|A Very Merry Christmas Romp! | Posted December 21, 2013
When Christmas time comes around, a flow of energy of a whole 'nother sort seems to fall around us; cheer, kindness, charity, and love are taken to the forefront of our thoughts and the hope of Christ is proclaimed throughout the land. Naturally, even the state of music is transformed as carols and hymns are sung without reservation, especially in the ever resounding world of CCM. From the wild beats of tobyMac to the heart-rending echoes of Casting Crowns, the map on which so many artists have painted their own renditions of such classic Christmas songs is now a vast and beautiful one.
Nevertheless, I still find some Christmas music projects that surprise me quite a bit once they find their way to my ears--and so was the case when I took a listen to the EP Repeat the Sounding Joy by the Mars Hill Church worship group Citizens. Now, it's already safe to say that Citizens is a pretty intense and unusual bunch when it comes to the unique indie-rock drive that flows through their music, reaching into the past and bringing back the sounds of years gone by to be employed in new and grand fashion, weaving together an amalgamation of styles to create their signature roll. With that musical insistence, the group took four classic Christmas songs (and possibly one of their own fabrication--more on that later on) and granted them a sense of reinvigoration the likes of which I've yet to see in any other artists' renditions (as beautiful as those may be on their own).
And so the EP demonstrates that new vigor right from the gate: "Joy to the World" took me by surprise; a song I knew well in my childhood, always as bright in music as the lyrics it proclaimed, had somehow been ramped-up even further. Opening with the rhythmically venturous bass-thumping I've come to recognize of the band, it quickly whips into a rush of ripping guitars, fast paced drum-beats, the almost signature keys plucked cleanly from the 80's, and the fervent vocals of Zach Bolen, as the high-energy tone emphasizes excellently the words of the tune: "JOY to the world, the Lord is come!" And quite joyful it sounds, and quite joyful it should be!
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", while maintaining the merry romp set up by the first track, takes on a very different quality of tone--my mind drifted to the idea of a funky jam from the 70's (albeit not necessarily a funk tune itself). A "stairway" of horns quickly opens the track before rolling into what honestly made me think of the Sanford & Son theme—though, in a more celebratory setting. And rightfully so as the lyrics sing of the great arrival of Christ on earth: "Hark! The herald angels sing/'Glory to the newborn King!"
Once again the tone softens more, as a somewhat gentle, contemplative electric bass-line interspersed with echoing drum-beats ushers in the sound of the crooning "Come and Stand Amazed". As to the origins of the song, I myself cannot say; while looking over the sheet music for the song made available on Mars Hill Church's website, I saw it say of a Medieval Dutch carol being translated, tweaked, tuned, and finalized by various individuals--while an interview here on NRT states it is in fact a piece original to the band. Whatever the case may be, what is certain is this: it is a heartfelt call to see the wonder of our Lord's willingness to step out of the heavenly realm into our fallen world at the most basic level for the sake of someday freeing us from our bondage to sin: "Come and stand amazed, you people,/See how God is reconciled!...See the Sovereign without splendor/See the Fullness destitute." and then a call to Him: "O Emmanuel, my savior/Let Your death be life for me."
Here the tone shifts to another stretch entirely, on what I'd say is my personal favorite on the project: “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, which rings somewhat reminiscent of the bands earlier hit “Made Alive”, pulsates to what sounds like an electric organ on a very “indie-sounding” drumbeat and a bouncing bass-line that, for me, has become a staple of their music, creating a chill, yet somehow still very earnest progression as words resound of the earth’s cry for the prophets words of The Messiah to be made present: “O come, Desire of nations, bind/All peoples in one heart and mind.” When we reach the final repeating tag, “Emmanuel, - HAS come to thee”, Bolen ups the ante of the vocals, interjecting with praises of our Savior that (to my knowledge) were not part of the song, but that accentuate the worshipful tone beautifully.
And so we take one more drop in pace as we reach the EP’s close, in an almost dreamily composed rendition of “Silent Night”. Despite being probably the simplest arrangement on the set, I find it the hardest to describe, for as it opens with soft, almost basic acoustic riffs, it gently builds upon itself with the sound of bowed strings, organic keys of both piano and xylophone, and a choir reminiscent of carolers stepping right out of a child’s dreams, before reaching it’s close with nothing more than the voices singing the final verses together: “Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.”
Suffice it to say that Citizens is a band of a peculiar sort, whose sound beacons that the music of the past find home among the modern electronic sensibilities, yet they do so craftily and with their hearts geared fast toward praising God. And with the five songs of Repeat the Sounding Joy, most of which have been sung throughout the generations, they have done the same, forming an awesome experience of sound and thought and praise over the most unfathomable, yet most veritably wonderful gift we could ever begin to fathom: that God would, for the sake of relieving us of the wrong we have done against Him, give His own life--His own Son--to be born into our corporeal world for the sake of bringing us back to Him.
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