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VINI CONTREAS : Revelations.   (BeautifulGate)

Some 14 years ago, I remember reviewing Vini’s ‘Kingdom of Conscience’ album, and liking his sound to that of Bob Dylan. Since then, he’s continued to record, showing that he’s more than a one trick pony, when it comes to songwriting. This latest album begins with some lovely acoustic guitar picking, as Vini performs ‘The Umbrella/Scenario,’ a song about finding Christ and welcoming Him into your life. The next song has children’s vocals taking the lead. Vini joins them for the chorus on the super, singalong, ‘If We Could All Believe in Jesus.’ This one got an instant reply, as I reviewed. Vini has often included some neat harmonica playing on his albums, over the years, and the instrument makes a welcome appearance on the foot tappin’ ‘I Am a Child of God.’ Completely, different in style, is ‘David’s Last Words,’ which reminded a little of the musician, Michael Card.  Indeed, the following ‘The Adam & Eve Song’ follows that thought, with Vini weaving the words of the well-known Bible story, into a modern, folk, backing. The song works really well, even when distorted guitar sounds make a brief appearance, over the acoustic and string sounds. Vocally, Vini is quite at home with whatever style he produces. The mellow ‘A Separate Reality’ benefits (I believe) from the doubling up of his voice. The result is quite beautiful. ‘Jesus King of Kings’ was originally released a couple of years ago as a single. I liked it then, and it still gives me a tingle, as the words praise & worship Jesus. Closing the track listing is the album’s title track. It made me smile, as this song took me back to that time I first heard this artist. This is Vini’s Dylanesque number, that looks forward to the triumphant return of the Son of Man. I love it! Albums like this make reviewing such a pleasure. Original songs, with heart and soul poured into them by the writer. Welcome back Vini, it’s been a while.   9/10.  

OLLI KIFF : Beautifully Redeemed.  (https://solo.to/ollykiff)

Olli Kiff is a singer/songwriter based in Buckinghamshire, UK. He says; “I love to sing about what Jesus has and continues to do in my life.” This is his third release and it contains 5 songs. The opening ‘Worship the Lamb’ has a nice feel, musically, and is a mid-paced song, tempo-wise. He’s joined mid-song by other voices, and the production is well thought out. Keyboards and string sounds are used on the following track, ‘My Redeemer Lives’ where Olli is joined by Emily Brake on vocal duties. Their voices sound very good together, as they sing; “One day when He stands on the earth; All hearts will sing, my Redeemer lives.”  The title track is a rather gentle number, with some sympathetic use of a violin, to accompany the vocals. On ‘All I’m Living For,’ Olli is accompanied by just an acoustic guitar, as he prays to, and worships the Lord. It’s a very simple song, but is an enjoyable listen, too. The last song is a version of ‘When I Survey (Love Amazing).’ This is the track where some effective guitar soloing comes in, between verses. Otherwise, music is provided by strings, percussion and keyboards, as Olli and Alison Kiff provide vocals. When an independent artist contacts me out of the blue for a review, I always get excited about what fresh songs might be forthcoming. Olli proves to be very good in songwriting and production, as well as being both vocally and musically first class. I’m sure that we’ll be hearing more from him in the future.   8/10.

NATASHA OWENS : Christmas Memories.   (Radiate Music)

Originally released last year, this festive offering from Natasha, somehow, slipped though the review net of NFN. Now, a Deluxe Version has been released, containing more songs. After some great album releases, there’s no doubt that Natasha has a great voice. However, I was quite dismayed by the opening version of ‘Winter Wonderland.’ The production has a honky tonk piano, paired up with some rather, too, enthusiastic brass sounds. It really did absolutely nothing for me. Thankfully, the following ‘Too Much Christmas’ is much better. It’s a foot tappin’ number with some great, throwaway festive lyrics. Twee, little songs like ‘A Christmas Twist’ and ‘Christmas Memories’ are okay, but nothing special. On ‘My Grown Up Christmas List’ I can just visualise Natasha, sitting in front of a log fire and wistfully singing about her prayers for everyone at Yuletide. It’s well done, and a highlight of the album. Natasha also delights with super renditions of ‘O Holy night’ and ‘Away in a Manger,’ before closing with the 60’s pop sound of ‘God Bless You.’ Hats off to this lady for introducing us to 7 new Christmas songs. Some are good, and some aren’t so good. But it’s definitely better than having the same festive tunes rehashed, year after year.   7/10.

