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Latest Music and Book Reviews
Runaways by Sumerlin Runaways by Sumerlin
If the internet era has bequeathed artists anything, it is the ability to find and grow an audience, and from there attract notice from the music industry. The independent musical landscape is rife with...
Under Fire by Green River Ordinance Under Fire by Green River Ordinance
If more bands were free of corporate-driven agendas, bands like Green River Ordinance would be the norm of the popular music landscape instead of the exception. This five-piece band from Texas more than...
World We View by Nine Lashes World We View by Nine Lashes
 Alabama based Nine Lashes unleashes their Tooth & Nail, nationally distributed debut World We View this week. And while the sonic palette of southern rockers Needtobreathe, Hyper...

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Hit The Ground Running | Posted March-07-2014

If the internet era has bequeathed artists anything, it is the ability to find and grow an audience, and from there attract notice from the music industry. The independent musical landscape is rife with talented bands just waiting to break onto the scene. North Carolina group Sumerlin is one such band- a band whose time has come to be recognized and embraced.
 
Runaways follows the typical pattern of rock releases: a collection of tracks representative of the band’s dominant musical milieu supplemented by a couple of radio-friendly singles. Sumerlin puts their best foot forward and delivers 12 incredible tracks of well-heeled modern rock. Every track of Runaways resonates with lyrical and sonic aptitude. The epic worship song “You Always Were” stands out, harkening back to Canada’s Downhere & Starfield during their radio-dominating heights; while “Here With You” and “Louder Than Words” rival all things Skillet at their peak.
 
Sumerlin‘s music owes a great deal to the current modern rock sound, alá Skillet, Red, etc., yet carves out a sonic identity that remains distinctive. Runaways’ richly textured, guitar-driven sound is a tour-de-force and perfectly compliments Dan DiGiovanni’s expressive vocals. Fans of Colton Dixon, Nine Lashes, the late-lamented Sent By Ravens, Silverline and TFK should definitely give Runaways a listen... LOUDLY!

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Hit(s) List | Posted February-14-2013

If more bands were free of corporate-driven agendas, bands like Green River Ordinance would be the norm of the popular music landscape instead of the exception. This five-piece band from Texas more than ably express themselves through keen lyrics and tuneful alternative music seasoned with a touch of southwestern grit & character. Though not quite as musically eclectic as fellow Texans and peers, David Crowder Band, nor as strongly regionally influenced as fellow Southerners Needtobreathe, comparisons can be drawn.

GRO puts to superb use their God-bequeathed gifts and talents, producing acutely melodic songs that are unassuming yet, at the same time, reflective insights on life’s breadth and depth. Their lyrics contain a clever blend of the sanguine compunction of Sanctus Real balanced with a touch of the good-natured yearning in much of Jason Mraz's writing. Thematically, Under Fire serves to remind listeners that there is a place of reassuring solace and for dogged hope & unflinching faith in the midst of this battle (cf. Eph. 6) we call life.

Reminiscent of Rush of Fools, Tenth Avenue North, Train, and Unhindered; fans of By the Tree, Leeland and Lifehouse should give this group of dedicated and principled young men a listen. Check out their website TheHopeGros.com and ally yourself with GRO and their commendable mission.

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This World View Is Fantastic | Posted February-14-2012
 Alabama based Nine Lashes unleashes their Tooth & Nail, nationally distributed debut World We View this week. And while the sonic palette of southern rockers NeedtobreatheHyper Static Union and Third Day may immediately spring to mind,  Nine Lashes defies, for the most part, geographical expectations, creating a hard-hitting unabashedly pure rock release the likes of Red, Decyfer Down, or Skillet
 
Catchy melodies, brawny guitar riffs and an obvious mastery of their musical craft  contributes to the band’s familiar, yet particular sound. The band's music & lyrics evince an astuteness that is without a doubt a benefit of the array of influences and experiences each member suggests to the overall amalgamation of the band’s exceptional sound.
 
Other artists that come to mind while listening to Nine Lashes include: Imagine ThisSent By Ravens, TFK, This Beautiful Republic, and even the milder side of Demon Hunter.


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A Post Punk Wassail | Posted November-27-2011

Our Heart's Hero offers a "spirited" collection of fresh and inspired holiday favorites on their Christmas album Love Is Breathing. The band's inventiveness and creativity on each track give each song a unique vibe, yet conserve elements of the originals' recognizability. Whether a slight lyrical or all-out musical-updating, an unanticipated stylistic swerve, or an  unexpectedly juxtaposed medley, each reworked madrigal is a celebratory anthem to the most awesome of holy days.

