For over a decade, Downhere has been making critically acclaimed records that deliver ministry-focused lyrics with a creative, pop-rock style. Their music has won a loyal fanbase and a number of awards over the years, but several popular singles from their 2008 album Ending is Beginning took their songs to a wider audience, as well as continued to evolve their sound in a more pop direction. Though described as the most "pop-friendly" project in their career, Downhere's sixth major studio album, On the Altar of Love, is not one that fits lightweight stereotypes. Instead, they build an anthemic sound that is layered and musically diverse, while keeping their straightforward songwriting fresh and sincere.
No matter how much their style evolves, Downhere's sound remains rooted in the work of co-vocalists Jason Germain and Marc Martel. Germain's gritty rock-singer edge and Martel's high-flying falsettos anchor the songs, complementing and balancing each other with equal strength, never overpowering each other. Though Martel's big voice can steal the spotlight, carrying songs like "Let Me Rediscover You" and "Altar of Love" to intense heights, Germain gets plenty of opportunity to shine, particularly in the gentle encouragement of "Glory by the Way of Shame" and his impassioned performance of "For Love."
Part of Downhere's appeal is an artistry of sound that's difficult to define, even in their most pop moments. On the Altar of Love marries elements of chamber pop, alternative rock, and even a touch of Americana folk for a sound more expansive than expected from a four-piece band. This isn't a highly upbeat record; with the exception of a few tracks, big ballads and serious moments dominate, but the building layers of sound are stirring. Words like "cinematic" or "theatrical" come to mind, but not in a cheesy, contrived sense. For example, the lead single "Let Me Rediscover You" almost sounds like a dramatic 90s ballad on the first impression, but multiple listens reveal the raw passion and longing in every note, and the music blends into something textured and lovely.
It's not all serious, however. "Living the Dream" is a playful nod to the Queen-esque style that fully embraces Martel's Freddie Mercury comparisons, similar to "My Last Amen" on their previous release. It's fun and delightful, and serves as both a counterpoint and lead-in to "Seek," one of the heaviest and most musically diverse tracks on the record. Germain and Martel deliver amazing vocal harmony in this one, and despite the driving rock anthem style, some well-hidden fiddles and banjos give a surprising texture to the song's bridge. Those Americana staple instruments make a more prominent return in "Altar of Love," a full-fledged folk tune in the vein of Mumford & Sons. The Germain-led closer "Reveal the Kingdom" turns the sound somber and classical, backed by Martel's harmony and an elegant swell of strings.
As for the lyrics, the focus is as ministry-minded as ever, but this time they shift the focus more on celebrating and proclaiming their heritage of faith. "Glory by the Way of Shame" highlights the human side of it, gently telling the stories of a prodigal and cheating wife, and how forgiveness turns their failure into beauty. Though the stories may be fiction, as the last verse says, the words turn inward, acknowledging "But in my own heart I know it goes much the same." Many lyrics, such as "Rest," are lifted straight from Scripture, and then there are the unconventional metphors, as in "Seek" describing the furious love of God "like a kid with a crush." "For the Heartbreak" and "For Life" are a standout set of tracks for their similar, but contrasting themes and styles. The former is light and upbeat, led by Martel singing, "Thank you for the heartbreak / Thank you for the pain... Thank you for the healing that makes the beauty shine," but the latter, in one of the album's most beautiful moments, takes a darker musical tone even though it lists the beautiful things worth our gratitude: "Thank you God for the open skies / The mysterious depths of her ocean eyes / Thank you for my dreams / Dreams of poetry both tragic and beautiful / Thank you for life."
It's the beauty of the music and the honesty of the lyrics bound together in two splendid voices that makes On the Altar of Love something more powerful and memorable than the average CCM pop record. While it may be a slightly different sound from Downhere, it's a wonderful addition to their catalog that only gets better with more listens and could be a late summer sleeper hit. Whether a longtime "downhomie" or brand new listener, On the Altar of Love is music worth discovering.- PReview date: 7/17/11, Review date: 8/21/11, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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