Top Albums 2011

It’s been a year. Blogging is so last decade, it’s all about the Twitters. Same as last time, you’ll get the countdown, the cover art, my thoughts, and a music vid. And without further ado:

TOP ALBUMS 2011

10- 116 Clique – “Man Up”

Honestly, this album is only #10 because there’s only seven tracks. In more traditional terminology, they’d have called it an “EP” but that’s such a “physical media” thing of me to say. Basically, the 116 Clique is all your ravourite rappers from Reach Records – Lecrae, Tedashii, Trip Lee, PRo, Andy Mineo, Sho Baraka and KB – doing posse cuts non stop. This album, apparently, is a soundtrack for a curriculum & documentary – all aimed at, you guessed it, helping this generation of young men to “man up” – to lead and love boldly with grace. It’s a much-needed rallying cry, and the beats and rhymes are only outmatched by the heart behind it all.

09- Gungor – “Ghosts Upon The Earth”

Some of my in-laws turned me on to Gungor earlier in the year – specifically their debut album “Beautiful Things.” When I met Gungor, I met great harmonies, folksy vibes, and a well-honed sense of when to be quiet and restrained and when to be free, loud, and relaxed. Gungor excels at using variance in volume, pacing, and tone to capture emotion (or more accurately, capture worship) and this is true of 2011’s “Ghosts Upon The Earth” – a generous, difficult-to-describe multi-layered hyphenated-word-deserving album. Not exactly a worship album, but not exactly not one either. Delicious, in other words.

08- Emery – “We Do What We Want”

I keep thinking that Emery is gonna fall off. Hardly the case at all – We Do What We Want is arguably and in turns their most aggressive, loud and intense album and at the same time has perhaps their greatest “slow song” to date (I’d even argue it tops “The Ponytail Parades”). This is a band that has matured remarkably in… wow it’s gotta be close to a decade now! Anyways, the closing track on the album, “Fix Me” is one of the most heartfelt, earnest songs they’ve ever done and it’s my personal favourite on an album that is otherwise marked by a serious case of THE HEAVIES. Brace yourself, buckle up, and check it out. You’ll be glad and wear a grin.

07- Propaganda & Odd Thomas – “Art Ambidextrous”

Most people first heard of Propaganda when his video “G.O.S.P.E.L.” went viral early in 2011. Some of us (myself included) have been familiar with the dude since his days with the Tunnel Rats in the early 2000’s. Much to my joy, Props has gone in a decidedly Christ-centric direction with his content, and the results are great. This is not your average rapper – Propaganda is the sort of emcee who can put together a brilliant spoken word piece just as quickly as a boom bap attack. Needless to say, the lyrics on Art Ambidextrous are (generally speaking) rather heady. Not one to shy away from polysyllabics and weirding rhyme schemes, there’s a lot to sink your brain into here. Definitely worth a careful listen when you’ve got time to digest meat rather than “just some rhymes”. Oh, and did I mention that this album is FREE from HumbleBeast Records? No? Well, it is.

06- Matt Redman – “10,000 Reasons”

Frankly, there was a sizeable portion of my life where I didn’t care at all for worship music. Needless to say, those days are gone. In terms of what my generation would call “normal worship music” – Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons is by far the best effort of the year. Personal favourites on the record are “Never Once” (about the faithfulness of God), “10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord)” which is about as anthemic as they get, and “Holy” (you can guess what that one’s about). Either way, they’ve been standards at church this year and for good reason – they strike great notes and (with the help of God’s people) bring down the glory.

05- Braille – “Native Lungs”

You’ll be glad to know that one of this year’s best is also one of this year’s… FREE. Braille’s been a constant companion of my hear-drums since high school and for good reason – excellent beats, excellent rhymes, and a knack for excellent guest artists. Native Lungs is, in my opinion, his best to date (closely followed by The IV Edition) – stuffed with head-nodding rhythms and brain-happy wordsmithery. There’s a decidedly West Coast flavour to this album (that’s not unusual for Braille) and there’s plenty of transparent, vulnerable honesty (quite usual for Braille) and far from a weakness, the honesty makes the record what it is. Did I mention this album is FREE? Get it here from HumbleBeast Records.

04- Great Awakening – “Songs In Secret”

Ok… so this one falls into the “worship” category, but it’s not in the “normal worship music” category I mentioned above. Great Awakening’s first album (Cities) would have largely fallen into that category. Songs in Secret, much to the contrary, is subtle, paced, quiet, meditative, pleasant, downtempo worship that is full of earnest heart. Which is to say, this album’s excellence lies in the intricacy, in the stillness, in the excecution of well-timed silence and the strange first track “Explore” which fools you into thinking that you’re about to hear an uptempo indie rock worship album. Which you aren’t. Get this album FREE from Come&Live! Records here.

03- Sovereign Grace Music – “Risen”

I’ve never kept it secret (in person, at least) that I’m a huge fan of Sovereign Grace Music. Now, in part at least, this is because most of their songs are in keys I can sing along with (unlike Chris Tomlin, for example). I like to sing, so selfishly that makes sense, right? Anyways, Risen is their 2011 album centered around the Resurrection of Christ. Fittingly, it came out just before Easter, but don’t be surprised if a grip of these songs are just starting to hit the air more visibly as we head into Easter this year (2012). Fantastic writing, theological depth, thrilling harmonies, and a load of modern hymns / spiritual songs to lend your vocal chords to. Trust me, your vocal chords are stoked to sing along.