The band's sound continues to be influenced by the post-punk sound, with stylings similar to Blink 182Everyday SundayGreen DayRelient K, and Suburba, but avoids clonliness with their own unique leverage of influences and stylistic contributions- no mean feat for an album of refreshed traditional holiday carols. Raise a wassail toast to the guys from the band! If you think you'd enjoy the fruitcake-like mash-up of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Mannheim Steamroller, the aforementioned Relient K, and Hawk Nelson, then I'd suggest you gift yourself with this snazzy yultide present. 


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Love's A Day At The Circus | Posted November-14-2011
Circus of Love is Benjamin Dunn’s latest musical project. Though Dunn wears many hats besides musician, this musical endeavor shows no deficiency in the creativity department. He and his collaborators have created a welcome and refreshing entry in the modern praise & worship “marketplace.”
 
Musically, the songs of Circus of Love spring from a blend of mid 80’s informed synth-pop/rock, layered with acoustic (and very unique choices of) instrumentation, creating a well-balanced, techno-organic sound. Dunn & Co. keep the lyrics of Circus of Love masterfully simple yet amazingly fresh. Making great use of tempo transitions and switching up time signatures, they also allow each song to breathe with a genuine ebb and flow of emotion.
 
Circus of Love is a joyfully upbeat and stirring mold-breaker in the sometimes vanilla-flavored modern praise & worship genre. If your taste runs toward the more distinct sound of artists like David Crowder BandFuture of Forestry, Jason Gray, Waterdeep, Telecast and Gungor, you might want to give Mr. Dunn & Friends a listen.

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Pursuing the live experience | Posted October-17-2011
Travis Cottrell’s seventh release, When The Stars Burn Down, finds the writer, worship pastor, singer, songwriter and traveling minstrel continuing to create blended worship music experiences, weaving original material together with traditional hymns updated with modern worship sensibilities. Cottrell’s an accomplished composer and his facility with structuring arrangements enlivens the more traditional songs, keeping them surprisingly recognizable yet fresh, seamlessly bridging the past and the present. He also crafts a pleasant ebb and flow within the songs themselves as well as between the more lively praise and the unhurried worship.

Cottrell covers Chris Tomlin and the Passion Band’s “All My Fountains” in his signature AC-style with the opening track of When The Stars Burn Down. Unfortunately, a poor choice of effect on the lead electric guitar grates on the ears. Followed by the similarly covered, but more successfully arranged “I’m Changed” (by the prolific Jeffrey Smith of City of Life).

Not to be confused with the hymn by the same name, Cottrell’s “Lord, We Come” changes gears with a simple and languid intro anchored by a single electric guitar and Cottrell’s voice. Piano, drums and a choral background are slowly introduced and the central cry for the Holy Spirit’s presence becomes a passionate resound before quietly trailing off. “Faithful God,” another original song, is a tempo-changing, guitar-driven declaration of GOD’s generosity & imminence in our lives that brings to mind Lincoln Brewster.

Again, not to be confused with Ayiesha Woods’ multiply-covered “Refine Me,” Cottrell’s earnest plea and desire to remain committed to the transforming process evokes comparison to many of Don Moen and Dennis Jernigan’s understated yet memorable ballads. Compared to the other revamps, the musically standard and tedious updates of “Just As I Am” and “Power In The Blood” follow.

“My Soul, March On” sounds more like the aforementioned Lincoln Brewster or Charlie Hall as Cottrell abandons his more familiar orchestrally-supported arrangements in favor of a modern 5 piece worship band vibe. “The Word of God Is Spoken” continues to dabble with the more modern worship style abetted with a healthy dose of acoustic lead guitar and percussion.

Three covers with a decidedly Adult Contemporary stylistic stamp follow: a leisurely take on Sons & Daughters’ “All The Poor and Powerless,” the Jennie Lee Riddle & Jonathan Lee penned title track anthem, and the gradually developing David Ruis standard “We Will Dance.”

“Thanks Be To God”
serves as a fitting thanksgiving benediction for When The Stars Burn Down. Piano and Cottrell’s quiet vocals convey the initial impetus, with a gospel-flavored choir slowly asserting itself and building to an emotionally delivered crescendo, then fading to an a cappella closing.

Closing Thoughts:
I think it would be safe to observe that some music and musicians are better experienced live- certain production elements and/or a recording just won’t do the music and/or artist justice. This applies in particular to praise and worship music, especially when the recording attempts to simulate an encounter best experienced personally and/or corporately. An additional layer of subjectiveness comes into play when existing, familiar songs are being reinterpreted and tailored for a specific audience.

With that being said, When The Stars Burn Down is a positive attempt to summon the feel of a live worship experience but seems to lack an indefinable element- a certain “oomph” found on other non-live worship-oriented recordings. Maybe too much effort was made to create that live, corporate “feel” with the more up-tempo songs, because the more stripped-down, quiet worship songs succeed in ushering the listener into a worshipful mindset/experience.


