Aaron Shust has teamed up with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and producer David Hamilton for his first full length Christmas album, entitled Unto Us. The album sounds like a Broadway musical of the Christmas story complete with grand orchestral arrangements, chilling choirs, and rich emotional vocals. There are no signs of Christmas trees, sleigh bells, or reindeer anywhere to be found on this album; everything centers on the proclamation and celebration of Jesus' birth and how He came to save us.
Opening up the album in grandiose fashion is "Star of Wonder" which perfectly blends three Christmas carols into one beautiful song. In its opening seconds, church bells play the tune of "O Come All Ye Faithful." As the bells fade, a gentle piano and orchestra begin playing the chords of "We Three Kings." The piano and orchestra continue to build as Greek bouzouki (think mandolin) is layered in. The lush and dramatic instrumentation takes you on a spectacular journey all the way back to that historic night when Jesus was born. As the music beautifully climaxes, Shust and a choir triumphantly sing the first verse to "Angels from The Realms of Glory;" "Come and worship/ Worship Christ, the newborn King!" You can almost visualize the angels as they proclaim the Messiah's birth to the shepherds. It's a chilling and epic song, setting a nice tone for the album.
"Star of Wonder" is one of five recognizable songs on Unto Us. Others include the quiet "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" (shortened to "Bethlehem") and the fun and uplifting "Good Christian Men Rejoice" ("Rejoice"). These songs have been transformed into something completely new while retaining the purity of the carols. Perhaps the best classic here is "Go Tell It on the Mountain" ("Go Tell It"), which is given a jazzy/southern treatment. Horns, Hammond organ, and a gospel choir are not Shust's typical musical background, but he does this new sound exceptionally well.
Other songs may not be as familiar to listeners. "Advent Carol" comes from an untitled hymn by John M. Nealy. Shust revitalizes this old hymn with wonderful instrumentation and passionate vocals. We have heard "God Has Come to Earth" on Shust's 2009 Christmas EP, but this time around, it is given an orchestral and choral treatment which takes the song to new heights. "Keep Quiet" is an instrumental interlude which features the bouzouki again, giving the song an ancient sound. The title track, "Unto Us," is a strong cut which has the biggest "musical" feel on the album. It is a beautiful fusion of soundtrack-quality instrumentation and worshipful lyrics. The way that the orchestra and piano play off of each other in the bridge is outstanding.
Aaron Shust has pulled off something spectacular with Unto Us. In fact, this Christmas album might be Shust's best work to date overall. It is significantly more monumental than the traditional "sit by the fireplace" type of Christmas music--so if that is what you are looking for, you will not find it here. However, anyone who appreciates Christ-centered Christmas music will find a lot to love in Unto Us.- Review date: 10/22/14, written by Christopher Smith of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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