02- Shai Linne – “The Attributes of God”

Honestly, if there could be two #1’s, this would be #1. Choosing between these two albums left me conflicted. Let’s get to the basics, shall we? Shai Linne has released the best hip hop album of 2011. The Attributes of God is not only a 15-track sendup to the character and nature of Almighty God, he’s done it with class, substance, and serious music to match. When I say “serious,” I mean these beats have my head bouncing even when I don’t have the record on. Highlights on the record are “The Glory of God (Not To Us)”, “Taste and See”, and “Mercy and Grace”, but you won’t find a dud on this one. Non-stop glory to God, non-stop beat rock.

01- Thrice – “Major/Minor”

This shouldn’t be any surprise. I love Thrice and I’m not sure if they’re capable of anything below excellence at this point. I’ll admit that I’m probably biased and blind to it, but everything Dustin Kensrue and company touch turns to ear-gold to me. Personal favourites are “Words in the Water”, “Treading Paper”, “Promises” and “Anthology”… but I could listen to the thing on repeat all day and not get tired. The lyrics, as usual, are solid “good plutonium” for your eardrums – packed with biblical allusions and weight that is difficult to describe. To say that Dustin is one of the best lyricists in music today is an understatement. To say that Thrice is one of the best rock bands in music today is, also and likewise, an understatement. Miss this one at your own expense.

Honourable Mentions:
Lecrae – “Rehab: The Overdose”
Playdough & Heath McNease – “Wed, White and Wu”
Hillsong Live – “God Is Able”
Hillsong United – “Aftermath”
Blindside – “With Shivering Hearts We Wait”
August Burns Red – “Leveler”

Top Albums 2010

Truth be told, I spent a lot more time this year listening to albums from years gone by – albums either missed entirely until now, or rediscovered like an old friend. That being said, 2010 was not without its bright spots in audio sensory stimulation. The following is, in a particular and descending order, what I consider to be the best of the best of albums released in the year of our Lord, Two-thousand-and-ten aka TwentyTen aka two-zero-one-zero. We’ll start with the tenth-finest and work our way to the finest finest. I will include cover art (so you know what the branding looked like) and a youtube video – either of a music video from the album or, if that’s not possible, just one of the great tracks from it.

10. Hillsong Chapel – “Yahweh”
Yahweh
For those who tire quickly of the compositional, instrumental, and arrangement predictability of Hillsong releases, this album is a breath of fresh air. I’ve never made it much of a secret that I’m only lukewarm to Hillsong as a whole. I only find myself really drawn to perhaps half their songs lyrically. That said, they’ve collected essentially all of my favourite Hillsongs-songs here, and better yet, they have ventured into the hitherto-unforeseen geography of acoustic arrangements. Having shed their electric guitars and cacophony of harmless electronic foolery (for the most part), what emerges is a collection of songs far more listenable than anything they’ve released to date. Better yet, these songs are actually accessible for use by 99% of their audience – namely, churches that aren’t 500+ deep with multiple worship teams equipped with state-of-the-art everything. In short, they’ve done something for normal churches here, and that’s to be commended. Quite possibly the best thing they’ve released.

09. Derek Webb – “Feedback”
Feedback
Leave it to Dwebb to turn another weird corner and do something unexpected. I had a few hair-brained ideas about what he’d follow up Stockholm Syndrome with, but an instrumental/experimental “worship” album wasn’t what I had in mind. Needless to say, I was surprised and glad to lay my ears on Feedback. It’s got that good juxtaposition of elements that is absolutely necessary to make instrumental music compelling (without the character and meat of vocals and words, the beautiful collision of elements often falls to the wayside). Webb pulled it off nicely, though, I’d say. Hoping he gets back to singing soon though, we need his gravelly tones and hard words in music these days something fierce.

08. Lecrae – “Rehab”
Rehab
Rehab is a bit of an enigma to me. We’ve played it to death around the Bolton household for its earhole-friendly infusion of R&B choruses and its considerable number of “non-hip-hop-head-friendly” subdued and contemplative tracks. It’s the first rap album that my wife has ever professed to enjoy (and that is significant to me). Perhaps that’s the best way to explain things – Rehab is absolutely fantastic instrumentally and in terms of vocal arrangements. The choruses are “stick in your head” and “sing/hum/harmonize along” style, and the beats are top notch. The real letdown (if there is one) is simply that Lecrae & Co. don’t come across half as passionately this time around. The lyrics are alright, but the Reach Records guys are more than capable of way beyond alright. Rehab is missing the hunger we heard on earlier releases, even Rebel (think “Desperate” as a prime example of hunger on that album). So it’s really a mixed bag. This could have been #1 for 2010 with ease, but it’s a rap record and the raps are only alright. Choruses and dope beats do not a classic make, there’s gotta be some lyrical skeletons to hang that meat on, if that makes sense. Here’s hoping that “Rehab: The Overdose” (due early 2011) shows some of the passion that was absent here.

07. PND (Poems & Dust) – “Dirty Words”
Dirty Words
This is the record most of you will have never heard of. You’re probably all “Poems who?” and “Dust who?”. Poems aka Sareem Poems aka the artist formerly known as Sharlok Poems of LA Symphony is, well, all of the above. Dust aka DJ Dust is half of the rap euphoria two-man supercrew known as Mars ILL. When their powers combine, I am… err… they make great music. Dirty Words is a great example of how to throwback to “old school” hip hop without coming off corny and wannabe. It’s chill and sublime and has delicious samples and is many, many kinds of good. I’m not really sure what else to say except that more people need to pay attention to these guys. This thing is clean sounding (if that makes sense), gritty in a good way, and is probably this year’s standout example of a “sit back and chill” album. Great guest spots too.