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Out of trial comes a triumphant effort | Posted October-03-2011
Helen Keller stated, “We can decide to let our trials crush us, or we can convert them to new forces of good.” After almost three years stuck in record company litigation-limbo, Rush of Fools returns with their long overdue follow-up to Wonder of the World. We Once Were offers strong evidence for the veracity of Ms. Keller’s observation echoing James 1:2-4; for it is apparent that the band learned and benefited from their trial, applying it wholeheartedly to their latest effort.
 
Each song of We Once Were is like a page taken from the band’s collective journal. The songs are sagaciously considered, liberally dosed with healthy spiritual introspection without being melancholy, and demonstrate a tempered resolve without being phlegmatic. It seems clear the “time off” produced a focus and clarity for Rush Of Fools, elevating their artistic muse.
 
Musically, the band draws inspiration across rock genres but the styles of bands such as The Goo Goo Dolls, Train and Jimmy Eat World are well represented. The energetic, punk-tempo “We Once Were” makes fantastic use of instrumental interplay to contrast the past and a need to grow and be in transformational process. “Come Find Me” follows a similar formula, making use of time changes and instrumentation to great effect.
 
The percussion-driven cadence and distinctive guitar-sound of “A Civil War” borrows a page from Scottish rockers Big Country and Ireland’s most famous musical export (U2) to create a paradoxical threnody regarding our struggle against self. The use of sampled sounds, acoustic and electric instrumentation, and processed vocals create a dogged avowal of tenacity in “Won’t Say Goodbye,” calling to mind The Strokes.
 
“Grace Found Me” offers an answer as to who offers resolution to the battle mentioned in “A Civil War.” It has a pianoless Downhere-esque quality that is sure to make a big splash as a radio-ready single. The power chord-driven anthem “You’re The Medicine” vigorously acknowledges the need for Jesus, the cure for our narcissistic condition. And “End of Me” follows suit, offering surrender as the only viable solution and serving to bookend the struggle with self begun with “A Civil War.”
 
The much-maligned and lowly kazoo makes an appearance in the simple, bouncy, playful, spiritual love song, “No Other Love.” “Beginning To End” pays homage to the modern, up-tempo worship of Charlie Hall and Lincoln Brewster, marveling at God’s transcendent sovereignty. The influence of OneRepublic shows up in the arrangement and execution of “Help Our Unbelief.”
 
Closing Thoughts:
Producers Dennis Herring and Rusty Varenkamp seem to have drawn forth the best effort of each band member as musicians and songwriters. The sonic palette employed is determined in its tempo and execution, reinforcing the emotional texture and spiritual themes being sung. The lyrics and music mesh perfectly, creating hook-filled, exceptional modern rock songs. 
 
Ms. Keller also had this to say about trials: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.” To that end, every track of We Once Were is a resounding success.


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A departure, but certainly not an | Posted September-27-2011
If ever a band had a more self-evident name you’d be hard-pressed to find it. Whether it’s their sustained touring schedule, energetic live shows or innovative music, Canadian trio Manic Drive not only attempts to embody their name, but embraces it with gusto. Since the release of their indie project Reason for Motion in 2006, the band has developed a significant fan base and earned critical acclaim on both sides of the border.
 
At its core, the band is brothers Michael and Shawn Cavallo, who together with “new” drummer Keith Comer, deliver creative, dynamic, hyper-caffeinated music. While earlier albums undoubtedly strayed across both sides of the nü-metal line--à la Linkin Park--Blue and more definitively Epic continue to blur the boundaries between pop, dance & rock.
 
The production and musical tapestry of Epic is more synthetic and, for the most part, more unvaryingly tempoed than previous projects, drawing comparisons to a certain “Lady” of pop music. And while this reviewer was caught off guard by the overall slickly polished, intensely rhythmic musical direction of this album, there is no dearth of creativity or intensity. Shawn Cavallo’s vocal range and staccato rhyming style only serve to add an additional imperative resonance to each song’s delivery.
 
From the syncopated beat and “rawk-fisted” pep rally feel of “Count of 1-2-3” to the distorted guitar power chords and fun-but-shallow anthem of “Positive Radio,” most of the songs of Epic are an in-your-face challenge to be uninhibited activists in our Christian faith. 
 
“Halo” employs the goofy grin-inducing meme “rock my halo” to reinforce how a life of holiness should distinguish a Christian from the world at large. The title track, “Epic,” acts as call to be a part of God's action. The sampled vocals of “Money” remind Christians of the value of their lives when compared to things. “Microphone” and “Go Big or Go Home” are meant as encouragements to be genuine and obvious in our faith.
 
