Music Review: Tree63 – Land: Waving Not Drowning, Or They Can Play A Song, Canoe?

June 15, 2015

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Tree63: Land

 

Back after seven years in the musical desert (or other vaguely appropriate Bible-related metaphor), Tree63 have a great deal of work to do to rebuild the reputation that saw them not only soundtracking the lives of a generation of South African music fans but also functioning as role models for those same fans – a less desirable role for band members John Ellis, Darryl Swart and Daniel Ornellas.

Land should, if audiences give it a chance (the band’s old fanbase has largely disintegrated; this music will ideally need to impress a new group of listeners who feel no nostalgia for the peak years), go some way to setting Tree63 back on the road to the acclaim they deserve as musicians and songwriters – areas in which they are among the best South Africa has produced.

The album wastes no time in making its mark, with opener Alive hurdling headlong into a breakneck disco beat and stadium rock chorus that The Killers are sitting somewhere admiring as the template for a comeback hit. Immediately thereafter, The Storm offers up arguably the high point of the whole enterprise, a power ballad laced with interesting time signatures and the sort of yearning lyrical ideas admirers of past Tree63 incarnations are hoping will be coming from a place of sincerity this time around.

That last note is perhaps an unfair point on which to judge a musical venture, but this is a band that’s always occupied a very particular niche in South African music: technically better and more successful in chart and sales terms than the bulk of their competition, yet under-appreciated in all of those areas because there was an equal or greater focus on their status as an outspoken Christian outfit, also capable of making spiritually important music, which mainstream commentators were far less comfortable with.

A Whisper is one of a handful of tunes on the album that are far closer in style to Ellis’ solo output (in this case, the track could easily have been included on the Bush Telegraph EP) than to to the “traditional” Tree63 sound, but given that he is the chief songwriter, that change is to be expected.

Standing On It has a driving Southern rock foundation and a sonic simplicity that might make it radio friendly before If God re-introduces Ellis’ ability to match rock resonance with Scripture-quoting lyrics to create something that lifts your spirits in in every sense of that phrase. Those sentiments are balanced by Hard To Believe, in which the challenges to belief are stated as baldly as the reasons to believe were in the previous song.

One of the band’s breakthrough hits, Stumbling Stone, makes an appearance, reworked to sit in a slightly mellower groove – an effective update. And the album closes with another song that’s already made an appearance on an album – this time Ellis’s excellent acoustic collection, Rural.

Does Land answer the difficult questions established fans have about where Tree63 stand as either Christian trailblazers or a very, very good rock band who aren’t willing to pander to banal formulae that might guarantee more widespread success? No. Will that continue to be an area of contention? Probably. Is Land any less impressive for all of that? Happily – and finally – no.

 

Alive                                                               7.75

The Storm                                                      8.00

A Whisper                                                      7.25

Standing On It                                               7.25

If God                                                            7.50

Hard To Believe                                             7.25

Ship                                                               7.00

Every Reason                                                 7.00

Stumbling Stone                                            7.75

Blood Flows                                                   7.00

The Greatest Story Ever Told                         7.00

Never Had A Winter                                      7.75

 

Rating: 7.375

 

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