It's not common for a project of this caliber to come along in the Christian music industry. With !Hero being the brainchild of industry vet Eddie Degarmo, it's been clear from the first whispers of buzz on this project that it wasn't going to just be your normal compilation project. It's anything but. From comic books to a loaded 31-track soundtrack that clocks in 10 minutes shy of two hours to a major Fall tour, there isn't anything small about !Hero: The Rock Opera.
Not since the City On a Hill projects has such unique and original collaborations with top artists been heard in CCM. !Hero brings together Michael Tait of dc Talk, Mark Stuart of Audio Adrenaline, Rebecca St. James, T-Bone, John Cooper of Skillet, Pete Stewart, Gotee newcomer Paul Wright, Matt Hammitt of Sanctus Real, Donnie formerly of Raze, and Grits all in one collection of all original music. Each song plays a part in telling a modern day version of the greatest story ever told -- the story of Jesus. The modern angle puts a twist on all of the Biblical characters and locations, even setting Hero's birthplace as Bethlehem... Pennsylvania (ironically, the home of Jesusfreakhideout.com) with most of the action taking place in New York. Tait assumes the role of Christ, named Hero here while Stuart plays Peter as Petrov and St. James plays Maggie, a prostitute. Other performers round out the cast for a production that plays very well as what it sets out to be -- a modern musical.
All music and lyrics were written by Eddie Degarmo and Bob Farrell with occasional assistance from Pete Stewart, T-Bone, and Mat Kearney. The music is modern and current, mixing elements of straight-up rock 'n' roll, rap, and electronic seasoning to keep the vibe fresh. Former Grammatrain frontman Pete Stewart produced the album and helped bring an edge to the rock sound without letting it be suppressed by overproduction. However, at the same time, the album retains a more accessible pop feel.
The first of the album's two discs opens with an introduction from Paul Wright that sets up the following thirty tracks. A groove-laced tune from Tait follows, introducing Stuart's character as we as Michael Quinlan as Jude. Pete Stewart's guitars blast life into the chorus making the track a tasty example of what to expect on the rest of !Hero. Each song is a modern reimagining of a moment of scripture as with the next track, the Grits-fronted "Wedding Celebration" capturing the story of when Jesus turned the water into wine at a wedding. The electronic rock "Fire of Love" introduces Skillet's John Cooper. Strings enhance moments like in this song that really help create that opera essence. "Lose My Life With You" is a standout track that showcases Nirva's (best known for her work with TobyMac) delicate and sweet vocals in a duet with Michael Tait, beautifully supported by a confident piano melody and synth seasoning. "Lose My Life" is an example of how bright !Hero shines when it does. Paul Wright's raps in the "Man on a Mission" intermission makes way for Rebecca St. James' introduction on "Secrets of the Heart." I must say it is absolutely bizarre to hear St. James in such a role as a prostitute (given her stance on sexual purity) and sing lines like Can I give you comfort - I'll tell of your future / They say I'm the best deal in town. But her vocal talents are an appreciated addition to this production. "Stand Up and Walk" offers Sanctus Real's Hammitt's short but excellent stint on vocals while producer Pete Stewart teams with Cooper on the musically intriguing "Do What You Gotta Do."
Arguably the best track on !Hero comes close to the album's close in "Raised In Harlem" where T-Bone's electrifying raps are powered by a chunky thumbing beat and fuzzy guitars to create a hard-hitting rap-rock hit. Former Raze vocalist Donnie appears on this track as T-Bone's character Jairus's wife and does well to add to the dynamics of the track. "Manna From Heaven" is an odd arrangement as the jungle/tribal instrumentation and chants come off a little cheesey and misplaced among the more serious material. The pop/rock title track, fronted by Audio Adrenaline's Mark Stuart is a fitting close to the record's first half.
"Leave Here" starts off as a great intro to Act II, but when it introduces a children's chorus of voices chanting out several verses, the song feels like it loses some of the impact the more straight-forward rock anthems offered. Paul Wright puts an almost Linkin Park spin on "Say The Word" while Quinlan leads the industrial pop "Intentions." Tait leads "Not In Our House," a raucous rock track that feels oddly like an early 90's Petra rocker. "Murder On Their Minds" is a standout track from Act II with Wright offering some of his stronger rap skills. Appropriately, the album's vibe darkens as Hero is betrayed, tried, and is faced with an execution. John Cooper shines on the menacing "Kill The Hero" while Farrell's Gov. Pilate might come off too much like a Saturday morning cartoon villain than a tangible and real adversary. "Execute" works musically but the sound of children yelling "Execute him!" just doesn't sound right. However, the reprises of "Hero" and "Lose My Life..." from St. James and Nirva are brilliant moments. The opera closes with the toned down acoustic sounds of "He's Not Here" and Wright's spoken outro and, ironically, a raw Gospel chorus of "Free At Last."
!Hero: The Rock Opera isn't a perfect production, but it's a huge one, and one that did nothing short of impressing me. It's evident from track to track, arrangement to arrangement that this wasn't thrown together overnight. Degarmo & co. have woven together an intricate story with fleshed out characters brought to life through some downright catchy numbers. The music is diverse, ranging from powerful piano ballads to industrial rock and hip-hop, making this an offering with something for everyone, and potentially, from time to time offering something for everyone to dislike. But all in all, !Hero: The Rock Opera is something to behold, and for the Christian pop/rock fan, you would be paying a disservice to yourself to miss this one.- Review date: 9/3/03, written by John DiBiase
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