06. The Chariot – “Long Live”
Long Live
I’m getting old. The amount of time I have left in life where I’ll be able to rock out to the “Cha Cha” is drawing to a close, I fear. In all of time, no band has more encapsulated pure, unadulterated energy and adrenaline-charged furor than this band has. Long Live, their first album post-SolidStateRecords, is a continuation on The Chariot’s previously well-established themes: Play guitars until they fall apart, scream at the mic until it overloads, record everything live in a single take for maximum organic-ness and unbridled joy, and do it all fueled by barbecued meat. Their live show is a spectacle of hyperactive creativity being expressed in furious, joyous tones and inhuman quantities of action… and Long Live captures just enough of that avant-garde-blow-your-face-off to be possibly their best since their lengthily titled debut, “Everything is alive, everything is breathing, nothing is dead, and nothing is bleeding”.

05. Living Sacrifice – “The Infinite Order”
The Infinite Order
One of the most musically noteworthy happenings of 2010 was the return of the mighty, mighty, mighty Living Sacrifice. Known for ushering in a new epoch in metalcore, LS hung up their guitars in 2002 after releasing a payload of high quality metal/metalcore. They returned this year with “The Infinite Order”, and metal is better for it. If you enjoy being yelled at by your music, as I do, it’s difficult to find a better tenant for your iPod than Living Sacrifice.

04. Shad – “TSOL”
TSOL
Shad’s a Canadian boy, so he gets bonus points for reinforcing the fact that “hip hop isn’t dead, it’s up north with me” (to quote a recent Canadian radio anthem). Better yet, he’s a wordsmith in the truest sense of the word, fond of utilizing homophones and multi-syllabic rhyme schemes. The beats are alright, the chorus are alright, but it’s really Shad’s flow that shines on this record. It’s essentially the reverse of Rehab (which shone in the other areas and fell flatter vocally), and since the common music between the two is the rap music, that should explain TSOL’s superior position on the list. Rap is always going to be ultimately about the emcee, not his supporting context.

03. Underoath – “Ø (Disambiguation)”
Ø (Disambiguation)
Not Underoath’s best (that still goes to 2008’s “Lost in the Sound of Separation”), but Underoath is the kind of band where, even when it’s not their best record, it’s still one of the best records of the year. Disambiguation is noteworthy because it marks the departure of the final founding member of the band, drummer and clean vocalist Aaron Gillespie, who has moved on to pursue his band The Almost full-time (in addition to some other opportunities). I had my share of concerns that this would not bode well for the band, but U/O pulled it off with this disc. Disambiguation is their usual combination of raging introspection, hummable/memory-worthy melody lines, and discord-driven unpredictability. Oh, and the breakdowns are, as always seems to be the case, wondrous for your ears.

02. Trip Lee – “Between Two Worlds”
Between Two Worlds
Since we’ve already talked about Rehab, it should come as no surprise that the year’s best rap album is Trip Lee’s release “Between Two Worlds”. The beats fly, the guests hit their marks, and Trip takes us on an articulate, theologically-rich lyrical journey with his smooth southern drawl. Reach Records has a roster chock-full of incredible talent with all cylinders firing for the Gospel, and for that I rejoice. Between Two Worlds is ultimately a record about Jesus Christ and his “invasion” mission to rescue humanity. It’s also ultimately an amazing sophomore outing for this relatively-unknown emcee.

01. Ascend the Hill – “Hymns: Take The World, But Give Me Jesus”
Hymns
What to say? I grew up on hymns, and although I never had much affection for what accompanied them musically (organ and piano aka the “wooden brothers”), I always appreciated the theological depth and provocativeness they contain. So, it should be no surprise that when everyone’s favourite indie-worship-band Ascend the Hill put out a Hymns record, it was the best thing to come gurgling out of the year 2010. Which is to say, if Ascend the Hill isn’t your favourite band that writes original worship songs and plays them in an indie-ish vein, they should be. These guys load up on the quality level, as well as a transparent reverence, and a musical accessibility that is a really hard mark to hit. Their self-titled debut was quite good, with its main weakness being how repetitive some of the songs were. Since this album consists of Hymns with pre-defined lyrical content, it meant that the repetition was avoided wholesale. This is a great thing, and it makes the record shine all the more. Ascend the Hill gives these old standards fan-tas-tic new arrangements that are engaging and yet they don’t seem to get in the way of, well, worship taking place. It’s rather uncanny. The addition of choruses and bridges to some of the Hymns is both appropriate and well-executed. So, having said all of that, I should point out one more thing. Ascend the Hill releases all of their music for FREE (the real free) through their record label Come & Live! Records. So, you can acquire my most-favouritest-album-of-2010 free of both charge and guilt. All you have to do is click here and do what comes naturally.

That’s it for 2010. Hope the year was as engaging for your eardrums as it was for mine. God is a giver of good gifts, and music is one of them. I’m thankful more than ever for artists who create things for me to listen to, be stretched by, thank God for, and best of all, worship Jesus Christ to.

The Renaissance of Holy Hip Hop

Currently listening to: “It Is Not Death To Die” by Sovereign Grace Music
Total disconnect from the content of the post you’re about to read, but SGM makes some amazing worship music (better yet, they write thick, deeply theological lyrics for that music). Definitely a go-to group of musicians in the Bolton residence.

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m white. I’m middle class. Suburban. Only gun I’ve ever shot was my dad’s hunting rifle at target practice out in the woods at grandma’s. I draw graffiti on paper, not illegally on walls. I’m anything but “rough rugged”. Certainly not a “Playa” of any significant Game. I have soft spots in my heart for indie rock and uptempo metal (not that I should call any metal “uptempo”, doing that’s not very metal of me). Oh, and for folk, electronic, and (recently) jazz.

Apparently, that makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. And I do. Boy do I love me some deep bass, a sharp snare, and clever instrumentation all slathered together into tasty beats. I have no affection for a lot of the ‘culture’ that usually gets packaged with it (after all, hip hop is not on the radio) – the bling and sexploitation and violence and whatnot. But I have a great deal of affection for the sounds of hip hop.

