Bringing variety and songwriting ingenuity to a (undeniably controversial) multi-million dollar piece of the music industry, Michael Gungor and his wife, Lisa, have made themselves a household name in contemporary Christian circles for rootsy, experimental singer-songwriter material that has reflected honesty, doubt, and grappling with the divine.
I can’t honestly remember when I first heard Gungor, but once I transferred to Winona State, met a lot of my friends, and went to church the first few times, I became very familiar and warmed up to him quickly. If you’ve read my review of Bethel Music’s live album, We Will Not Be Shaken (which is actually pretty bomb.com), you know my reservations about “Christian” music and the message of Jesus being subsidized by record labels and diluted from cheap marketing.
Gungor never struck me as an artist playing for packed mega-churches and your local faith based radio stations. It was real. I remember first running through tracks on Ghosts Upon the Earth like Ezekiel and Brother & Moon. Most of the album was admittedly not the most memorable, but I appreciated the artistry. When I traveled back further to Beautiful Things, I saw the catchier side to his songwriting with songs like Please Be My Strength and the title track. Looking back on the evolution of Gungor’s discography, Ghosts Upon the Earth was a base built for this natural musical progression, culminating in his last album, I Am Mountain. Showcasing an amalgamation of electronica and catchy alt rock, this album’s vastness launched some pretty good singles, like the title track, which has this sing along chorus that makes me want to belt it out every time. Their live albums like, Creation Liturgy, are probably my favorites given their fun, folksy demeanor reminiscent of Rend Collective’s Campfire that captures Gungor’s true musical aptitude. The guy studied jazz guitar at North Texas State…. And trust me. After seeing his band open for Switchfoot last November, I can confidently say… shred. That now brings us to the new record that is apparently supposed to be one of three to be released within a short span.
Just as Ghosts Upon the Earth setup I Am Mountain, so does I Am Mountain setup Soul. This album draws from a lot of the sonic elements that made their last record successful and journeyed deeper into this chasm of electronica.
At the same time, I think it’s interesting to see Gungor set sail with a crew of different musical influences that takes you through this album. Albums like Black Swan from British indie rock outfit, Athlete, come to mind when listening to this record-there is this coalescing of heavy synthesizers, keyboards, piano, electronic percussion, and acoustic guitar. While I felt like Black Swan’s attempt at this concoction ended in 45 minutes of atmospheric melodrama, I think Gungor takes this formula and makes it into something genre bending. This album has a flow and consistency that makes it easy on the ears. It’s accessible. I must say though, the complex compositions make this album shine brightest. This collection of songs showcases this structural dynamism that requires a lot of attention to detail. I think that’s what this album is built on. You hear these songs begin with this illustrious production, transition into these cathartic electronic passages, and take time to slow down to this nimble close. In the middle are these melodies, chord progressions, and lines that take you down some unexpected turns, and catch you off guard.
The album starts with, Introduction, that makes feel like I’m listening to the reverb drenched, ambient awesomeness of Sigur Ros’ Valtari. As I said earlier, this album has its moments of creative flow and it comes through when Introduction transitions into Lion of Rock – a dizzying electronic jungle of synthesizers and heavy bass. This pattern lasts until we reach Light. One of the most sentimental tracks on this entire album, Light takes a turn for the musically stripped down. An acoustic guitar lays the foundation for very dreamy sounding midi instrumentation. Am I is the “darkest” song with some eerie percussion and foreboding strings that build throughout this song. The ending track, Vapor is probably the best way to wrap this album with a bow on top with the way it slowly builds to this musical catharsis.
Because of Gungor’s massive popularity in Christian circles and some of Michael Gungor’s controversial blog posts concerning the artistic fidelity of corporate Christian music, the group’s stance on God is no secret. Throughout their discography, their lyrics have told honest stories of wrestling with the divine, frailties of the human condition, joy, and worship. This album follows suit of those themes with songs like One Wild Life.
We Are Stronger is the most politically outspoken song on this record with lines such as, “All the black lives matter, all the soldiers matter, all gay lives matter, all the unborn matter.” Their music video for Light tells the story of their baby daughter born with Down Syndrome – a very sentimental dedication.
This album has a very cavernous tone. It’s vast and hollowed out, so the production quality on this album reflects that aura. With electronica, lots of this album feels kind of sterile, but at the same time there is still a sense of the organic preserved in the acoustic tracks. This is by far the most cleanly produced record I’ve heard so far from this group, but I liked that it wasn’t off putting. For the style this is done in, everything feels mostly balanced. I think there are a few passages that feel overpowered by the vocals or that the guitars can feel a little drowned out, but even those nitpicking details make sense in context with song build up.
Gungor have crafted something original and heartfelt. This is an enjoyable album that feels good even in the background and has a lot of replay value. I think fans are going to very openly welcome this record with open ears and hearts. I look forward to the other two releases in the One Wild Life trilogy!