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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Top Ten Christian Rock Albums of 2015

10.  Diamonds – Hawk Nelson
Rating – 3 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – Drops in the Ocean, Count On You, Only You

According to bassist, Daniel Biro, Hawk Nelson’s latest release was created to inspire and spread joy.  “With Diamonds, we decided to just thank God for something. If we start by encouraging others to be grateful for what we do have in life, it’s a gateway to joy for everyone.”  With an emergence in radio play over the last few years, it’s no surprise that Hawk Nelson intentionally recorded numerous upbeat, positive, and joyful singles.  “Drops in the Ocean” reminds the listener of the depth and breadth of Christ’s love, “Thank God for Something” recognizes our daily blessings, while the title track focuses on God’s continued work in our lives.  Being a band for over a decade, Diamonds won’t go down as the best album of their career.  But, it’s another solid and enjoyable release from these pop veterans.  Hawk Nelson has definitely fulfilled their goal of spreading joy.

9.  One Love Revolution – Pillar
Rating – 3 1/2 Stars 
Top Tracks – One Love Revolution, Disconnect, Shooting Star, Unafraid

After successfully completing their Kickstarter campaign, Pillar finally decided to record their first album in six years.  With this latest release, the guys of Pillar stay true to their established style of radio rock mixed with a slight tinge of hip hop.  “One Love Revolution,” “Paratrooper,” and “We Ride,” instantly take the listener back to the glory days of Fireproof and Where Do We Go From Here.  Pillar also includes numerous radio ballads, reminiscent of their previous hits, “Rewind” and “Smiling Down.”  From start to finish, One Love Revolution serves as a 40 minute ride of Christian rock nostalgia.  

8.  Surrender – Kutless 
Rating – 4 Stars
Top Tracks – Tear It Up, Not Too Far, My Heart is a Ghost

I can still remember listening to and loving many of Kutless’ early singles such as “Run,” “Not What You See,” and “Hearts of the Innocent.”  Since those days, I have been eagerly waiting for the members of Kutless to return to their early rock roots.  Even though Surrender is not nearly as hard as their debut album, it still features all of the makings for a solid radio rock record. “Tear It Up,” is a driving rock anthem that includes some brief screams.  “Not Too Far” features upbeat rhythms and guitar riffs that are similar to Number One Gun.  “My Heart is a Ghost” is by far the strongest and most interesting rock song that they have written since “Let You In.”  Granted, in between these rock hits, the album does slow down quite a bit in the middle.  But, as a longtime fan, it is refreshing to hear Kutless making great rock music once again.

7.  Wake – For Today
Rating – 4 Stars
Top Tracks – Broken Lens, Bitter Roots, Flooded Earth, Time and Tide

The main highlight of Wake comes through the blistering and energetic sound.  In the past, the music of For Today has sometimes seemed like an afterthought, especially with their occasional overuse of breakdowns.  But now, as they have aged and matured, the guys from For Today have not only solidified their brutal metalcore style, but Wake actually proves to be a stretch for the group.  In the writing process, they definitely decided to throw in the kitchen sink on this record.  Wake features everything from death metal screams (“Broken Lens”), to slow building metal ballads (“Bitter Roots”) to even an added emphasis on clean vocals.  Wake serves as another notch in For Today’s already impressive arsenal. 

6.  Come In – Children 18:3
Rating – 4 Stars
Top Tracks – Bethlehem, Because of You, Let There Be Light, Watch Over Me

For longtime fans of Children 18:3, Come In marks the end of an era.  As announced on their official Kickstarter page, this will be their final album.  Because of their upcoming breakup, the Hostetter siblings took some liberties and included a few new elements, alongside their gritty punk rock style.  Come In features everything from their usual high energy rock and roll (“Bethlehem,” “Because of You,” and “Watch Over Me”) to a touch of southern rock (“For This We Ride”) to even their softest song to date (“Long Ride Home”). Even though this album is not perfect and can seem disjointed at times, Come In still serves as a fitting and celebratory end.  As fans, let’s hope that the members of Children 18:3 change their minds and continue making music for years to come.

5.  Metanoia – For All Eternity
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – The Divide, Metanoia, Stitched the Same, White Flame

In the past, I have not been a huge fan of groups signed to Facedown Records, and so I was skeptical of For All Eternity’s debut.  But, as a music reviewer, I wanted to be fair and give their album an even chance.  In listening to this release, I have to say, Metanoia is definitely the surprise of the year.  Granted, the members of For All Eternity do not bring anything new to the table.  Their album is filled with a steady mix of heavy breakdowns, screamed verses, and clean choruses that can be found on almost any metalcore record. However, what sets this album apart is the professional nature of it.  The members of For All Eternity have set the bar high.  The instruments, vocals, and lyrics blend together flawlessly, and they create an enjoyable and moving metal experience.  Metanoia is a must have for 2015. 