JASON CRABB : Home for Christmas.   (Red Street Records)

Apparently, this 3 track EP is a taster of what’s to come on a full Jason Crabb release, Christmas 2022. The title track was written by Crabb, Don Koch, Caleb Ward and Jordan Ward and celebrates the importance of family above the trappings of the season. It’s a slow paced song that has plenty of horns and strings taking the musical lead. The Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene-penned Christmas classic, ‘Mary Did You Know.’ gets a smooth outing. The Press Release states that it’s a ‘new rendition,’ but I didn’t think that it was much different from many previous versions. ‘Who Could Have Dreamed’ focuses on the true meaning of Christmas, with Jason giving, possibly, his best vocal performance of the 3 songs. Once again, strings play a big part of the musical production, resulting in a lovely pop ballad. Overall, it’s a 6/10 from me.

ZACH WILLIAMS I Don’t Want Christmas to End.   (Provident Label Group).  This is a collection of songs, some popular and some spiritual, with an upbeat feel and, if I can say politely, loud and proud presentation. Bluesy, rocky and full on production. Songs include White Christmas, Mary Did You Know and Run Run Rudolph. In places, the latter  reminded me of Bruce Springsteen. ‘Mary Did You Know’ took me by surprise. Usually, the song is performed gentle and reflectionary. But, not this version! Instead, it’s “in your face” rock. The same style continues with ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain,’ which also has a bass led riff. It is track 6 which starts to have a country rock sound – ‘That Spirit of Christmas.’ Zach’s vocals, throughout, are powerful and clear.

The production is very good, and the arrangements very full, including the backing vocals. I liked the jazz elements to ‘This Christmas,’ too. The title track reminded me of Bruce Hornsby in style, with its piano led sound, and open backing through the verse. There’s a nice blues guitar breaks and a cool solo.

Overall, it’s a good CD, and I’m sure that Zach’s tour in the States will be fantastic this December. My lingering feeling is why? Why release this? I imagine he has a large following and they will love the release. Especially, if you are wanting a Christmas album that rocks. Some songs you will know and some you may not. It works well but, for me, while it serves both secular audiences and Christian, the truths are blurred by the mixture of songs. If it is a bit of fun and just meant as a good CD (which it is) then it achieves its aims. 8/10.   Noel Donaldson.

SARAH KROGER : Light Has Come.   (Integrity Music)

Sarah’s Christmas offering is a slow burning song that benefits from a lovely production. The music is perfect for season, as I likened the song to a modern hymn. Of course, there’s no secret of what the song is about, and Sarah celebrates in style. “Tender shepherd, Holy lamb of God; Love, come to redeem.” The chorus is filled with voices singing “Hallelujah, Gloria,” and it sounds wonderful. Yes, it’s a lovely, fresh, Christmas song!   9/10.  

DWELL : Christmas.   (Integrity Music)

Dwell movement’s worship community in Little Rock, Ark, have released this festive album of 13 songs, old and new. They also invite friends to join them on some track, including the Potter’s House Choir on ‘Glory to God.’ With lots of strings providing the music, the vocals are spot on, too. A beautiful duet sees gospel star, William McDowell feature on ‘The Reason,’ as the song reminds us of what Christmas is really about. A similar vocal combination is used on ‘Making Room,’ were I really loved the female contribution, especially. Steffany Gretzinger guests on ‘Hope Awakes,’ and delivers a gentle performance of beauty. Meanwhile, there’s a children’s choir driving the sweet, but catchy, ‘A Merry Merry Christmas.’ I can certainly see me playing that one again and again. For traditionalists, the ‘Christmas Carol Medley’ works well, with renditions of ‘Away in a Manger, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Hark The Herald Angels’ included. In all honesty, I was really surprised, in a good way, by this release. There’s a real quality about the whole package, so well done to all concerned.   8/10.

