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MATTHEW JAMES McKAY : No Longer Slaves.   (https://www.facebook.com/MJMcKayMusic/)

Recording since the age of 10, this is Matthew James McKay’s 5th album release. However, this time, Matthew (MJ) has recorded and produced the recording himself. If that’s not enough, he also plays most of the instruments, and shares backing vocal duty with his sister, Hannah Louise. Keeping it in the family, the youngest McKay member, James Scott provides the drums. There’s almost a feel of a marching band, on the opening version of “How Great Thou Art.” MJ’s vocals are crisp and strong from the start, and are ably backed by his sister. Indeed, their voices work well together throughout, including on “What a Beautiful Name.” This song contains some driving guitar rhythm, as well as delightful solo. Arrangement wise, MJ has plenty of ideas. “King of My Heart” benefits from some Celtic tones, while “Hosanna” has a brand new feel about it. I smiled at the opening guitar solo for “The Arms of My Saviour,” as it must be Clapton influenced. The title track of the album is one of my favourite songs of recent years and, here, MJ gives it the perfect treatment. I’ve been fortunate to follow MJ’s music progress since those early days. This album is a real step forward from his previous releases, and its hats off to him for all the hard work in making this recording so good. I must have sung and heard “Our God is Greater” hundreds of times, yet MJ’s version is fresh, complete with distorted power chords. On the gentler side, there’s “For All That You Have Done.” I love the multi-layered vocals, and the sustained guitar effects. It’s another terrific piece of work. I can only see MJ’s musical gifts getting even better in the years to come, and it will be interesting to see where they lead him and his siblings. A truly remarkable release.   10/10.

ALL SOULS ORCHESTRA : A Festival of Christmas.   (Integrity Music)

After living in America for a number of years I've always been a big fan of big orchestral Christmas music so I was looking forward to listening and reviewing this project. I'm happy to say I wasn't disappointed! From the opening track "A Christmas Festival" this album is a soul lifter with its breathtaking dynamics that take you on a journey visiting well known songs like Silent Night, Sleigh Ride and Once in Royal David's City to lesser known pieces like the overture from Hansel and Gretel and From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable. It's the perfect album to get you into the Christmas spirit and would easily stand strong alongside other Christmas offerings on Classic FM and Radio 4. I love that they've included multiple Christmas medley's so you experience all your favourites. All in all a very enjoyable listen that will be going into my car very soon!!! 10/10 Angie Lendon

KINGSDOM : Spirit.   (https://kingsdom.bandcamp.com/)

Following on from their excellent self-titled EP, Australia’s Kingsdom have released this new song, “Spirit.” No guessing for what the song is about! “Spirit lead me to Your heart, Spirit lead me to the waters, where I can drink of You, It's all about, it's all about You.” A pleasing crescendo of instruments introduces the song in a, sort of, Coldplay rhythm. From then on, the song becomes rockier, with lots of guitar riffs and a driving beat. The vocals are perfect for this song, and the guitar solo is excellent. Kingsdom’s EP gained a 10/10 rating from NFN, and I see no reason to follow suit with this single.   10/10.

PLANKTON RECORDS : Forty Years 1978-2018.   (Plankton Records : Plank0140)

Celebrate the history and musical journey of Plankton Records, the UK’s oldest surviving Christian independent record label, as they mark their 40th anniversary with this extensive collection of 41 hand-picked tracks that highlight the artists and the range of musical styles and genres that Plankton Records have released since 1978. And, wow, what a collection it is! It certainly took me some time to get through all the songs a few times. The band, Sea Stone, start things off with a couple of tracks. One tells about Jesus’ life, whilst the other depicts unemployment. The sound is somewhat dated but, after 40 years, what do you expect? Catch 22’s “Freeway to Paradise” had me thinking that it could have been the follow up to “Stairway to Heaven.” There were certainly some similarities in the sound. Fresh Claim feature prominently on both CD’s. Firstly, with their prog’ rock songs, and then by featuring some lighter pop/worship numbers. I chuckled a few times at the 80’s sounds that feature. For instance, Medals’ “Blue Blood” had an ABC feel about it, while Instransit’s “Bare Face to Face” had early Spandau Ballet written all over it! From the more modern era, the wistful vocals of Vivienne Neville are a highlight, as she sings praise to Jesus on “Veiled in Mystery.” Another good song is the Disciplemaker’s self-titled 2015 ditty. The melody is very simple but from the first time I heard it, I thought “How catchy” it was. Soul outfit, Echo have a couple of tracks included, while The Darn Funk Orchestra make a welcome appearance with “Salvation Shoes.” This review would have been much longer, but I just how far should I go? This release is a potted history of independent UK Christian music over the last 40 years. It’s a wonderful achievement and both Keith Dixon & Simon Laws should be thanked for, not only, this brilliant compilation, but their tireless work for God. It goes without saying, that this is a super double album.   10/10.

