Riding a newer contemporary wave of worship music and based out of Bethel Church in Redding, California, Bethel Music is a singer songwriter collective that began in the church’s worship ministry. It has since expanded into other artists who are based out of other churches and write individually. Since 2011, the artists in this collective have collaborated to put out a couple of studio albums and extensive live plays. More recently, a worship session overlooking a gorgeous scenic view of Lake Shasta inspired their new live album, We Will Not Be Shaken.
Most people who know me well understand that this is a genre of music that has never appealed to me. I don’t say that to depreciate the passion behind the musicians or their faith. One of my buddies here in Winona posted a quote on their Tumblr page that struck me when thinking about this… “Bad Christian art that reflects a lack of investment of time, commitment, craft, or skill, presents the illusion that the Christian life is not worthy or requiring of the same.” – Karen Swallow Prior
Poignantly stated by Prior – a professor of English at Liberty University, this is what makes most “Christian” music unappealing to me. God gave us all unique gifts and aptitudes that we should exercise as a form of worship in accordance to Romans 12:7-17. It is something to be celebrated about our individuality in the likeness and image of God. I feel like when someone is given the gift of music, they should look for ways to further their craft. It would be the same way a teacher would want to strive for excellence in their respective field and not settle for mediocre. Unfortunately, I think this kind of music has become so industrialized and homogenized for the masses, the craft doesn’t really even matter. It’s marketable to an audience who will buy the music because of its label, regardless. For the purposes of this review, I will step off the soap box, because I want to give you some insight to an album that packages worship in an honest way. When I transferred to Winona and got involved in ministry, I saw the raging popularity with groups like Hillsong United, Rend Collective, and David Crowder Band. I immediately drew back thinking that these groups had absolutely nothing more to offer that I haven’t heard from countless other Christian artists. I began to warm up to them when I had such constant exposure and saw the passion it invoked through so many people. I still have my reservations, but after a year and a half of being down here, these groups began to rub off on me slowly. Rend Collective’s Campfire is now one of my favorite worship records to date. It’s spontaneous, organic, and wistfully created. A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an upcoming live album from Bethel Music when a couple friends of mine screened it. Curiosity took over and now here I am writing about it.
Who Can Compare to You is the first song I listened to on this album. It showcases the voice of Matt Stinton who has an unbelievably dynamic vocal range. Starting off the song as a bass, he progresses to a nimble soprano by the end of the track. Packed with atmospheric string sections, delicate interludes, and sample pad percussion, this song actually feels authentic.
In Over My Head is probably the highlight of this album for me. Jenn Johnson’s Regina Spektor like whisper in her vocal style gives this song personality and adds to its ethereal depth. The way this song builds to this ultimate climax and unleashes a symphonic hurricane is not only epic, it’s moving. Home follows much of the same musical formula as many of the other tracks on this record, but Hunter Thompson’s higher vocal range and the way this song catchy chorus and pace makes it accessible. The title track begins this record softly with a memorable piano line over the acoustic guitar with Brian Johnson’s gravely voice. As I said above, the song structure follows a similar blueprint, but an ear worm chorus and well layered instrumentation makes this song a good preview for the rest of the album.
While I may seem critical of modern contemporary worship, there is something to be said for the attention to emotions that it tries to focus on. Many times, the parts in these songs that hit their peaks is when they feel the most genuine and natural build up that is accented well with some out-of-this-world singing. On the topic of singing… there is not one artist in this collective that doesn’t have a standout set of pipes. I think all of them are a couple notches above others in the genre and they are able to transition well throughout the song’s they’re featured on. For example, Jenn Johnson has the ability to seamlessly adapt from a soft whisper to a boom. They all do. In addition, I actually like the feel of this record. For a live album, this actually has a lot of qualities of something that is unplugged – I think that’s why it feels very easy to listen to. Recently, lead singer of progressive metal band, Fallujah, Alex Hoffman said that the ultimate goal of their new record was to make people feel. The band wanted to write songs and develop a sound that manipulated emotions and took you on a journey throughout the record. That’s how We Will Not Be Shaken comes across. You really get the feels when you listen to this record in a way that most post rock outfits like Explosions In the Sky are Jedi Masters at.
I have always found satisfaction in artists who put craftsmanship into lyricism that is profound and meaningful. I would say that this is a number one mission for groups in this genre, because the message is central to the craft… sometimes too central. Many times I feel like Christian music pours so much into the lyrical content that the craft itself qualitatively diminishes. In my experiences where that is the case, the lyrics may be heartfelt and potent when pen hits paper, but on record it feels forced. With that said, I believe that these artists truly pour themselves into what they write, lyrically. When listening to We Will Not Be Shaken, I hear a lot of the same themes you would expect to hear on a Hillsong or Rend Collective album, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sub par. The greatest thing about the lyrics on this record is that they are back dropped against some pretty stellar instrumentation. It automatically makes them sound much more convincing.
This will look a little different, because We Will Not Be Shaken is not something done in house. This is a live record. It’s an outdoor stage on the face of a bluff where the sound travels exponentially more than a recording studio. Treading the same lines of instrumental post rock, the production in this album focuses more on the ambiance and gentleness of the instrumentation. What it leaves is more room for this is vocals, which are the dominant element in the mix. When you hear those acoustic lines that are more stripped down, it’s emblazoned by this atmospheric aura that makes the sound more relaxed and easy on the ears. I really dig it. The way that many parts in the songs transition from these simple lines and climb into these bombastic climaxes is effective.
Guys, I’m stumped. I found a worship album that is beautifully crafted, live, has a ton of replay value, and continues to grow on me. I don’t have that much to complain about with this record, but I’m still slowly transitioning into this new style of worship – I’m more stuck on my go to hymns that I grew up with. For what it is, this is pretty top notch. I’m excited to see where this group goes, where they’re called, and how each of these artists expand – in faith and music.