POINT OF GRACE : Sing Noel.   (Word/Curb Entertainment)

Point of Grace’s soaring melodies and rich harmonies have helped define the sound of contemporary Christian music for nearly three decades. With faith-filled and passionate lyrics, their memorable melodies and soaring harmonies have inspired generations to live boldly and keep God’s love as the foundation of their lives. The current trio are Shelley Breen, Denise Jones and Leigh Cappillino, and this their new Christmas album. The recent single, ‘Gloria’ leads things off and it’s a very powerful number. The only thing that lets it down is a rather thin production. Certainly, there was little depth to the vocal quality. A vibrant and fresh version of ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’ must be applauded. It’s probably one of the best reworking’s of a Christmas classic that I’ve heard in a long time. ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ gets an uptempo outing, while ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ is slow and gentle. I know that this may not sound good, but I really enjoyed the dance beat to ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’ It’s one of those that you think wouldn’t work but, the way PoG presents, it does, complete with synth’ sounds. Another highlight is the Enya style ‘Fear Not.’ A Celtic feel and atmospheric vocals result in a very good song. I’m not quite sure what happened with the first song, as the rest of the album’s vocals are first class. The only thing I didn’t like was the rather cringe-worthy ‘The Story of Christmas (Medley). A mixture of spoken word and song, it just didn’t sit right with the rest of the songs. However, Point of Grace have, otherwise, presented a very good festive release.  8/10.

GARETH HIDES feat, Dave Mwaniki & Revelation Daze : Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.   (https://www.k180.org/store/p30/Let_The_Lower_Lights_Be_Burning_-_Free_Download.html)

Gareth says; “I’m planning to release a new EP, called “Saving Grace,” early in the New Year. This song will be part of the EP, which is actually not a new song, but a rearranged old hymn.” Originally written by P.P.Bliss in 1871, the song has, over the years, been recorded by the likes of Tennessee Ernie ford and Johnny Cash. Gareth’s version has a more modern feel, yet sympathetic to the original tune. Lead vocals are shared between Gareth, Dave Mwaniki and Revelation Daze, while the former links each verse with the repeated refrain; ‘Let the lower lights.’  This release stands up well against those that have gone before, and you can download the track for free or/and watch the music video at the link above. Overall though, well done, Gareth.   8/10.

CAIN : Wonderful.   (Provident Label Group)

Over the past year CAIN has taken the Christian music world by storm. Garnering back-to-back no.1 radio singles ‘Rise Up (Lazarus)’ and ‘Yes He Can.’ This six-track yuletide EP begins with the bouncy ‘(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home.’ Originally a secular chart hit for Michael Buble, Cain’s version is every bit as good. Steven Curtis Chapman joins the trio for ‘Wonderful’ while Mac Powell features on the pop sound of ‘Christmas is Coming.’ On the downside, I

felt that ‘Celebrate Me Home’ was rather melancholy in production. The other tracks are ‘Grown-Up Christmas List’ and a simple, acoustic rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ A little more originality in content would have been more favourable but, as it is, the EP scores a mediocre 6/10.

CHRIS TOMLIN: Emmanuel – Christmas Songs of Worship (Sparrow Records)