4.  Pretty Lies – Veridia
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – Crazy In A Good Way, At the End of the World, Say A Prayer

Within my yearly top ten lists, I usually don’t include EPs.  But, this release was too good to ignore.  Even though all the members of Veridia are talented and tight musicians, Deena Jakoub’s vocal ability is still the strongest part of the band.  Throughout Pretty Lies, Jakoub’s voice is absolutely breathtaking.  From orchestral strings (“Crazy In A Good Way”), to hints of industrial rock (“At the End of the World”) to even a soaring pop ballad (“Say A Prayer”), Jakoub’s voice perfectly balances and complements every new step and musical direction.

3.  Breathe Again – Spoken 
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – Walking in My Dreams, Surrender, All I Wanted, Falling Apart

At least for me, it is hard to believe that Spoken has been pumping out albums for nearly two decades.  In being a band for so long, many would wonder if the guys still had the drive and passion to make great rock music.  After listening to their latest release, the answer is a resounding yes.  Even though it is a little cliché to say, Breathe Again is by far Spoken’s strongest record to date.  Matt Baird’s unique, high pitched vocals have never sounded clearer, and the other members of Spoken masterfully continue their same style of fast paced hard rock.

2.  Inside Out – XXI 
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars  
Top Tracks – Say It Again, Counting Me Out, Wasn’t Enough, Way You Love Me

Coming in at number two is the debut album by XXI (21).  Before being signed to Tooth and Nail records, XXI was a metalcore group known as a Feast for Kings.  When they released a stand-alone single earlier this year, the band still had a few traces of metalcore. But, it was clear that the guys were moving in a new musical direction.  Fast forward a few months later, and the members of XXI have shed their metal past and completely embraced a new side of rock and roll.  The end result is a well-crafted and catchy hard rock record, with some well-placed screams thrown in for good measure. 

1.  Of Beauty and Rage – Red 
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – Darkest Part, Shadow and Soul, Yours Again, Gravity Lies, The Ever

Ever since the release of their debut record, End of Silence, I have been a fan of Red. However, though, their past two albums have been disappointing and, at certain points, lackluster. Because of this, I didn’t have high expectations for Of Beauty and Rage.  I was expecting a few solid tracks, and then an album with 6 or 7 fillers.  But, much to my surprise, I was blown away by this record and was reminded why I loved their early work so much.  “Darkest Part” is easily one of the best songs of the year.  “Gravity Lies” masterfully pairs together catchy hard rock and gut-wrenching screams. “The Ever” is a hook driven anthem (similar to “Start Again” from Innocence and Instinct), while “Shadow and Soul” features five minutes of slow building energy and emotion.  With this latest release, Red has crafted what is arguably the best album of their career.

I hope you have enjoyed this look at my Top Ten Christian Rock Albums of the year. This list would not be complete without honorable mentions. These albums were very solid, but ultimately did not make it into the top ten.

1.  You Were Never Alone – Emery 
2.  Coward – Haste the Day
3.  God is On the Move – 7eventh Time Down
4.  Mobile Orchestra – Owl City
5.  Found In Far Away Places – August Burns Red

Also, here are my Top EPs of the year.

1.  Pretty Lies – Veridia
2.  Redline EP – Seventh Day Slumber 
3.  Vultures – Disciple   
4.  Space EP – Devil Wears Prada
5.  Reprise EP – Wolves at the Gate 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Top Christian Rock Songs of 2015

2015 is almost over and it’s time to look back at another year of great music. This list features my top ten Christian rock songs of 2015.

10.  Drops In the Ocean – Hawk Nelson

Coming in at number ten is “Drops in the Ocean” by Hawk Nelson.  From start to finish, the lyrics beautifully describe the everlasting love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  As Jonathan Steingard sings, “If you want to see how much you mean to me, look at my hands, look at my side.  If you could count the times I'd say you are forgiven, it's more than the drops in the ocean.”


9.  Bethlehem – Children 18:3

Throughout their career, the Hostetter siblings have been known for their hard hitting melodies and fist pumping anthems.  Children 18:3 know how to rock, and “Bethlehem” is no exception.  At least to me, nothing sounds better than Biblical truths mixed with punk rhythms and noisy guitar solos.

8.  Praise Him – Aaron Gillespie

After enjoying a large amount of success with Underoath and The Almost, Aaron Gillespie has been slowly branching out into the area of worship.  Earlier this year, Gillespie released his second solo record, which featured a string of pop worship anthems.  In the album’s first single, Gillepsie encourages his listeners to boldly worship the one, true Lord.

7.  Metanoia – For All Eternity

“Metanoia” includes some of my favorite lyrics of the year.  Proudly declaring the changing power of Christ, Michael Buckley passionately sings, “You should know, hope found its way to me.  You too can be changed forever.”  “Metanoia” is a forceful burst of screamo that brilliantly combines the hope of Scripture with high energy screams.