The tracks that really shine are the three that most suggest Manic Drive’s prior sound and direction. “Good Times” is a fun, deceptively simple summertime reminiscence that reminds listeners how a child receives the unconditional love of a Savior. The mid-tempo, piano driven balladry of “Save a Life” bares the band’s soul and calling as zealous proponents of Christianity. “Mountains” stands out because of its musical subtlety and yet is the most distinctly Manic Drive of the three, also evoking sounds of AC chart-toppers Tenth Avenue North and Rush of Fools.
 
Closing Thoughts:
On first listen, the songs of Epic might be perceived as backsliding into lyrical mediocrity, but in spite of being less elegiac and overt, they are no less relevant and perceptive. The band seems to have made a conscious choice to forgo poetic and creative license and instead couch the spiritual truths they address by the clever, yet catchy use of  pop jargon. They do so in a straightforward manner without coming off as insincere or sounding cliché, but that choice of simplicity remains a bit of a head-scratcher in light of the band’s spiritual convictions and previously demonstrated creative depth in speaking to the intersection of life and faith.
 
After the attention and accolades Blue brought to Manic Drive, as well as the anticipation it immediately provoked in me to hear more from the band, this reviewer would chalk up Epic’s (minor) shortcomings to testing their stylistic boundaries and the predominant presence of producer Rob Wells. A quick check of Wells’ music production pedigree and it’s no wonder Epic has the distinct sound reminiscent of a mash-up of late 90’s boy-bands, contemporary Idol winners and modern tween wonders.
 
A more jaded reviewer might be tempted to make the obvious “epic fail” joke, but the question remains, “Does Epic fail?” No. While it doesn’t quite live up to its name, Epic is no sophomore slump. True, it suffers from an imbalance of style over substance but as a collection of passionate & rousing dance/rock mantras it succeeds as a rallying cry for Christians to live a visibly authentic, radical lifestyle. 


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A Sacrifice of Love | Posted August-22-2011
Consistently demonstrating an innate ability to create music-based art that is timelessly relevant, identifiable with in its immediacy and overwhelmingly profound despite its apparent simplicity, Downhere offers up its latest creation On the Altar of Love. Much like previous projects, the band presents the listener with a collection of approachable and compelling acoustic-based pop/rock.

The album showcases the band’s strengths: the trademark seamless shared vocal transitions; mature, germane lyrics; as well as their signature musical underpinnings of guitar and piano. Every element comes together to produce enduring, hope-laced songs grafted to archetypal yet contemporary music. And while the tone of said music can be interpreted as playful & light-hearted, the delivery conveying the paradoxical reality of our flawed humanity coming into contact with perfect Holiness never lacks a sense of the utmost regard.

Whether is was Abel’s oblation prior to his death, the Levitical proscriptions for “unblemished sacrifices” or Christ’s own sinless atonement, in GOD’s eyes, placing something on HIS altar involves both a whole-hearted offering along with a gift that is the best one has to offer. Downhere is a group of guys that get this- their albums reflect a spirituality, ethos and character of the highest caliber expressed through talent, ability and dedication. On the Altar of Love is beyond a doubt, a sacrificial offering of love of the highest order.



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Believe It! | Posted August-08-2011

Aaron Shust
‘s songs exhibit his preternatural ability to take Scripture and seamlessly entwine it with distinctive, upbeat melodies. His latest project, This Is What We Believe offers no exception or diminshing of this gift. Each of the 10 songs is either a hope-fueled declaration or a heart-felt anthem sung with familiarity, possessing elemental truths drawn directly from the Bible. Shust’s song-writing ability, and by extension his songs, experientially embrace and proclaim the “now and not yet” dichotomy of Biblical faith. Or to paraphrase Victor Hugo, hope is writ large on his brow and embodied in his songs.

At their core, the songs of This Is What We Believe are sublime, vibrant, personal expressions of worship that communicate the reality of Immanuel- GOD with us. Being asked to choose stand-out tracks would be like asking a parent to single-out their “favorite” child- every song has a purpose and place on this album. Much like the Scriptures that serve as their foundation, the lyrics of This Is What We Believe are imbued with vitality and efficacy (cf. Hebrews 4:12). The music is equally expressive, moving between the exuberance of up-tempo pop/rock & contemporary praise to the relaxed mid-tempo rhythm of CHR & modern worship.

Søren Kierkegaard has said, “(W)hen you read GOD’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, ‘It is talking to me and about me’.” The songs of This Is What We Believe are testimonies given musical voice by Shust’s personal experiences of this lifelong dialogue. It’s not an album to miss, nor dismiss. If you’ve never sampled Shust’s artistry before, I believe This Is What We Believe would be a great place to start.

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