Let’s make matters worse: I’m an English and Philosophy major with a background in Biblical Studies. I LOVE words. My brain plays with words. Sentences are like playgrounds to me – places to frolic and laugh exuberantly and enjoy life. I’ve always been enamored with communication and the means by which we accomplish it. Most of all, I’m dumbfounded by how God has chosen to communicate Himself to me (and the rest of you humans) through words – recorded in text, preserved through aeons of history, study-able, deep deep depths of words. As I’ve been reminded much lately – God wrote a book. It is written – “it” being the communication of God to man, the holy Scriptures. Inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, complete… profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, exhortation… all of it communication from God, put in human words for humans to read, know, and understand. We serve a God who communicated his Word with perfection – we should strive for excellence in our communication. It should be our goal to grow in clarity, conciseness, robustness, ‘copiousness’ (depth and breadth), and total self-control.

A love for words makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. See, rap is the music of words in a way unparalleled by other forms. Hip hop is the modern theater for poetry – it really is. I don’t read modern poets, I listen to them “spit rhymes” (read: recite) over beats. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy such (otherwise neglected) vocal magicks as cadence, flow, rhythm, meter – all the hallmarks of performed poetry. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy sonnets and rhyme schemes and rhyme forms of all kinds – polysyllabic, internal, complex, couplets – the list goes on. In terms of structure alone, rap is responsible for so much remarkable innovation in poetry. Besting that, hip hop provides the ideal theatre to showcase thoughts and treatises on subjects far more detailed and technical than most other forms of music. Long words aren’t frowned upon, but indeed are often celebrated (this is significant when we consider the potential for proper theological, philosophical, scientific, or linguistic use).

I love hip hop. Particularly, I am drawn to hip hop that honours and glorifies Christ Jesus the King of Kings. I was first introduced to what is sometimes called “Holy Hip Hop” back in the late 90’s when my bimonthly copy of now-defunct music mag 7ball arrived in the mail, sporting its usual compilation CD filled with usually unheard-of artists. Although the mag focused primarily on rock and alternative music, it sometimes ventured into the then-risque territory of hip hop. This particular issue featured a song on the pack-in compilation called “Cypha The Next Day” by The Cross Movement. I was hooked – great old-school beat, clever and talented emcees busting out wonderful God-honouring rhymes, and to top it off, theological depth. This wasn’t some campfire “sing-songs to Jesus” deal, this was a bunch of Pastor-Rappers roughing me up with biblical insight and not only dropping poetry, but sermonettes, expositions, and commentaries on biblical passages in their verses. Average people like me started calling it “holy hip-hop” (hereafter “HHH”) and the name stuck.

Here’s something that excites me greatly – there’s been a real renaissance of HHH over the course of the last decade. What began with artists like P.I.D., SFC, and Dynamic Twins in the 80’s and continued in the 90s with artists like The Cross Movement, Urban D, and Corey Red & Precise… has experienced a renewed fervency and urgency in the last five years in particular. Artists like Lecrae, Trip Lee, 116 Clique, Shai Linne, Sho Baraka, Flame, and Tedashii (not to mention solo efforts by Cross Movement members Ambassador, Phanatik, and Tonic) are quite literally tearing things up. The beats are amazing, the rhymes are full of bounty, and the biblio-theological depth, missional focus, and Christocentric emphasis is both refreshing and disarmingly confrontative.

So, this post (which has been on the backburner for two months) is just a simple expression of my thankfulness for how God is using men (and women) that he has greatly gifted in wordplay and music to glorify Himself through hip hop; to glorify Himself through the proclamation of his word and his Gospel through skillfully crafted poetry put to the kick and the snare.

Thank you, Lord:

  • for the gift of living at such a time as this
  • for the gift of ears to hear the kick, the snare, and the wordsmithery
  • for the gift of a mind to follow and comprehend what’s being said
  • for the gift of faith to believe in the biblical truths being expressed through your servants
  • for the gift of hip hop music, the gift of rap

James 1:16-17 ESV
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

I’ll close with a personal favourite. There’s this one guy named Shai Linne, and you won’t have to watch for long to see that God has given him a remarkable gift for compacting complex biblical truth into memorable, remarkable, mind-blowing rhyme schemes.

Check it.

Shai Linne with The Greatest Story Ever Told (live) from Grace EV Free on Vimeo.

Top Albums 2009

Without much ado, here are my best beloved musical albums of the year 2009. In descending order, building up to an apex of musical happiness.

In Shallow Seas We Sail
10. Emery – “In Shallow Seas We Sail”
Although this record doesn’t really jump forward on Emery’s generally uncomplicated lyrical themes, it is a wonderful example of a band returning to their roots while incorporating everything they’ve learned in the meantime. Even though this won’t win awards, it’s a gutsy rocker with just the right amount of tenderness to make it all come together. Definitely a great record to throw on.

Hope Rising
9. Fee – “Hope Rising”
I first heard of Fee this past spring after we began singing one of their (then unreleased) songs “Glory to God Forever” at Harvest York Region. By the time “Hope Rising” came out in the fall, I was stoked to hear it. The more I listened to it, the more stoked I became. My only critique is that it comes off a little overdone (particularly the production), but otherwise this is an anthemic, thoughtful, and lyrically excellent collection of original worship songs. As a plus, they work great when sung by a big crowd of people.

III
8. Maylene & the Sons of Disaster – “III”
Maylene is just all kinds of fun. Take former Underoath vocalist Dallas Taylor, mix his insane gutteral vocals with a whole truckload of southern twang and smash-you-in-the-eye guitars, and you have Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. This year’s “III” continues their pattern of putting out stuff that just ‘southern rocks your world’.