ERNIE HAASE & SIGNATURE SOUND : Clear Skies – Live in Bossier City, L.A.   (Stow Town Records),

If I didn’t already have my hands on this fabulous live DVD, it would certainly be on my Christmas list! “Clear Skies” the album, was released earlier this year to critical acclaim. This release gives you both songs from the album, plus extras on a 60 minute plus concert. Rarely have I witnessed such great voices on a Christian DVD, which starts with the exciting, title track. The groups harmonies are pitch perfect and bassman, Paul Harkey has the most wonderful tones you’re ever likely to hear. The words to “Give Me Jesus” were originally written by the great Fanny Crosby. Ernie Haase has now come up with modern music to accompany them, and the result is first class. The theme of the concert is unashamedly centred on God and Jesus, including the song “Sailing With Jesus” -  living with Him by your side. If you’ve got problems or worries in your life, what better song to hear than “Give Them All To Jesus.” I wasn’t quite so sure about “Happy People.” According to Haase and the boys, God’s people “happy all the time.” Maybe I’m missing something there? However, song after song make great statements about our God and Saviour, and I found the whole thing, very uplifting. A nice touch on the DVD are the interviews with the group members. It just wraps up an almost perfect package.   10/10.

JEAN WATSON : Sacred.   (Truthfulmusic Productions)

This being the third time I have reviewed a Jean Watson album for NFN, I am realising that she can be relied upon to deliver beautifully sung recordings of excellent sound quality. Supported by CCM luminaries such as guitarist Phil Keaggy, cellist Matt Slocum and vocalist Matthew Ward, these eleven tracks are Michigan-based Jean's 'Hymns’ project. Said to be in a 'Celtic woman' style, some obscure, some familiar, but all of which 'move her’, she describes the release as "a powerful worship experience I can't wait to share with the world". The Celtic feel is evident throughout, including Jean contributing her classically trained violinist skills in an appropriately 'Corrs'(!) - style way. Some of the hymns are certainly familiar - 'Holy, holy, holy' being an example - whilst ones new to me include 'Jesus Christ the apple tree'. My stand out track is probably 'I heard the voice of Jesus say', including the fact that it is particularly demonstration quality sound-wise. Almost every track is a pleasurable listen though - the exception being the last one. This is an instrumental version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', heavily featuring Jean's multitracked plucked and bowed violin. As well as not really fitting in with the rest of the album, I found the violin tone grating to the point where I couldn't comfortably listen through to the end. Tidal streamed as I did of course, it's easy to miss it off! Assuming this, 9/10. Dave Deeks

RICHARD JENSEN : Parabolic.   (https://richjens.bandcamp.com/)

Richard Jensen returns with a band new album, of which he says that “The parables formed a large part of Jesus' teaching. Simple stories with hard-hitting messages. Here are just a few.” The melodic “Prodigal” chugs along nicely with some backing that reminded of early Pink Floyd. “Joy in Heaven” tells of the joy of one lost soul who is found. The song itself has bright keyboard sounds at the forefront, and production is well thought out. The parable of the sowing of seeds is the story behind “Sower.” Richard begins by singing of the seeds that fell on rock. He, then, regales us with what happened to those seeds that fell on good soil. Here, I just felt the song came over as being rather sad, rather than the jubilant second verse. Ethereal sounds greet the arrival of the next song, “Tenants” but I was far more satisfied by the more uptempo “The Kingdom.” Here, I felt that the music and melody fitted perfectly with the story being told. Richard must be applauded for  his musical talents. I‘ve mentioned previously that his work is reminiscent of the songs created by Michael Card. Certainly, during the last couple of years, Richard has found both his voice and forte. If you like your music to have more Bible based substance, you’ll enjoy this album.   7/10.

