Album Review :
Aaron Strumpel - Vespers III & IV

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Artist: Aaron Strumpel
Title: Vespers III & IV
Label: None
Release Date: 06/10/14
Reviewer: Josh Hamm

Tracklisting:

  1. IIIa. Spin and Burn
  2. IIIb. Buffalo Run
  3. IIIc. Golden Harps
  4. IVa. Bitter Dose
  5. IVb. Spit and Mud
  6. IVc. Formed My Fame

“The definition of Christian art is to be found in its subject and its spirit. Everything, sacred and profane, belongs to it. God does not ask for “religious” art or “Catholic” art. The art he wants for himself is Art, with all its teeth.”

– Jacques Maritain

Aaron Strumpel is a beast unlike any other, and he creates his art with teeth bared. He approaches songs from a unique perspective and infuses them with a life and breath that is completely his own.  His music is a presence I’ve grown to appreciate and even necessitate in my life. His rugged, psalm-inspired albums Elephants and Birds breathed new life into my conceptions of what music should sound like, and what purpose it can aspire to.

Vespers III & IV, as the name implies, is a series of prayerful, devotional songs, written by Aaron Strumpel during the hours of evening – like the liturgy of vespers – alone in the dark when both the absence and presence of God is felt the most. This set of songs continues to serve as a jagged edge that contrasts with the slick, smooth sounds of radio friendly music.

Strumpel’s music is not comfortable, and I mean that in the best way possible. He doesn’t write songs that are easy to listen to, or that we can mindlessly tune out; from the first note to the last on Vespers III & IV, it challenges the complacency of the listener and forces them to engage with the music beyond merely letting it wash over them.

The album opens on a soft musical note, but with severe lyrics. “Spin and Burn” is simultaneously a bleak look at what the future may hold, repeating over and over the harrowing refrain: “I may yet spin and burn / I may yet cut and run,” and a declaration of trust in that selfsame future, holding to the hope that “you will see me through…/ In the springtime / I will hope again / Mind will clear / I will dream again.” This paradoxical current runs below the entire album; the struggle between what may be, and what we will look towards.  “Golden Harps” is a personal favourite, featuring harsh, guttural vocals and guitars along with heavy handed drums, it’s overlaid with beautiful imagery: “As golden harps / Fell all around / Songs fell from skies / Fell all around / As broken bones / Came out the ground / Songs sprung from lungs / Came out the ground.” The song holds a mythological feel even as it tells a story of a prodigal child returning home.

The transition into the sombre “Bitter Dose” is palpable, moving from chaotic frenzy to soft spoken ballad. But it builds slowly, moving from a reflection on failure and fallen nature to an almost anthemic declaration:“So I set my eyes like stone / And I lift up my chin / And I pick up all my bones / And breathe life in again.” The song trails off again, allowing Strumpel’s voice to take up a soft ache of one who has seen too much suffering, as he lets words come almost unbidden through his lips: “And I hope for hope / And I hope for joy / And I yearn to love / Like I yearn to be loved.”

The album closes strongly as well; both “Spit and Mud” and “Formed My Frame” are highlights of mine (although, to be honest, all of these songs are highlights). The former carries with it the same ordered chaos of “Golden Harps,” as it divides the song into three distinct lyrical verses. Each one focuses on a pair of scripture passages about healing; Matthew 23 & Ezekiel 37; 2nd Kings 5 & John 13; Mark 8 & Luke 12.   “Formed My Frame” is perhaps the most interesting vocally, as Strumpel plays around with echoes and background vocals overlaid with his own until lyrics and vocals overlap and you lose all sense of direction within the song. It’s an effect which almost goes too far, but stops just far from the cliff’s edge. He also experiments with inflection, which he’s done elsewhere too, but it’s much more pronounced here, so that words and phrases are broken up awkwardly. It’s fitting that this is the one song sung to God directly, and it is in a faltering voice that is yet firm in its worship, a stutter in the presence of One greater than ourselves: “Oh the rocks / they will / cry out/to You / With a voice/so strong/so pure/so true / Telling stor/ies of / your maj/esty / They have sung/they will sing/for centuries.

What I love most about Vespers III & IV is how it breaks down the barrier between sacred and profane music. It’s undeniably rooted in Christian scripture and ritual, but like most of Strumpel’s works, it defies our expectations of what “Christian music” should sound like. He lets loose a discordant joy that resonates from every note and syllable; thundering or whispering, or revelling in a resounding silence, this conflicted, deep rooted joy is at the heart of his songs.

Overall: Aaron Strumpel challenges his listeners to engage with his songs in Vespers III & IV. He infuses his songs with desperation without despair, solitude without isolation, and joy that lives outside of itself, exalting in life and God even in the midst of suffering. Songs range from frenzied and thunderous to gentle and meek as Strumpel cries out with every breath he has left in his soul, inviting us to do the same. He never takes his worship lightly, choosing instead to grapple and struggle with it like Jacob wrestling the angel.

RIYL: Josh Garrels, John Mark McMillan, Son Lux, Enter The Worship Circle,

You can buy the album on Bandcamp, and stream it via Relevant’s The Drop.

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