One year after the release of his highly successful 11th studio album This Is Your Time, Michael W. Smith offered Freedom, his first instrumental project for Reunion Records. Having produced a consistent string of pop albums throughout the 90s and much of the 80s - and after finding much success as both a Contemporary Christian and mainstream artist - MWS decided to try something different for his 12th trip to the studio. Rather than writing another album's worth of pop songs, Smith tries his hand as both a composer and arranger, putting together twelve instrumentals that are heavily influenced by his classical leanings (he has openly admitted to being a big fan of Handel's Messiah among other things).
This isn't entirely new territory for Michael W. Smith; he has often included one or two instrumental tracks in his pop albums and he also composed the instrumental title track to the worship compilation Exodus. However, Freedom marks the first time in which his instrumentals would serve as the backbone for an album - and not simply as complementary interludes. It is also the first time in Smith's career in which he does not collaborate fully with another lyricist/songwriter. This is Michael W. Smith's project entirely and the results are nothing less than astonishing.
On the whole, Freedom sounds very impressive. Grand orchestral pieces are juxtaposed against intimate piano-driven interludes, proving that Smith can work capably within either spectrum. The majestic title track, along with its menacing "Battle" refrain, and the driving Celtic hum of "Hibernia" all sound magnificent in their full arrangements: strings crash over heavy percussions as woodwinds and electric guitars take turns basking at the forefront. Arranging these pieces for orchestra provides Smith's compositions with a marvelous sense of grandeur that simply was not present with his synth-based instrumentals (e.g. I 2 Eye's "Ashton").
The more quiet interludes showcase a more reflective side of Smith's songwriting. Often built around a simple piano melody, compositions such as "Carol Ann" and "Letter To Sarah" are equally poignant and tender in execution, while other highlights, such as "The Giving" and "Prayer For Taylor," are simply stunning in their sheer compositional beauty. A couple of nice surprises are also included. "Thy Word" is an instrumental take on the song he made famous with Amy Grant, while "The Call" is the closest thing to a pop/rock instrumental on this album, proving that no matter what he does, Michael's pop roots are never too far behind.
In comparison to much of MWS's pop output, Freedom is thematically a much darker album than listeners are used to. A sense of melancholy pervades the record as themes of war ("Freedom" and "Freedom Battle") and loss ("Carol Ann") dominate much of it. With the absence of lyrics, it's clearly Michael W. Smith's immense talent as both a composer and arranger that makes this album work. With Freedom, Michael W. Smith has successfully offered a project that plays to his strengths more than any other.
Equally beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring, Freedom should give fans of instrumental music much to like.- Review date: 10/16/06 by Sherwin Frias
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