By BRUCE DENNILL
Worship Central: Set Apart 6
A Great Big World: Is There Anybody Out There? 8
The Drift: Dreams Of Deluge 6
Various Artists: African Songbook Volume 2 6
Rather than being just a collective that plays tunes, Worship Central is a group set up to promote and aid in the teaching and equipping of worship leaders and indeed congregations when it comes to the importance of worship music in the context of the overall church experience. The band includes such talented artists as Ben Cantelon and Luke Hellebronth, with the presence of Tim Hughes as a figurehead (a role he’d reject, but his is such a standout gift that he’s impossible to ignore) underlining that it’s an outfit worth taking note of. However, for the very reasons they’re effective as a mentoring and teaching organisation, Worship Central’s music is, ironically, difficult to set apart from the dozens of other projects in circulation at the same time. Opener The Way is sort of sanctified EDM – certainly a reasonable option style-wise when it comes to ensuring that young listeners connect with a sound they’re familiar with and enjoy (regardless of context), but the motifs are cyclical and repetitive, which for some will make the writing seem like worship by rote rather than by resolution.That same observation applies to a number of other tunes on the album, which makes a certain amunt of sense given that the bulk of the target audience is young, and melodies and arrangements that are too florid are unlikely to stick in their memories. An exception is Can’t Stop Your Love, led by Cantelon, which is easy to get into immediately, while others require a number of spins before revealing whatever songwriting quality they are built on. Awesome Is He features the vocals of Anna Hellebroth, a rare female vocal in the line-up and is thus something different, with Worth It All, another Cantelon-led song a highlight as well. Ultimately, the collection does its job, providing a body of work from which others can draw content and perhaps inspiration. But given the output to date of many of the individuals involved, the final result does not equal the sum of its parts.
Given that A Great Big World combine aspects of the sounds of Fun, Owl City and Ben Folds Five, it’s surprising to note that they’re a duo and not a more substantial outfit. Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino – who both write and sing – deliver non-stop hooks and compelling melodies throughout this 13-track collection. Indeed, the final track is a reworking of one of the singles, Say Something, with added harmonies by Christina Aguilera, more or less by request on her side – so infectious is their sound. They’re also able to do chirpy and thoughtful with equal conviction, with opening songs Rockstar and Land Of Opportunity being cheerful pop that is as easy to get into as any chart fodder but several times as cleverly constructed. The aforementioned Say Something, Already Home and I Don’t Wanna Love Somebody Else add lyrical pathos and yearning to slowed-down arrangements, giving balance to an album that, after just a superficial exploration, is already likely to have imprinted itself on your psyche as one of the better pop offerings in the last couple of years. Axel and Vaccarino’s voices gel beautifully. They have similar vocal tone, but are discernible via their phrasing, with the arrangements playing to each singer’s strengths and never including anything flamboyant simply for the sake of it. This is reassuring listening, confirmation that there are still artists capable of regularly writing songs that combine intelligence and musical craft with blatant commerciality. Even Everyone Is Gay – effectively a protest song in a time when issues like gay marriage are tabled in parliament chambers as well as in homes and dance clubs – gets its message across with a jaunty feel that leaves even the campness of Scissor Sisters in its wake. All killer, no filler – and you’ll be grinning when it’s all over.
Members of Knave, Chromium, Gadabout and Misericord and other well-known South African metal collectives take their place in The Drift, which makes the stakes a little higher on this debut album, as there are established reputations to maintain. Accumulated experience and expertise takes care of the practical challenges – the playing, performance and production is excellent – but it is necessary to differentiate this new project from those from which its members came, and The Drift do that by making Dreams Of Deluge. They don’t stop there, either, stating that this album is the middle chapter in a trilogy, and thus committing themselves to a good deal more work before the package is delivered in its entirety. They take it a step further too, explaining the story the music adds muscle to in some detail, which listeners whose ears are not attuned to hearing the lyrics in death metal roaring will appreciate. Exile and The Hour Unknown provide thundering riffs and moody melodies and in the middle of Reprisal, there’s an instrumental as propulsive as anything popular mainstream acts such as Metallica get their stadium crowds head-banging with. Intro and Serenity – both hushed instrumental numbers – provide the counterpoint to to the amp-bursting guitars and rhythm elsewhere before An Ocean Prayer combines elements of both in one seven minute-plus epic.
In the absence of a further defining factor – African Jazz Songbook, or African R&B Songbook, for instance, the tracklisting on the African Songbook Volume 2 compilation seems rather one-dimensional, with the vast bulk of the material being smooth, world and traditional music-influenced. It’s good stuff, but there is no place, it seems, for contemporary rock and pop – not Africa’s biggest musical exports, sure, but certainly present on the landscape and deserving of a mention. The older, epoch-defining sound of acts like the African Jazz Pioneers (Ten Ten Special), Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens (Stokfel Jive), Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Mbube) and Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks (Miriam & Spokes’ Phata Phata) remain the most interesting – songs that evoke not oly a timeframe but a specific location as well. Their influence is easy to hear in the offerings by the younger artists, but much of the punch is often swamped by velvety arrangements that, while making for an elegant final product, can sometimes detract from the unique personality of a track. There are likely further volumes to come in this series – here’s hoping for a representation of the wider range of approaches that does exist.