By BRUCE DENNILL
Vertical Church Band: Live Worship From Vertical Church 6.5
Pestroy: The Speed Of Dark 6
Rhett Walker Band: Here’s To The Ones 6.5
Lily Allen: Sheezus 5
Music teams from local churches releasing worship albums is a well-established trend, though the landscape is dominated by a handful of crack outfits including Hillsong United, Gateway and Bethel Music. It’s good for fans of such music when a new band emerges, as it not only adds variety to what’s available but ensures that quality levels are maintained. First track Open Up The Heavens is an out-of-the-gates hit – an arms-aloft anthem that is the equal of anything released by the more widely-known collectives. And in Not For A Moment – much quieter and more reflective – Vertical Church Band prove that they can handle the opposite end of the spectrum equally well. That there are songs of such quality here should not be surprising, as the band includes artists such as Meredith Andrews and Lindsay McCaul, both respected songwriters and performers in their own rights, and the collaborative writing team involved in creating these songs included Jason Ingram, Stu Garrard and other hugely experienced and gifted composers. Actress and singer Heather Headley also appears, taking the lead on All Glory, and the album is produced and sequenced in such a way that the overall flow is not disturbed by the combination of all these facets. Some tracks serve more to fill out the package than to provide peaks – as is sadly often the case in such a crowded market, there are songs that, while perfectly serviceable in a practical, structural sense, don’t do much to lift the spirit. The bulk of the album, however, is strong enough to excite or intrigue early on and and provide material for meditation and energetic praise going forward.
The Speed Of Dark took six years to make (an Alanis Morissette-ish sort of irony), largely because the band members of Pestroy are not able to commit full-time to the band, given the challenges in making a living supported by metal fans – a loyal but small niche in South Africa. The quality of their performance doesn’t support that part-timer tag, with the complex, dense roar of their instruments the equal of any metal band working today and Tripwire’s piercing vocals providing a sure, constant focus throughout. There are hints of American act Filter in the mix of punchy metal verses and clean, clear choruses, with The Flaw being a fine example of that combination. Crush Your Dreams, with its chiming alternative intro, recalls Incubus, another fine band from the US. This standard suggests that a stab at “breaking America” might be worth it at some stage, though the harsh realities of that endeavour are well-known, and the risks may not be worth the rewards. Where this collection falls short is in the range of the material included. It’s a generous offering at 16 tracks, but there is a common formula throughout and though there are lyrical differences, they’re not as easy to discern – often being delivered in a roar or shriek – as they would be on a pop or rock album. The two remixes that close the collection help counter that problem to some degree, with the electronic additions and dancefloor beats injecting a fresh feel into Popped Collar and Pay For Your Saviour.
Rhett Walker and his merry men have made their name in putting Christian rock through a roots music filter and adding an agreeable swagger to their resulting output. It’s been a successful formula, and some new nips and tucks will likely see this collection leap to the front of the queue in terms of the band’s sales. There’ll be disgruntlement in some quarters however, as what makes the collective’s sound more commercially viable also makes it less appealing in terms of its originality. Perhaps the clearest way to describe the way RWB sounds now is to equate them to Bon Jovi after a lyrical overhaul. Even in that area, the parallels are sometimes pretty close, with the title track including the line: “Here’s to the ones who stand their ground; here’s to the ones that never back down; here’s to the home of the free; here’s to the ones who still believe.” The flip side of the (arguably) losing some of the indie credibility they’ve enjoyed to date is that RWB deliver at the level of their mega-successful precursors, with the musicianship, production and songwriting all the equal of their equivalents on the other side of the MOR divide. Adam’s Son and Dead Man take all-purpose imagery and make it work in a Christian context, while Love Like Jesus, Amazed, Lift Me Up and the wonderful old-school gospel of The Other Side offer clear indicators as to where the bands spiritual allegiances lie. A little bit rock, a little bit country, a little bit roots and a little gospel: there’s plenty to like here, but no single track that really signals the presence of something truly special.
Much of what has set Lily Allen apart from her musical peers is an ability to capture pop culture minutia in her lyrics, drenching them in a knowing wit that is at least as much of a selling point as her often melodies. Gaining a reputation for something, however, often makes artists feel that they need to keep fitting the mould they’ve created fro themselves, regardless of whether the inspiration for their latest work is as profound as it was for their breakthrough material. In this instalment, Allen turns her acerbic gaze on other musicians (in the title track, its name a play on Kanye West’s Yeezus and its lyrics a catalogue of contemporary chart-cloggers); escaping the rat race (naggingly catchy single Air Balloon); living online (URL Badman) and sassy feminism (Hard Out Here). Her lyrical tone remains steadfastly unapologetic. This is still a strong selling point, but ironically it’s also one of the factors that make this collection something way short of Allen’s best. This may have something to do with the challenges of remaining angry at as many things as her reputation requires her to be: too often, these songs feel like attempts to capture an emotion that can’t be felt as strongly as the phrasing of the lyrics apparently intends it to be. The writing is frequently clever but less regularly memorable – the equivalent of a rude but entertaining acquaintance you might meet in a bar, who’s good company until you’re tired, but who you’re kind of glad you can go home and leave behind at the end of the night.