Chris Tomlin will need little introduction to most Christian worshippers who have either sung his songs in church on Sundays or have heard one of his many tracks (How Great is Our God, Amazing Grace – My Chains are Gone) or albums released over the past 20 or so years. “Emmanuel” is Chris’s third festive album and I would suggest that if you happen to be a fan of his worship releases, there’s a very good chance you’re going to like this one as well. In terms of musical style and production, there are no great surprises and you’ll get the full-on ‘live’ worship experience which you can’t help but join in with. If, however, you’re looking for a fuzzy ‘sleigh bells and all’ experience, then this isn’t one for your list. ‘Emmanuel God With Us’ is very typical of one of Chris’s live worship releases with polished vocals, a low-key introduction and rising anthemic choruses. Make no mistake, this is a quality worship anthem but lyrically, I didn’t find anything particularly fresh in the content but the same could be said for many a festive ditty, both Christian and secular. ‘Christmas Day’ follows on in a similar style with a lively intro, subtle verses and rising full-band choruses with a pretty catchy rhythm. Again, a great worship song but were it not for the inclusion of the phrase ‘the reason for Christmas day’, you might be hard pushed to find more than a hint of the Christmas theme. ‘All the World Awaits’ brings about significant improvements and it’s far more obvious this is a festive number. It’s a bit lower-key then the preceding 2 numbers but as with the opening track, there seem to be many phrases borrowed from classics and I found myself successfully predicting what was coming next. ‘Hallelujah’ came as a pleasant surprise and was a complete departure from the usual Tomlin worship style, with Blessing Offor providing the vocals in a joyful, upbeat Gospel-style number with energy to spare – loved it, and that really is saying something as I don’t tend to engage with Gospel tunes! Chris is then back with refreshed version of a traditional carol ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’, which staunch traditionalists will not like at all but for me, he’s done a good job of refreshing a classic which may speak to another generation. ‘His Name is Wonderful’ continues the more relaxed pace and includes rare instances of sleigh bells – subtle but nice to see and not overdone. ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is a fabulous and highly atmospheric rendition of the Christmas classic we all know and love but very low key with synth background and subtle drums creating atmosphere by the bucket load. ‘Hope of Israel’ is ballad-like in pace, delivering a big message with subtlety (sound like real life at times?) which I can imagine crowds waving along to at a live event. CeCe Winans provides the vocals for ‘O Holy Night’ with some beautiful backing vocals, which combined with understated percussion and instrumentation makes this one of the best renditions of this oft-covered number I have heard. Matt Redman joins in for what appears to be a very unusual inclusion in a festive album ‘Crown Him With Many Crowns’ but the words have been adjusted somewhat to fit the season. ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ is the penultimate number – again, suitably subtle and with no shocks in terms of the tune but a highly effective rendition. A reprise of ‘Crown Him With Many Crowns’ rounds things off which is probably best enjoyed ‘live’ as opposed to a recording. This is first and foremost a worship album, with Tomlin’s usual high-quality meaning fans are unlikely to be disappointed. As a Christmas seasonal offering though, I feel it could have benefitted from a few more bells here and there to add more festive flavour. 9/10 Simon Redfern

VOCTAVE : The Spirit of the Season – Deluxe Edition.   (Club44 Records)

VOCTAVE is a musical ensemble greater than the sum of its 11 members, The press release says that this ‘Deluxe Edition’ of heir album is “greater than the sum of its brilliant song selections, the intricate arrangements and the angelic voices.”

The first thing to hit me about this album was the power and flexibility of the group’s voices, providing a different approach to singing so many well-known songs. Jody McBrayer joins them on ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ with the backing vocals sounding every bit ‘Angelic’ as forecasted. The title track is a lovely song, while ‘Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season’ gets a 50’s style swing treatment – which is also very good. The high standard of the vocals remains throughout the album, it was just a personal taste that I wasn’t keen on the songs ‘Where Are You Christmas’ and ‘The Man With the Bag.’ With additional songs like ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ and ‘O Holy Night,’ there’s an array of yuletide songs, and not a musical instrument in sight.   7/10.

BACKSTAGE REVIVAL : Christmas Worship.   (Backstage Revival Music)

Backstage Revival is comprised of husband-and-wife singer/songwriters John and Anne Lazenby. This duo leads people into the presence of God through soulful Americana-style worship. This two track EP features one traditional, and one brand news song. The old, is a sympathetic rendition of ‘What Child Is This?’ Music is provided by an acoustic guitar and a violin. Together, they provide an excellent backdrop to the couple’s fine vocals. ‘I See A Star’ has a more electric sound, but still has some nice string sounds within, too. It’s a fairly slow paced number that contains the words; “Our King Has come, hope’s alive.” Celebrating the birth of Jesus, it’s an enjoyable and worshipful sound. On the strength of these two songs, John & Anne are definitely a duo worth looking out for in the future.   7/10.   