6.  Falling Apart – Spoken

Featuring aggressive vocals and a mixture of hard rock riffs, “Falling Apart” is another huge single from Spoken.  Like many of their previous hits, this piece of hardcore rock will have you pushing the repeat button over and over again.

5.  The Anticipation – Fearless BND

This past summer, Worth Dying For made a splash in the Christian music scene.  Not only did they officially change their name to Fearless BND, but they also announced the release of brand new music.  Their latest single, “The Anticipation,” is a catchy, loud, and wildly entertaining ride.  Before you know it, you might just find yourself dancing and moving along to the hip hop beats and electronic melodies.

4.  Say It Again – XXI

“Say It Again” requires the listener to turn up the volume and blast the speakers away.  With hard hitting lyrics and some perfectly timed screams, this is another headbanging hit from these young rockers.

3.  Ghosts – August Burns Red

According to guitarist, Brent Rambler, the lyrics for “Ghosts” were inspired by the hardships and difficulties that homeless individuals face every single day.  The official music video serves as a wake-up call for people to look beyond themselves and lovingly support those who are less fortunate.

2.  Darkest Part – Red

Wild and thematically intense, this eight minute video proves that Red is more than just your average hard rock group.  Not only is this the best music video of 2015, but this is also Red’s strongest musical creation to date.

1.  Memories – XXI

Earlier this year, XXI released this single in honor of their previous vocalist, who tragically passed away in 2014.  From the emotional lyrics to the visual story to even the actors that are used, every element of “Memories” functions as a moving tribute to their friend and former bandmate.

I hope you have enjoyed this look at my top 10 songs of 2015.  As with every list, this blog post would not be complete without my honorable mentions.  All of these songs are very solid, and would easily serve as worthy additions to any Christian rock playlist.

Say A Prayer – Veridia
Bring It On – Seventh Day Slumber
Time and Tide – For Today
God is On the Move – 7eventh Time Down
Tear It Up – Kutless
Wake Up – NF
Take – Haste the Day
Snooze – Disciple
Disconnect – Pillar
Supernova – The Devil Wears Prada

Saturday, May 9, 2015

No New Kinda Story Review

For over twenty years, Tooth and Nail Records has been a staple in the Christian rock scene.  To date, the label and its subsidiaries have signed over 275 artists, released over 600 albums, and sold over 20 million records.  But, long before all of this massive success, Tooth and Nail experienced a humble and rocky beginning.  The documentary, No New Kinda Story, skillfully portrays the meteroric rise, the controversies, and the joyous moments during the birth of this indie label.

The film opens with the childhood of President and Label Founder, Brandon Ebel.  He personally shares about fights at school, relationships with his family, college dreams, and even his learning disabilities.  This short, opening glimpse into the mind of Ebel serves to be a great starting point for the musical genius that is to come.

When Ebel finally decides to follow his dream of starting his own record company, everyone initially thinks he is crazy.  A bank manager even laughs at him.  In the end, the only person that believes in Ebel is his grandfather, who actually fronts him $60,000.  The early minutes of the film powerfully illustrate the relationship between Ebel and his grandfather.  The love, emotions, and tears can certainly be felt by the viewer and fan.

After this brief introduction into Ebel’s life, the rest of the documentary solely focuses on the early releases of the label.  Fans of 90s Christian rock can easily remember the greatness of Tooth and Nail’s earliest acts.  From the hard hitting Wish for Eden debut to the monster hits of MXPX, Tooth and Nail was very selective but wise in signing these talented groups.  Even greater, No New Kinda Story also focuses a portion of time on some of the smaller signings, such as Plankeye, The Blamed, and Starflyer 59.

However, with every success story, there were still some losses to be felt.  Early on in Tooth and Nail’s history, the label was struggling and quickly sinking.  With massive legal battles between lawyers and MXPX, time and money were running short.  The documentary concludes by highlighting the popularity of the OC Supertones, and how their sudden fame kept the label afloat.

From start to finish, the true beauty of this movie is how it expertly weaves together information and entertainment.  No New Kinda Story is a gold mine of fascinating Christian rock trivia and nuggets of knowledge.  From the early life of Brandon Ebel to playing live shows in a house to the massive MXPX record, Life in General, this documentary bares all in discussing the roots and history of the label.

Sprinkled in between this wealth of information are intimate interviews with band members and Tooth and Nail staff.  The documentary also includes old footage of packed 90s concerts, vintage music videos, and promotional photo shoots.  You literally see, firsthand, the humble and crazy stories of these artists.

Ultimately, No New Kinda Story is a fascinating journey into the life and head of Brandon Ebel.  This hour long film will move your emotions and have you nostalgically rocking out to bands of the past. Truly, Ebel is to be commended for how he transformed a few obscure bands and catapulted them into the national spotlight.  If nothing else, we all have Ebel’s grandfather to thank for believing in a young college kid, who had a huge dream of changing Christian rock forever.

4 ½ Stars