Identity Crisis
7. Tedashii – “Identity Crisis”
With the Cross Movement focusing on solo projects primarily now, it’s been interesting to see successors to the Holy Hip Hop legacy rise up in their wake. Other than those on their own Cross Movement Records, cats like Lecrae, Shai Lynne, and Tedashii have really impressed me with deep, theologically informed yet immediately accessible lyrics. “Identity Crisis” isn’t the best example of this new wave of HHH (that goes to Lecrae’s 2008 disc “Rebel”), but it’s this year’s finest.

Picket Fence Cartel
6. Project 86 – “Picket Fence Cartel”
Hard to believe this year brought Project 86 all the way to album number seven. “Picket Fence Cartel” wins points for bringing back a lot of the heavy that was missing on 2007’s “Rival Factions”. It also wins points for some great apocalyptic and devotional lyrics. Songs like “The Black Brigade” mean that this one will see repeated plays for quite some time.

Son of the Morning
5. Oh, Sleeper – “Son of the Morning”
Metal record predominantly ‘voiced’ by Satan but made by Christians. Nine tracks on this record are written from the perspective of the Devil himself, with the final track being from that of the risen and living one – Jesus Christ. Conceptually this pushes the envelope (if that idiom even means anything anymore), but trust me when I say that it’s full of Bible and theology, full of great moments, and full of excellence. Closing track “The Finisher” is a blistering, potent reminder of the all-consuming power of the Almighty One.

Vancouver
4. Matthew Good – “Vancouver”
Ah, Matty Good. He’s kinda the odd one out on this list, and not just because he’s Canadian. “Vancouver” does a lot of what 2007’s “Hospital Music” did, only better. The only thing it’s really missing is a blow-your-face-off rocker like “I’m A Window” was for that record.

5print Mixtape
3. Deepspace5 – “5print Mixtape”
What happens when an unknown but skilled producer has a whole whack of beats NOT used for Jay Z’s “The Blueprint 3”? He, Alex Goose, puts it out for free online as “The Blueprint Outtakes”. What happens when rap supercrew Deepspace5 gets ahold of those beats? Magic. This mixtape is freely available at Deepspace5 dot Com.

Church Music
2. David Crowder Band – “Church Music”
After the letdown that was 2007’s “Remedy”, it was great to hear the return of the sprawling, almost experimental David Crowder Band ala 2005’s “A Collision”. Unlike that watershed record, though, there’s no bluegrass or Americana to be found on “Church Music”, just delicious electronics, top-of-your-lungs stuck-in-your-head choruses and a whole lot of heart and soul.

Beggars
1. Thrice – “Beggars”
It’s no secret that I’m an avid, blathering, emphatic fan of Dustin Kensrue and his band Thrice. Between Dustin’s biblically-conscious, thoughtful, high-grade, genuinely epic lyrics and the band’s brand of toe-tapping groove-infested rock… it’s all win. “Beggars” is my Album of the Year with a vengeance. It’s also, in this fan’s opinion, Thrice’s best offering yet.

…i stole my confessions from a kleptomaniac



Title: Confessions
Artist: Pillar
Label: Sony BMG Home Entertainment & Essential Records
Length: 11 Tracks / 37:59
For More Info: http://www.pillartour.com | http://providentpress.com/

It’s just been a year since Pillar’s last release, 2008’s For The Love Of The Game. Not much has changed in a year – Pillar is still cranking out generic, derivative rock music. Pillar, as always, remains a competent band with decent money behind them and a reasonably-sized primarily-Christian fanbase.

That’s about all the good I can say here. I get the impression they’ve been really trying hard to do something interesting and different since rapcore died, but this album is a train wreck… and the Confessions should be about how many “hard” rock, grunge, and rock-and-roll bands they ripped off trying to make things sound different. Apparently, they were going for a reinvention of their approach to “songwriting and studio production as well as half [their] line-up”. This means, among other things Confessions sports “guest songwriters” (five of them – all from outside the band), a producer other than Travis Wyrick (a first), and most distinctly a grip of songs that is anything other than the “rich, melodic, transparent, and hard-hitting … with weighty appeal” claimed in the press release.

Confessions starts out with an “Intro” that’s basically 10 seconds of ramping-up guitars that segue into the lead track “Fire On The Inside”. I’ll warn you straight up, this is one of two songs on the album that actually sound like a Pillar track (the other being the last track on the album “You Are Not The End”). There’s very little rock happening on Confessions – perhaps the album’s title is meant to be a sign… that says in big, capital letters:

WARNING! PILLAR THOUGHT IT WOULD BE REALLY COOL TO MAKE A ‘SOFTER, GENTLER’ ALBUM. PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND EARPLUGS. AND CYNICISM.

The next couple cuts on the record display this perfectly, as well as hinting at a lot of what’s to come on the record: plagiarism.

Earlier I mentioned that Pillar ripped off other bands to make Confessions. What exactly did I mean by that? Well, when you reach track five and it starts up, you’ll be expecting to hear these words:

“Everything’s so blurry, and everyone’s so fake.
Everybody’s empty, and everything is so messed up.”

Why? Because the verses of “Better Off Now” snatch their chord progression, vocal pattern, harmonic picking, and general aesthetics from Puddle Of Mudd’s hit song “Blurry”. That song is almost 10 years old now. Maybe they thought nobody would notice. The only real change from the song they stole is that Pillar wrote a non-grunge chorus for the otherwise lifted music. Which could have been a good thing, except they replace it with their brand of soft rock radio-friendly jello. Not exactly a positive spin.

It’s one thing to borrow a page from great musicians, but Puddle of Mudd was basically a Nirvana cover band in disguise that ended up being essentially a one-hit wonder. Hearing this kind of drivel makes me wish Pillar had just called it quits after Above. Or before that, preferably.