LOU FELLINGHAM : Ultimate Collection.   (Integrity Music)

Lou Fellingham is a name I’ve known for more years than I like to think about, but I can’t claim to be particularly familiar with her work. Therefore an album called “Ultimate Collection” is the ideal introduction. The songs are selected from her four studio albums, plus a live version of “There Is A Day” recorded at Abbey Road studios (probably the only song – aside from “To God Be The Glory” – I recognised). The tracks are generally in a pop/rock style (tending more towards the former) at either a mid-tempo pace or a gentler ballad one. This makes them very easy to sing along with, which is ideal for worship (the build on “I Will Say” is a good example of this). The arrangements are very uncomplicated, focussing on supporting Lou’s excellent voice meaning that it’s very easy to miss some of the nice touches going on in the background (the guitar work on “This Is My Worship” for example, which soars beautifully as Lou reaches out in praise). Thematically the lyrics are very modern, meaning that they tend to focus on our reaction to God and His Love rather than taking a theological stance more akin to classic hymns (aside from “To God Be The Glory”, of course), with the need for rescue in our weakness being a particular theme explored. There’s a guest vocal from Jake Isaac on “Sacrifice” which works very well with the stripped back piano and strings arrangement. I wasn’t too sure about the arrangement of “To God Be The Glory” in which the style of words didn’t really seem to sit with the style of backing, something that only got strengthened by the new chorus they’d written for it which seemed so much better – maybe they should just have written a completely new song? That said, it’s a far better rendition than the ones I first heard in churches in the 1970s, so on balance won me over in the end. Lou and her band are very accomplished, as the live “There Is A Day” demonstrates amply – I guess they tell you it was recorded live, otherwise you’d find it hard to tell. Overall I quite liked this album, but not enough to go and check out the others. If, like me, you’ve heard of Lou but are unfamiliar with her work then this is a very good place to start. Best track: This Is My Worship. 6/10.   Paul Ganney

BUILDING 429 : Live The Journey.  (Provident : B07DXS2NTJ)

Sitting in that interesting overlap between pop and modern worship, these songs have a great singalong quality. Without a background in some of the lyrical phrases used, it’d be hard to work out exactly who the “you” being addressed is, though. (“Beginning and end – it’s who you are”, from “Assurance” for example. It’s track 4 before Jesus gets a name check and 7 for God – the credal recital here leaves absolutely no doubt, to be fair). Whether that bothers you may depend on the context in which you see these songs: performance or congregational. Regardless, the vocal similarly straddles the crossover in style – being reminiscent of The Wanted, Hillsongs, Hawk Nelson, One Direction et al. The overall feel is very uplifting, songs such as “Shame doesn’t live here anymore” celebrating Jesus’ victory more than reflecting on our sin that made it necessary, which fits the style well – music and lyrics conveying the same message. Even the gentler numbers have that sort of feel to them.  The band are tight, playing very much to support the vocal – nice flourishes, pauses and so on for emphasis (e.g. “The Journey”) and all very well played without necessarily breaking new ground. It’s all very well done but I just couldn’t get away from the feeling that I’d heard it all before – maybe the subtleties of the genre are lost on me. It is an album that is uplifting though and is very good to listen to.

Best track: The Journey.   7/10.   Paul Ganney.

MATT MAHER : The Advent of Christmas.   (Provident : 083061109127)

Here’s an album with a mix of old and new Christmas tunes, to get you into the festive spirit. Matt begins the album with “Gabriel’s Message.” It’s a glorious sound, and benefits from some fine orchestral sounds. Co-writing with Chris Tomlin, Matt follows up with “He Shall Reign Forevermore.” It’s a typical contemporary praise and worship song that hits all the right notes. “Born on That Day” is the album’s big production number that builds in power as the song progresses. Here, for me, Matt goes all Michael Buble, and the album takes a definite nosedive. Both “Jingle Bells” and “The First Noel” are drab affairs that I’ll not be playing again for some time. Thankfully, Matt recovers well and provides an excellent song in “Hope For Everyone.” I especially enjoyed it when lots of backing singers join in for the chorus. Drum rhythms are at the pole position of “Glory.” It’s the one song that I thought would lend itself to church worship, too. A co-write and duet with Amy Grant (“Always Carry You”) is quite moving, while “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” gets a folk treatment from Matt and his musicians. The album is one of those that really needs a few plays to appreciate the original songs, and “Little Merry Christmas” was just one that was better for a second listen. Matt’s tried very hard to come up with some news songs for this special season, and there are one or two sparkling successes on show.   8/10.

