By BRUCE DENNILL
For King & Country: Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong
The Sick Leaves: Travels With Charlie
Albert Frost: The Wake Up
The Afters: Live On Forever
Perhaps unfairly, there’s a perception that Christian pop and rock is almost always going to sound predictably similar to the other acts in that same genre. That’s not an unfair judgement, given that the music is built around the same source material and lyrical inspirations, with artists trying to express one of a reasonably narrow range of sentiments. It’s intriguing then, to discover a plainly believing band (brothers Luke and Joel Smallbone) that sound like a hugely successful mainstream pop band – in this case The Script – rather than any of their church-based colleagues (with the possible exception of the song Already Home, which does recall Jars Of Clay). For King & Country share with the Irish chart darlings an ability to write simple, hook-heavy melodies that they then dress up in hip hop-influenced beats, electronica and the occasional rap interlude. With those diverse elements at their disposal, they’ve come up with the anthemic likes of Fix My Eyes, To The Dreamers and Long Live and ballads such as Without You. All of these have the feel of live favourites – the former trio as air-punching throng thrillers and the latter as the song in which everyone waves around the lit screens of their smartphones. For King & Country is that sort of band – slick and accessible and able to combine good musicianship with widespread appeal – that ignore matters of cult credibility and the like (in this case, the way faith-driven music is supposed to sound) to deliver a well-rounded collection that may not inspire blind devotion but will remain worth listening to for years to come.
Eksteen Jacobsz (stage name The Sick Leaves) has always been a fiercely independent musician, releasing a string of left-of-mainstream but critically lauded albums defined by his towering guitar sound and reedy, treble-y Tom Petty wail. Travels With Charlie is his first album in five years, and the first one he’s recorded and produced himself. That’s worth noting, because although the overall sensibilities remain the same – there are still six- and seven-minute meanderings in his prog-alternative style – there is also greater accessibility overall. Opener Shoot The Messenger begins with a huge drums-and-guitar progression that Noel Gallagher would happily claim as his own before Six Inch Valley explores the emotional brutality of losing a father to cancer in a simultaneously tender and brawny rock song. (I’ve Got) All The Time In The World kicks off with another big riff, leading into a mid-tempo tune that will stick with listeners from the first spin. Sins Of The City takes an unexpected diversion, being driven by a strummed acoustic guitar rather than the dense distortion Jacobsz usually employs, which places the singer’s unusual accent front and centre, making the composition stand out further. A Silver Lining is perhaps the most recognisable song in terms of Jacobsz’s historical sound, a thrilling high-register vocal melody lifting the gut-pounding guitar arrangement. There’s a major dynamic shift from there to She Ain’t Here, driven by another acoustic guitar and, this time, harmonica for a poppier feel (despite it’s relatively sad lyrical theme). Then the energy lifts again for the swaggering (no other word fits as well) Jacqualine. This collection will not only withstand repeated listens – it requires them. There is density of both ideas and instrumentation here and the songs will come to mean more to listeners as those layers are explored and unpacked.
One of the challenges with being a musician best known for one particular talent is that listener expectation may either limit the artist to showcasing only that one skill or to risking presenting a fuller picture and potentially obscuring their original selling point. Albert Frost, known as a prodigiously talented guitarist, does well to strike an appealing balance throughout this album. There is – in intros, interludes and and the instrumental track Sunrise – plenty of fret-based virtuosity to appreciate. But both alone and via collaborations with pop-savvy co-writers including Robin Auld, Albert Meintjes and Hunter Kennedy, Frost has created tunes that, though some take a couple of spins to bed in, generally extend well beyond the more rambling blues-based material that the guitarist and singer-songwriter has occasionally put out in the past. Happily, Frost refuses some of pop’s more annoying restrictions, with many of the songs here around the six-minute mark. Modern Romance matches a filthy riff and bassline with a cynical take on the way contemporary relationships work. Leaving Town is great, a melodic throwback to the radio singles of Tim Parr at his peak. It’s followed by another radio-friendly number – the second half of the album is stronger in this regard – that could be just as easily interpreted by Frost’s long-time friend and colleague Arno Carstens, whose rapid-fire verbal delivery is emulated in the verses here. Towards the end, Home No More steps up the muscle with a riff and tune that’s sure to fill mosh pits at his live shows and. Final song Together adds a touch of world music with its undistorted, syncopated licks, rounding out a strong collection.
There’s a sense early on in this album that The Afters’ overall sound is at least as much – and possibly more – of a concern as the content or unique structure of any of their songs. The opening trio of Shadows, Battles and Sunrise share, apart from one-word titles, condensed power-pop production and a nearly identical structure, if not melody and theme. Time Of My Life is more open and bouncier, ushering in a more varied approach, including the unexpectedly minor-key Eighties industrial pop (think a particularly angsty Alphaville) of the title track. Lyrically, The Afters keep things simple, to a degree that will have more cynical listeners bemoaning the lack of power of clichés (“In the eyes of a believer, anything is possible” in Eyes Of A Believer, for instance). Survivors and Legends revert to the early formula before the clean, melodic, Plain White T’s-recalling When You’re With Me, the album’s best track, suggests that a little more variety in arrangements and mood would have gone a long way.