If that weren’t enough, I used to think that Rob Beckley (Pillar’s vocalist) at least had a distinguishable voice – particularly after he gave up the rapping he was never any good at. Confessions does away with that concession, since it finds Beckley pulling a page from the vocal tones and styles of Our Lady Peace’s Raine Maida on various tracks – most distinctly on “Will You Be There”. He also borrows heavily from Thousand Foot Krutch’s Trevor McNevan on “Call To Action” and elsewhere.

The fact that Pillar chose this album to be their first LP with cover songs on it shouldn’t come as any surprise at this point. Late in the album, Pillar turns in an entirely unremarkable cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine” and a cover of a song that hasn’t even been released yet – “Call To Action” by Knoxville band Copper. In both cases, the reproductions are faithful but add absolutely nothing to the songs. In fact, Pillar’s covers are far less interesting, far less detailed, and far less listenable than the originals.

Cover songs aside, the original songs on Confessions are a confused bunch. Pillar’s intent to pull off some kind of softer, gentler side comes off as forced and uninteresting. Every once and awhile they try to bust out some kind of ‘hardcore breakdown’, but it falls flat and empty because it never fits nor does it actually sound heavy when its in the context of an otherwise ‘trying really hard to be both rich AND melodic’ song (see: “Whatever It Takes”).

Lyrically, there’s nothing here you wouldn’t already expect from Pillar – who have never been home to particularly deep, introspective, or… well… confessional lyrics. Their misguided attempt to go against the grain of what they’ve done prior to this comes off as awkward, forced, and derivative as the music and the vocals do.

It’s telling that Pillar made it their goal to make “every song on this album … a great fit for radio”, because – bottom line – if you’ve listened to rock music on the radio during the last two decades, you have heard this album already. I can respect wanting to change and evolve, but in attempting to do so, Pillar has put together a selection of 10 songs that neither cohere nor rock, and the utter lack of originality or innovation conjures up but one utterly horrific comparison: Nickleback.

So, essentially, what you’ll get with Confessions is a couple bad covers, a handful of flagrant unoriginality, and an earfull of sounds you’ve already heard elsewhere. If you’re a Pillar fan, stick to their old stuff. If you’re not a Pillar fan, stay away from this one just like you’d stay away from Frankenstein’s ravenous monster.

Zero Klepto’s out of Five.

Standout Tracks: None of them. Sorry.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
September 28th, 2009

…man, machine, and progressive christian death metal worship


Title: Dichotomy
Artist: Becoming The Archetype
Label: Solid State
Length: 10 Tracks / 43:22
For More Info: http://www.becomingthearchetype.com | http://www.solidstaterecords.com

If you’re as old as me, you remember third wave ska. In Christian circles, that meant Five Iron Frenzy, The OC Supertones, and The Insyderz – the band that turned out some (admittedly decent) ska worship records, appropriately entitled Skaleluia!. On one of those records, at the beginning of a decidedly non-metal song, one of the band members introduces the track by saying “Christian Metal never dies, baby!”. I remember when that record came out, and I remember my friends repeating that quote ad-nauseum (of course, when I was a teenager, it was cool to “be metal” – whether you actually were or not). Either way, I appreciated the sentiments – Christian metal really never does die. Thus, although the source is suspect, the addage rings true.

Becoming the Archetype (hereafter BtA) burst onto the metal scene in 2005’s Terminate Damnation. At the time, the record was quite a departure for label home Solid State, who hadn’t had an honest-to-goodness metal band on their roster since the legendary Living Sacrifice folded a year or two prior. Full of great riffs, solos, and varied and complex orchestration, Terminate Damnation was a bright spot the year of its release. The band followed up with The Physics of Fire in 2007 and it was largely more of the same – lots of metal riffage, lots of great solos, a great mix of pacing, and more of the interesting orchestral accompaniment. Throughout both records, BtA explored traditional metal, progressive metal, death metal, doom, metalcore and other various styles within that spectrum.

This past year, 2008, brought BtA’s third and most recent outing – a collection of ten songs by the name of Dichotomy. Borrowing some of its lyrical themes from the science fiction “Space Trilogy” of C.S. Lewis, the titular ‘dichotomy’ lies between biology and technology – man and machine. Fairly typical sci-fi fare, but rather atypical for metal fare. Of course, seeing as this isn’t a concept record, and seeing as this is Becoming the Archetype, there is also a good smattering of biblically inspired lyrics to round out the content. Demon Hunter’s Ryan Clark comes through with some great guest vocals (clean and scream) on a handfull of tracks. Topics covered range from considering the superiority of the things God has created relative to the things man has made (“Artificial Immortality”) to a retelling of one of the Bible’s most damning passages (Romans 1 – on “Dichotomy”) to an imaginative and powerful account of seeing Christ’s empty tomb (“Self Existent”). The best song on the record, though, undoubtedly goes to the one track that BtA didn’t write – namely, their dominating and intense take on the classic hymn “How Great Thou Art”.

Becoming the Archetype follows in the lyrical footsteps of some of the great “Spirit-Filled Hardcore” of the 90’s – bands like Focused and Unashamed… and rides the musical wave that started with Living Sacrifice’s legendary album Reborn. In 2008, the result is bone-crunching progressive death metal (real metal, not a hybrid) with unabashed Christian lyrics whose primary source is Scripture, whose primary tone is worship, and whose voice is unapologetic, direct, and bold. Highly recommended, high-quality metal. The music is great, the vocals are great, the production is great, and the solos (yes, the solos) are great. This is this band’s best album to date. All of that being said, the thing which most impressed itself upon this reviewer is that Becoming the Archetype has finally arrived at a place where they write really catchy songs – the kind that get stuck in your head. The technical proficiency and musicianship has always been there, but this time around BtA really nailed their sound, their content, and their focus. Dichotomy is amazing. Christian metal never dies, baby.

