Artist: Aaron Strumpel
Title: Bright Star
Release Date: 02/03/15
Reviewer: Josh Hamm
- Beautiful Pearl
- Give Me Your Hand
- Spark My Heart
- Bright Star
- Coming After You
- Won’t Stop
- Twenty Three
- Were You There
I’m most familiar with Aaron Strumpel for Elephants, Birds, and his Vespers albums; albums in which he lays bare the mask of Christian complacency and strips the veneer of comfortability from Christian music in a cacophonous joy ride of sounds and instruments. It’s what drew me in to his music; an approach which is unabashedly vocal about its differences, and refines it in an artistic forge until it is an exquisite piece of art. But Aaron Strumpel has another side to his music as well, a side where he takes his considerable talent and applies it to more traditional singer songwriter fare, such as his album series Enter The Worship Circle.
Bright Star is somewhat comparable, insomuch as it is toned down from some of his more blaring work, (I won’t say “stripped down,” because there are still intricate layers to unravel) and as such, the album better lends itself towards a corporate setting, easing listeners in rather than confronting them. Although this does not mean that he’s lost his experimental edge, it’s simply been slightly reigned in. Fans may notice some similar song titles sprinkled throughout: “Centuries” and “Twenty Three” are from Enter the Worship Circle: Chair and Microphone Volume 2, “Give Me Your Hand” from Fourth Circle, “Bright Star” from Vespers I & II, and “Won’t Stop” from Elephants. Some of these have been fleshed out from simple acoustic numbers to a larger soundscape of reverb, synth, trumpets, and subtle percussion. Others have been dialed back to a simpler production than their original number. It’s at times startling to hear lyrics I associated with a starkly different sound have new life breathed into them.
“Centuries” opens the album with a steady line of synth punctuated by Aaron’s hushed vocals fill the sparse sounds louder than they should, as he affirms God as steadfast: “You will turn your ear to me / you will hear my cry for mercy / You will loosen things unseen / What can man do to me?.” It sets the tone for Bright Star as a reflective haven, a place for peace and contemplation, but not a silent one. “Beautiful Pearl” has a darker tone, as it has us consider the sorrow and cost of our redemption. Yet it ushers in the rising sun in the end, reminding us how beautiful Christ’s gift is. This brings us to “Mightier,” one of my favourites off of the album. It’s lyrics are not especially intricate, but the subtle build through the verses (whose form and repetition bear more in common with Hebrew poetry than English), and breathless choruses draw me in with the offkilter drums and slow burning guitar, until the final layered vocals overwhelm the song in emotion. It’s a song equally at home on an iPod or sung in church; and there are far too few songs which can work as well on an individual and communal level.
The album has nary a weak spot; the jaunty “Give Me Your Hand” and offbeat “Spark My Heart” keep it from falling into a rut, and the rest of the songs roll out highlight after highlight. Aaron’s trademark voice, complete with unique inflection which lends even the simplest of lyrics a twist to keep you on your toes, fills out “Bright Star” beautifully. Vying with “Mightier” for my favourite track is “Twenty Three,” which features reverb laden guitar and an incredibly simple set of lyrics buoyed with wordless cries before Aaron begins to build a more conventional song in his approach to Psalm 23. Hopeful strings cut through the hopeful yearning of Aaron’s cries of “Don’t forget I’m helpless” and “I will not be in want.” It’s a song which leaves me breathless, a minimalist approach to one of the best known pieces of scripture, yet it’s a song weighed down in feelings and meanings which its simplicity belies. Bright Star closes on one of the most heart wrenching renditions of “Were You There” I’ve ever heard, Aaron’s voice softer than usual, accompanied with a clear trumpet calling out, gradually building to a glorious crescendo which never quite appears, instead ending abruptly, lending an unfinished note to the song which invites you to reflect on the repeated last lines instead of reflecting on the song itself, the sudden silence forces you to turn inwards and perhaps even sing softly, “Sometimes you cause me, to tremble, tremble / When I, can feel, you drawing near, I tremble, tremble / Sometimes you cause me, to tremble, tremble / When I, can tell, you’re coming close, I tremble, tremble.”
Overall: Aaron Strumpel consistently brings a level of dedication and care to his music which is becoming increasingly rare in the industry. Bright Star takes a softer approach than Aaron’s celebrated, avante-garde works like Elephants and Birds, easing into a relaxed atmosphere to put you at ease. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is somehow a less exciting or expansive sound: it’s full of complex arrangements and impeccable production and engineering from Latifah Phillips and David Wilton, culminating in a kaleidoscope of sounds bursting forth in glorious array.
RIYL: Enter the Worship Circle, Josh Garrels, John Mark McMillan, Loud Harp, A Boy And His Kite