ERIC KNIEFEL : My Only Aim.   (www.erickniefelmusic.com)

Portland, OR based worship leader, Eric Kneifel follows up his great 2016 album with this new song which is based on Acts 20:24: However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. The track itself is one of worship, in which Eric asks Jesus to “Lead me in your ways,” and to “Guide me in your perfect truth.” Backing music is kept to a minimum for the opening verse, leaving Eric’s vocals to be clear and crisp. As the chorus begins, Eric is joined by the voice of Lindsey Linn, who then solo’s on the next verse. The overall sound is fresh and vibrant, and makes for a lovely song of worship.   9/10.

SOUL SURVIVOR : Standing on the Edge.   (Integrity Music)

According to my records, this is the fifth live worship Soul Survivor release that I have reveiwed for NFN. Originating in 1993 out of the 'New Wine' movement, Soul Survivor has become a well established outreach for teenagers. The emphasis this time performer-wise is on worship leader Tom Smith, with Beth Croft and The Rend Collective contributing a couple of tracks each and Guvna B sharing vocals with Tom Smith on 'Cast your cares'. As with previous releases, there is plenty of energy evident here, seeming to capture well the atmosphere of the worship events. Depending on your viewpoint however, it is a good or bad thing that this release brings nothing new, being classic formulaic Soul Survivor. Tom Smith's vocals often sound as though they have a raspy auto-tune edge that robs them of emotion, although his 'Every day' stands out musically. In contrast Beth Croft's voice sounds lovely and natural, with her 'Who you say I am' being my overall best track. Her only other contribution is 'Moment no 2 For You' - the second of two 'interludes' between main tracks. Regrettably, as usual with Soul Survivor releases, the sound quality in general leaves a lot to be desired - with my sound system yet again exposing heavy sound compression. 5/10. Dave Deeks

DARLENE ZSCHECH & HOPEUC : The Table – A Christmas Worship Gathering.   (Integrity Music)

For Darlene Zschech, The Table is not only an invitation to join in worship of the Saviour and a call to welcome others, it is a celebration of the home she and, husband,  Mark have found at HopeUC, which now includes nine church campuses spread across Australia, India and the U.S. I felt a little mis-led by Darlene’s name being used to promote this release as, according to the accompanying notes, its other church members who take most of the lead vocals. After an opening instrumental prelude, Zschech (I presume) sings a nice version of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” My only complaint is that repetitive “Come & Adore” phrase goes on a little too long. Beth Gleeson provides some sweet vocals to “Silent Night,” as do Coco Gleeson and Piper Rorke with “Away in a Manger.” “Oh Holy Night” suffers from the most mind numbing piano playing that I’ve heard in a long time. I soon fast forwarded over that one! There’s a striking version of Angels We Have Heard on High/Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The guitar and percussion sounds are very, very good. Best vocal award must go to Laura Robertson for her performance on “Emmanuel (Glory to God). “ It’s a very good song and the vocals are exquisite. The album contains some nice moments, but I was disappointed by the dull production on certain songs.   6/10.

GARETH DAVIES-JONES : The Darkest Midnight in December.   (www.garethdavies-jones.com)

Here’s chap who makes consistently good singer/songwriter albums, year after year. Gareth Davies-Jones has 15 years hard graft and experience as a professional musician, writing, recording and playing his way around the UK & Ireland. This is his 9th studio release and features new arrangements of timeless Christmas classics, plus some written word, put to music. His original “advent” starts things off, with Gareth’s unmistakable vocals singing quietly to just a piano sound. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” has a really nice tune to it, and I thought how well it lifted Edmund Hamilton Sears’ lyrics of 1849. I’ve often thought that Gareth can be likened to Martyn Joseph’s work, in style, but over the years, he has really stamped his own flair to his music. Vocally, he never wavers, whether being gentle on “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” or more uplifting on “I Saw Three Ships” – again, to his own tune. Of these new arrangements, I thought that “O Come All Ye Faithful” was the best, but it was a close run thing. Ending the track listing is the title track. It’s a quiet song, and sung with much reverence. No doubt Gareth will be delighting his audiences on his December tour with all these songs, and more.   9/10.

I AM THE PENDRAGON : The Castle Of Lost Hope.   (Raven Faith Records).

