Preamble: So when I said this would be up 'next week,' (*cough* several weeks ago...) I apparently forgot that I was doing NaNoWriMo, a full college class schedule, a book report, and rehearsing for/participating in a musical which ran four times over three days. So, obviously, this review was not real high on the priority list there for a while. But it's here now. I still feel it doesn't do the album total justice, but if I wait till I have time to really listen to it another four or five times, we'll probably be into mid-February. So here you go. Enjoy.
Remember John Schlitt? The voice of Petra since 1986's Back To The Street? Yeah, well, his new album came out a few weeks back -- a Christmas album.
I have to be honest: though I supported the Kickstarter campaign, I wasn't entirely sure if I would like this. I've heard Christmas rock music and so far it has all sucked. Remember the band formerly known as Newsboys? tobyMac? Yeah... some artists/bands just weren't cut out for Christmas music. I doubted John's gravelly voice could take these stalwart carols and not take something away from them. Rock is one thing, Christmas is another.
What first struck me when I got the advance download was the track list. This is not your run-of-the-mill Christmas album. No Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree, no Jingle Bell Rock, not even Joy To The World or Angels We Have Heard On High or Away In A Manger. (Can this legally be sold in Christian bookstores?)
Nope, he went way back to the beautiful old Christmas songs that are familiar but, by and large, haven't been bludgeoned to death yet by hundreds of mediocre CCM arrangements. In addition, there are two original songs (That Spirit Of Christmas and What Christmas Needs To Be).
And now, for the track-by-track fangirling *cough* I mean breakdown of John Schlitt's The Christmas Project.
Hallelujah Chorus -- The following is my word-for-word reaction to hearing this song for the first time: 'HOLY DEUCE WHAT THE CRAP WAS THAT AMAZINGNESS THAT MY EARS JUST WITNESSED?' (Seriously.) This. Is. Perfect. This may border on sacrilegious, but I think I like this version better than the original Handel arrangement (though that may be because of my predetermined taste for rock music). It opens with John singing And He shall reign forever and ever a cappella, and then repeating the phrase again and again, singing the different parts and then they start to be layered. Even if he had done the whole song like that, that would have been lovely enough. But it gets better.
As he sings those parts, some kind of harpsichord or something fades in (it's all very Christmas-y), and then suddenly the rocker voice all Petheads know explodes through the speakers: King of kings! and then the electric guitar and the drums come in behind the choir parts. (Also, I'm a soprano and I'm a tiny bit jealous of the notes he hits here. Simply impressive.) Then it becomes a solid rocker of a song, fancy electric guitar work, rollicking drums, stuff that will get you headbanging.
Phenomenal opening song. Ladies and gentlemen, make way: The Christmas Project has arrived.
Do You Hear What I Hear? -- Then with the sound of barnyard animals, we hear a juvenile voice reading the classic Luke passage. Then turns into an upbeat rock sort of thing. It feels quite current, actually (though I'm not exactly on the cusp of current music, CCM or not, so I may be completely out to lunch on that assessment). I've never really liked this song (lyrically) to begin with, so I'm finding it hard to judge this version objectively. But it's easy to move around to and it does feature a pretty decent guitar solo (and the verse right after that is backed by only drums, which is cool, and then a little bit of bass work).
Little Drummer Boy -- This is perhaps the most mainstream song used on the album. Yes, it starts with a drum roll. And the drumming continues with a nice open feel to it, and a melancholy keyboard (or perhaps it's strings), and the vocals come in low and gentle. The song is done faster than most artists do it, and it actually works rather well. After the second verse, it builds a little and yes, there's some guitar, but it's not as in your face like most rock versions of this song. The focus is John's versatile powerhouse voice. Does it top the White Heart version? No... but it's pretty darn good.
O Holy Night -- This one is really pretty. Nice and gentle. John has quite a nice not-rock voice, though the processing it's given in the 'chorus' of this song seems a bit unnecessary. This is a guy who actually can do the full-on screaming rock songs (Mine Field with Petra being perhaps the best example) and the gentle Christmas carols and be equally powerful on both fronts. That takes more skill than I think a lot of us realise. This song doesn't stand out as 'holy crap this is spectacular,' but it is exactly what this song should be (unless you're in the Christmas musical that I was a part of this past weekend, where we did this song with dancers and a full orchestra and a hundred-ish voice choir and there may or may not have been fireworks involved). Gentle but quietly powerful, building a little, now softening a bit, the dynamics just naturally following the contour of the lyric. This is a great song/version of it for just sitting and staring out the window on a clear winter night and looking up at the stars (or at the Christmas tree in the front window of the house across the street, as the case may be). And it even closes with the sound of distant church bells. What more could you ask for?
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen -- It starts out as what could be called a brooding rock song, but with more energy and a deceptively light and airy vocal. You just know it's going to explode, and it does after the first verse with guitars and strings and drums and it's beautiful. This feels a lot like his previous album The Greater Cause. This song actually works well as a rock song. The strings in the background take it from mere 'rock song' to 'symphonic energetic Christmas rock song.' Then with one last cry, the song screeches almost but not quite to a halt and fades out as daintily as the snowflakes dancing in the night.
Good Christian Men Rejoice -- Ah, yes, traditional jingle bells opening the song. But then it turns into a great rollicking, toe-tapping, hand-clapping song with some pretty nice guitar work weaving through the background. The choreographer in me would like to add that this has 'tap dance' written all over it.
That Spirit Of Christmas -- Then we take it down a notch with a mellow, almost bluesy sort of tune (disclaimer: I know exactly nothing about blues). It reminds me of the filler tracks from Petra's mellower years in the late '90s. It's probably a good sitting-by-the-fireplace-with-some-hot-chocolate kind of song. Decent, but not my proverbial cup of tea.
We Three Kings -- The piano riff that starts this is beautifully warm and haunting. It makes me think of the cold winter nights with the clear sky in a wide expanse above a snowy landscape. Nice moody electric guitar work. And, of course, the strings in the interlude. I can't put it into words, but the instrumentation is just perfect for the song (until the last chorus, when it somehow feels a little harsh, but then it melts back into that pretty piano riff again).
What Christmas Needs To Be -- It just sounds happy and fun. I like the guitar riff. Not so much the backing vocals. I don't know why, they just don't work for me.
What Child Is This? -- More pretty piano! I've never heard so much piano on a rock album (or even some Christmas albums). It's really nice. It builds subtly in the chorus -- subtly but powerfully. For the third verse, everything stops and then John's gentle voice comes back in with only a little piano, which makes the final chorus stand out more
Overall, this album far exceeded my expectations. Finally, another Christmas album that won't wear out within one year of purchase. (The list of year-in/year-out classics is almost devastatingly small.)
Buy the album on his website here (you can also preview the entire thing on that page). Available on iTunes here.