CHOSEN ROAD : Appalachian Hymns.   (Song Garden)

Bluegrass Gospel artist Chosen Road returns with their latest recording, Appalachian Hymns. Produced by the group’s Zachary Alvis and Tyler Robertson, the 12-song collection pairs the band’s unparalleled acoustic instrumentation and vocal harmonies with classic songs of faith and the Church. One of the highlights of this album is the use of Celtic instruments, plus first class vocals. The scene is set with the first hymn ‘At The Cross.’ Lovely banjo picking and soulful fiddles carry the song along at a foot tappin’ pace. I’d not heard of ‘Brethren We Have Met to Worship’ before, but I was soon enjoying the smooth vocal harmonies of another delightful delivery. If, like me, you’re a sucker for a bluegrass instrumental, then you’ll love the intricate banjo playing on ‘Send the Light.’ It’s pure delight! Quieter songs like the acapella ‘O What A glad Day’ and the beautiful ‘My Saviour’s Love’ bring a nice contrast to the more energetic tracks. For me, album’s like this are a breath of fresh air. Great instrument skills are on show, and production is just so crisp and clean. There are 12 tracks on the album, closing with the current single ‘Be Thou My Vision.’ Well worth an 8/10.

BETH : Celebrate.   (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h_GjOia_Kc)

Grammy Nominee, Detroit Native, record label owner, and former NBC’s The Voice (Season 16) contestant Beth Griffith-Manley a.k.a BETH has released the festive single “Celebrate”. Style-wise, the song is a blend of Pop and R&B with a dash of a Caribbean flavour. Musically, the main percussion is quite annoying. It sounds like someone slapping a work surface with a wooden spoon! Other than that, the rest of the instrumentation is quite good. Beth has a nice voice, and the backing vocals work well, too. Lyrically, there’s no problem with phrases like “Don’t hesitate to spread the joy” and “Oh how I love to see all the snow falling. It’s a winter wonderland.” Certainly, it’s a sugary sounding song, and quite catchy as well!   6/10.

VORKAY & ARINOLA : Christmas Time.   (https://songwhip.com/vorkayandarinola/christmas-time)

One thing that I’ve noticed with Christmas releases this year, is that there has been an increase in new and original festive songs. Here’s another one from two London-based gospel singers, Vorkay & Arinola. The former has previously released three singles, while the latter has two albums and three singles to her name. ‘Christmas Time’ has a happy feel to it, and a beat that is well produced. There’s some lovely Christmas jingle bells in the background, while the ladies share the vocals. Of course, being a Christian release, the lyrics centre on the birth of Jesus, and time were everyone should be showing His love to others. The more I played it, the more I liked this song. A minor negative point comes mid-song, when one of the ladies’ ad-lib between verse and chorus, sounds rather off-key. Perhaps I’m doing one of them an disservice as otherwise, vocals are note perfect. So, well done Vorkay & Arinola. Great pop song!   9/10.

THE BROWNS : Christmas Now!   (Club 44 Records)

The Browns have been touring across the United States since the group began 20 years ago. The heralded group began on the local and state level and has expanded and grown into a national and international touring group. This is their Christmas offering, which opens with a medley of festive tunes, backed by orchestral sounds. As with previous recordings, the group’s vocal harmonies are first class. ‘Caroling, Caroling/Masters of the Hall’ has a very joyful sound to it, while the poignant ‘Light a Candle’ has the message of being a light in the darkness, especially at Christmas time. A welcome change to festive track listings was the inclusion of ‘Themes from The Nutcracker Suite.’ I do like a good piece of classical music, and this one didn’t let me down. The ‘Holiday Season Medley’ gets a Michael Buble, big band treatment, with tunes like ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,’ and ‘Mary Did You Know’. The Browns give you quite a varied selection of yuletide tunes and, although it just snuck into this month’s reviews, I was still impressed enough to give the album a 7/10.

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