Knowing nothing about this album or band and with a spoken word first track setting the scene for the story to follow, I was expecting a prog rock epic. Not so – instead the guitars crunched in and the drums and bass pounded. A metal concept album is a welcome change from a lot of stuff I’ve heard recently (they actually describe themselves as “the concept driven story of an end times parable with a sci-fi/western setting”, which is a pretty good description once you’ve heard them). The vocal lines had hints of Helloween about them, albeit in a lower register, making the overall sound far more New Wave of British Heavy Metal, with hints of Judas Priest/Diamond Head/early Def Leppard and a nod to Black Sabbath (the rhythm change in “Woe Is Me” for example and the solo in the same song) with a more up to date production (it always seems odd to talk of cleanly recorded distortion but this has it). It’s not as time locked as the above makes it sound though – the slap bass intro to “Closer” is excellent style fusion and a lot of it draws favourable comparisons with Jack White and the acoustic riff on “The Boy Who Never Knew” is gentler while sitting nicely in context stylistically. The storyline of the album didn’t come through that clearly to me, but when “Falling Stars” appeared, declaring allegiance to God (in one of the better songs on the album – musically as well as lyrically) it started to make sense. It also heralded a shift in style as the album moved to a close – this made for a much stronger finish than more of the same would have done. Whilst not perfect, it’s an album with lots of interesting ideas and some very accomplished execution. It will be very interesting to see where this band go next, as they stabilised their line-up during the recording of this album. Best Track: The Castle Of Lost Hope.   5/10. Paul Ganney

FIONA CROW : Masterpiece.   (www.fionacrowmusic.com)

Edinburgh-based worship leader, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Fiona Crow combines music ministry with her job as a Music Therapist. Fiona is the Worship Director at Edinburgh Elim and alongside her bass-playing husband and young family she has served there for over 10 years. This release is the follow up to her 2015 album “Made to Love” and contains 10 tracks. Vocally, Fiona has a touch of Kristene DiMarco about her, while I liken her musical style to that of Manchester’s Krystyna Myles. From the opening “Citizen of Heaven” Fiona’s piano figures prominently throughout the album. “Whole Life Praise” is a touching song about letting your whole life praise the Lord. “All My Love” is quite slow in tempo, but is nicely delivered by Fiona. “Be Moved” and Father Heart” go together quite well, and I particularly enjoyed Scott Macleod’s guitar work on the latter. The title track is, for me, the best song on the album. Production is first class and it really is a “Masterpiece.” Beginning with simple piano phrases, Fiona sings from a deep love in Christ, and celebrates being alive in Him. There’s quite a wealth of good songs here, closing with “Be Still,”  a song for soaking in God’s love and presence. Fiona may be a new name to many on the UK scene but this album should see her making positive waves in Christian music.   9/10.

LUKE & ANNA HELLEBRONTH : Revive Us (Heavy Rain).   (Integrity Music)

This song, which was co-written by Luke, is a prophetic cry for more of God’s presence and an encouragement for Christians to fully engage with the power of the Holy Spirit. Come like a fire, come like the wind... breathe on Your people, called by Your name...Revive us, revive us again. Pour out the power of Your presence...We hear the sound of heavy rain, the move of God– the winds of change, Your kingdom comes. Musically, it’s an atmospheric piece that rises in glory as the song plays. Luke is the vocalist, and I liked his delivery. Luke & Anna are team members of Worship Central and also serve as worship pastors at the Gas Street Church in Birmingham. With this information in mind, I can definitely see “Revive Us” being used for collective worship.   8/10.

ANITA FAYE : Kingdom Journey,   (NiNi Tunes)

This is a 13 track CD, and it has quite a variety of styles on offer. It kicks off with a dance track called "I Gotta Know". a song about life's disappointments, which sets the tone for a lot of the songs on the album, learning to trust that God is in control of all things.  The best track for me on the CD, is a worship ballad called "Anchor Of My Soul". It has a feel of Whitney Houston to the vocals, as do several other tracks. The final track "Take My Hand Precious Lorde" also boasts quite impressive vocals too -  it's a more traditional gospel style song. There are also songs that lean towards jazz, and straightforward hip hop tracks on offer here, to name just a couple of styles. All of the songs feature Anita's excellent vocals though. I thought that this was a well written, well thought out album, performed by a talented singer. It is well worth a listen. There are snippets of the tracks at www.anitafaye.com  and you can get the CD from there. Also available from the usual download sites.   9/10.   Andy Sayner.

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