Curious about the name? The band’s website says this: “According to Genesis 1:26, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image'”. Since Jesus was the only person to ever live a sinless life, He is the ultimate archetype (or original design) of humanity. As a result, the life of a [Christian] is all about being conformed to the image of God or in other words; becoming the archetype.”

I wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone who loves metal and is becoming like our archetype, Jesus.

Four Classic Hymns out of Five.

Standout Tracks: How Great Thou Art, End of the Age, Ransom, Self Existent.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
September 22nd, 2009

…sailing shallow


Title: In Shallow Seas We Sail
Artist: Emery
Label: Tooth & Nail
Length: 13 Tracks / 41:10
For More Info: http://www.emerymusic.com | http://www.toothandnail.com

I’m going to come right out with it: this is Emery’s finest album, and it all started in 2004.

The year 2004 was the year most people were introduced to a fledgeling genre we now remember as “Screamo”. Screamo blends the screamed vocals and technical guitars of post-hardcore with the pop sensibilities and pretty singing of mid-nineties Emo. It quickly fell out of fashion because of a litany of talentless copycats and extreme overcommercialization, much like Rapcore did in the late 90’s.

Emery’s 2004 debut, The Weak’s End, garnered quite reserved reactions. At first glance, they seemed to be another Screamo band sporting dual vocalists. I think this rubbed a lot of critics and listeners the wrong way because it seemed like a cash-in on the popularity of other acts of the time – after all, 2004 was the year of Underoath’s They’re Only Chasing Safety, as well as Dead Poetic’s New Medicines, and ultimately it was the year Linkin Park’s Meteora solid a gajillion copies.

The Weak’s End was a decent debut – nothing spectacular, but since Screamo was the flavor of the year it sold quite well. The melodies were pretty good, the screamed vocals were satisfying, and the heart-on-sleeve, honest lyrics resonated with many. The record was ultimately driven forward on the strength of its most visible track. That track is “The Ponytail Parades”, and it represented Emery at their best – soaring harmonies and impassioned, agonizing screams told the story of a broken heart in a way that continues to resonate with fans to this day. Emery has since released the song in both acoustic and live versions on subsequent albums.

Just as violently as the Screamo tides came in, so they left not too shortly after. Pioneers in the genre such as Underoath quickly abandoned it, largely citing what it had come to represent – a stale, pigeonholed genre that held little long-term interest.

Emery was right alongside such bands in leaving Screamo behind, and they did it quite quickly. Their sophomore 2005 effort The Question focused much more on sonics, melody, and songwriting… and left behind almost all of the screaming. Their third release, 2007’s I’m Only A Man entered more experimental territory, adding in electronics and dancehall beats (among other things).

Then came 2008’s While Broken Hearts Prevail EP… which, if you heard it, you heard a significant shift in their sound back toward where they began.

What makes In Shallow Seas We Sail the finest record that this band has put out is the very thing that they’ve been largely avoiding for all these years since The Weak’s End – that being the proverbial “Heavy”. This is a record that starts with a rather delicious, throaty yell. The opening 30 seconds of “Cutthroat Collapse” set the stage well – covering more than a few screaming styles, and hailing in the return of a more confident, more mature Emery.

One of the things that’s allowed Emery to survive and thrive in the years since 2004 is that they have had at their disposal two extremely talented vocalists – both of whom are excellent singers and screamers. This has allowed them a great deal of flexibility and freedom both to experiment and to push themselves in ways inaccessable to most. Throughout In Shallow Seas We Sail, Both vocalists are at the peak of their craft, trading harmonies and conjuring some impressive back-and-forth intertwining lyrics and styles all throughout. In addition, the band’s rediscovery of heavy musical intensity rises up to match their ever-present lyrical boldness and heightened emotional appeals. The combination of these factors, which is ultimately a culmination of the lessons and progress recorded on all of their previous albums, results in an extremely impressive, challenging, and enjoyable collection of songs.

I believe that they have finally laid to rest “The Ponytail Parades” as their magnum opus. From its subject matter to its hooks to urgent crescendo, “Inside Our Skin”, is proof positive that Emery is presently in the best place they have ever been. When the song’s climax hits, and you hear the appeal “WISDOM LIGHT MY WAY INTO THE DARK / WE CAN’T MAKE A CHANGE ‘TIL WE KNOW WHO WE ARE”, these conclusions are utterly inescapable. A close runner-up is also on this record – the incredible “Dear Death”, which is split into two parts, the first quiet and sombre, the second pulsating, energetic, and impassioned.

If there’s one downside to this outing, it’s that Emery’s lyrics often don’t stray from the mold they set five years ago. Much of the album’s textual content is spent on relationships, and without much in the way of insight… instead focusing largely on venting emotions and feelings that most (myself included) would associate with high-school drama. Frankly, Emery’s most impacful songs are the ones where they deviate from that path – and although this record has a decent number, it would have been nice to see a wholesale shift in emphasis.

Ultimately, Emery builds on years of experience and their handful of previous releases and delivers to us their finest work to date. If it is truly In Shallow Seas We Sail, the seas are calm, the water is perfect, and the music is just right.

Four and a Half Sailboats out of Five.

Standout Tracks: Inside Our Skin; The Smile, The Face; In Shallow Seas We Sail; Churches And Serial Killers; Dear Death (Parts 1 & 2).

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
September 10th, 2009

…too good not to share

Current Tunage: Thrice – Beggars
Album of the year.

It’s been forever. I’m (kind of) sorry. There’s much to report on, but that will be another post.

