.

Rest is an excellent debut release by Pompton Lakes, and I feel that they have a lot to offer to not just the Christian music market but the music scene in general. Hopefully, there are more albums to come from this band but for now head over to iTunes or Amazon and get yourself a copy of this brilliant album now!

Album Highlights: Home, Merciful, Trust and Hope (Banjo Song).

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