For better or for worse, the "anthem" has become the standard song format for artists who write worship music for popular consumption. I'm not sure who it was that originally came up with the idea of putting out full albums of anthems, but whoever it was really painted themselves into a corner. Such albums have historically been overly bombastic, repetitive, often kitsch, and as dense as cotton candy. There is a place for music with power, emotion, soaring choruses, catchy hooks, and dynamic roller coasters all for the glory of God, but it is safe to say that that place is not next to a dozen or so other songs with such traits. Or is it...?
The City Harmonic was introduced to the world with an EP that proved they could write a fantastic worship anthem, and they solidified that notion with an anthem-heavy approach on their first full-length album. They backed off that trend and wrote a better-rounded, more artistic-minded album in 2013. But with We Are, the band seems to have challenged themselves that they can create a great album purely out of worship anthems, complete with big vocals, big drums, big dynamics, and big... well, pretty much everything. And as a testament to the talent of the band, they somehow managed to make it work fairly well.
"We Are One" wastes no time hitting listeners hard with an explosion of sound after a short piano hook, and continues on to establish the album's theme of unity ("We are all for one / For the glory of the one true God"). Album highlight "Maranatha" continues the momentum with powerful drums, an organ, and a hint of bagpipes. The comparatively-relaxed "Into Yours Arms" leads into the hymn-rewrite, "Solid Rock." Much like other hymn interpretations released in recent years, I can personally take or leave this one. While infinitely better than the other modern reinterpretation of "Solid Rock" that has been popular in recent years (I'm looking at you, "Cornerstone"), the band's attempt to both modernize and keep the spirit of the original lead to forced phrases like "In Christ the solid rock I stand / and all through the pouring rain / no I won't be afraid" or "All The other ground is sinking sand / Yes, I've got everything I need." Call it a misstep if you want, but one thing it does not lack is ambition.
"Shout" is a fun and infectious tune that might suffer from being too similar (though not in sound) to the previous "Maranatha." "Let There Be Light" and "All This & More" both bring the tempo down a bit while keeping the trend of anthems working strong, and the dynamic roller coaster "Oh What Love" brings it down even more (this is the first song that one could reasonably describe as mellow). The finest lyrical moment of the album follows in "Confession (Agnus Dei)," cleverly singing on one of my favorite lyrics of the year, "Christ, what have we done? / Oh my God, what have we become?" in a song saying we are sinners who have rebelled against and abuse God. The fact that I feel surprised to hear those phrases uttered reverently given the culture in which we live attest to that fact all the more. "Still And Small" finally steps up to mellow things out a bit before one more big push in the album's closer, "One."
The relative flaws of this album are obvious. For one thing, the anthem format inherently makes lyrical depth a challenge since it isn't communicated well over bombastic music. Plus, since they are working with a sound so tailor-made for radio and corporate worship success, it would be foolish to expect We Are to contain the level of quality and intimacy of an album like 2013's Heart. But they do an excellent job working within the confines they chose for themselves, and the actual music has legitimate artistic merit, and is demanding of multiple re-plays. One might make the argument that The City Harmonic's approach to We Are was a fairly safe one, and they might have a point and a good argument, but that is not how it came across to this reviewer. There is an intelligence and a vision to this album that is lacking in most other projects that try the anthem-heavy approach, and it was not hard for me to appreciate this album.- Review date: 9/2/15, written by Mark Rice of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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