For now, here’s what’s on my mind:

“THE WEIGHT” by THRICE from their new album BEGGARS

There’s many who’ll tell you they’ll give you their love,
But when they say “give” they mean “take.”
They’ll hang ‘round just like vultures till push comes to shove.
They’ll take flight when the earth starts to shake.

Someone may say that they’ll always be true,
Then slip out the door ‘fore the dawn.
But I won’t leave you hanging on.
Another may stay till they find someone new,
Then before you know they’ll be gone.
But I won’t leave you hanging on;
No, I won’t be that someone.

And come what may, I won’t abandon you or leave you behind
Because love is a loyalty sworn, not a burning for a moment.
And come what may, I will be standing right here by your side;
I won’t run away, though the storm’s getting worse and there’s no end in sight.

Some talk of destiny, others of fate,
But soon they’ll be saying goodbye.
But I won’t leave you high and dry.
Because a ring don’t mean nothing
If you can’t haul the weight,
And some of them won’t even try,
But I won’t leave you high and dry;
I won’t leave you wondering why.

And storms will surely come,
But true love is a choice you must make
And you’re the one that I have set my heart to choose.
As long as I live, I swear I’ll see this through.

…the king of pop and the king of glory

Current Tunage: Maylene And The Sons Of Disaster – Waiting On My Deathbed
Maylene’s new record, “III”, is stellar southern hardcore. Nobody does it better.

Yesterday, Michael Jackson died. I’ll be truthful – most of my exposure to him was through Weird Al (“eat it”) and Disney stuff when I was a kid. Never much cared for pop music, nor its “king”. Although I can certainly respect his impact on music, my sadness at his passing is not one of regret and admiration, but of pity. He was a man destroyed by the sins of his father, the trap of his money, and the war of self-loathing and self-idolatry that so clearly marked his life. Although I hope he met Jesus in a real way before his death, there’s nothing to suggest that happened.

Needless to say, his death has gotten me thinking, and I had some thoughts I was going to share… but in his usual fashion, Tim Challies said my thoughts for me in his own way. You can read them here.

…from nine to nineteen


Title: Cloud Nineteen
Artist: Braille & Symbolyc One
Label: Hiphop is Music
Length: 16 Tracks / 55:35
For More Info: http://www.braillehiphop.com | http://www.hiphopismusic.com

Fresh off his fourth LP, 2008’s The IV Edition, Braille has teamed up with S1 aka Symbolyc One to deliver this new project entitled Cloud Nineteen. The most immediate benefit of teaming up with a single producer like this is that it results in a cohesion and togetherness of the record’s sound that was lacking on The IV as well as 2006’s Box of Rhymes.

In the role of beatmaker and production heavyweight, S1 brings his A game. Cloud Nineteen boasts some of the best and most enjoyable beats on any of Braille’s releases, at times rivalling 2004’s Shades of Grey, widely considered to be Braille’s finest album. Actually, it’s fair to say that every release since Shades has been held up against it – and in this regard I don’t feel that Nineteen takes the title as “best Braille”. With that said, Cloud Nineteen maintains the high levels set by Braille’s other post-Shades releases – no small feat. In short, the music here is fresh and enjoyable – with songs like “Megaphone Phonics” and “That’s My Word” standing out as highlights.

What is there to say about Braille’s rhymes that hasn’t already been said before? As always, he brings honesty, true-to-life experience, and an increasing breadth of wisdom to every track. For quite some time, Braille’s vision for Cloud Nineteen has been to give away freely to folks in schools, correctional facilities, and community centers. This vision seems to have informed the content and the topics of the record, which revolve around the idea that if ‘Cloud Nine’ is the best this world has to offer, then Christ offers us something much greater… Cloud Nineteen, so to speak. Throughout the album’s 14 non-interlude tracks, Braille shares from his life and learnings to encourage and challenge his listeners. A great example of this is “Found Her”, which shares his own fledgeling mistakes with women and eventual success in meeting and marrying his wife. It’s also a great follow-up to the only track on The IV Editon produced by S1, “Blessed Man”. Another highlight for me personally was one of the albums most polarizing tracks, the atmospherically dark and brooding “Heart of God”, wherein Braille asks:

How many times have I failed to represent the heart of God with my filthy rag righteousness
It’s painful to admit my lack of discipline when I commit sins, it’s shameful, I can’t live like this

…and later…

How can I dumb down the heart of God?
He sent his Son to come down and die for me.
I was in dire need.

…and finally…

All I really want is the heart of God
But I don’t live my life like I really mean the words that I say,
I want the heart of God to speak through my lyrics,
Why should you listen to me, when I don’t listen to the Holy Spirit?

To me, this track was the album’s highest highlight – brutal honesty from Braille about his own weakness and inability to do anything truly valuable apart from what God does through transforming his heart to be more like Christ.

Between S1’s consistent and engaging production and Braille’s consistent and precise vision for Cloud Nineteen, this is one of 2009’s best hip-hop records and will retain that status despite being released early in the year. Once again, I find myself impressed by and thankful for Braille and his desire to be a voice for hope and our need for the redemption and heart-level transformation that can only come through Christ. His vision to share this record freely with kids in group homes and cons in prison is to be applauded, and much more than that, it’s something to support. Here we have a guy who, rather than trying to cash in on his abilities, feels called to share his life, his talent, and his Saviour with the broken and outcast. That’s something worth getting behind. Getting behind it requires that you pick up a copy of this great album to enjoy, and that goes way beyond ‘cloud 9’ status and on to Cloud Nineteen. I’ll see you there.

Four clouds out of five.

Standout Tracks: It’s Nineteen, Broken Heart, That’s My Word, Heart of God, Megaphone Phonics, Hardrock.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
June 13th, 2009