Album Review :
Bellarive - Before There Was

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Artist: Bellarive
Title: Before There Was
Label: Sparrow Records
Release Date: 07/22/14
Reviewer: Josh Hamm

Tracklisting:

  1. Let There Be Light
  2. Your Great Love
  3. Calling On Fire
  4. Lazarus
  5. Save Us
  6. I Belong To You
  7. Bring Us Back
  8. Chains
  9. Hallelujah, To Saving Grace
  10. Only You Can Raise the Dead
  11. Caught In the Middle
  12. From the Very Start

Bellarive is keeping pace with the movement, slowly gaining traction in mainstream circles, of acclimatizing modern congregational music into a more complex and artful substance. Unfortunately, it is still mired down in enough tired lyrics and musical cues that that it does not succeed as a whole. Before There Was is, I’m happy to report, is rather varied from a musical perspective, twisting and turning their style to create songs which don’t all sound the same.

Taking its cue from Ephesians, Before There Was isn’t cohesive enough to be a concept album, but it is rooted in God’s love for His creation before time began. As such, it spans from pre-creations to personal cries for salvation. When you pick a topic as extensive as God’s plan for creation, you’ve got a lot of space to work with. While I think they missed an opportunity to explore the concept of grace and redemption through the timeless nature of God, they succeed in what they wanted to do: create a worship album that encourages people to worship.

The first few songs are rather bland, and the album only truly captured my attention on “Lazarus.” The best song on the album, it creates a full, eerie atmosphere that captures a dark, yet hopeful glimpse into the story of Lazarus.  It’s a slow burn of a song that whispers in your ear and tugs at your spirit before rising up and coming full into its own in a heavy ending that cries out to be heard at high volume. It’s not only appealing aesthetically, but on a thematic level Bellarive has done an admirable job connecting the lyrics to the music and building it as a whole rather than mixing and matching bits and pieces. The next best song on the album, “Save Us,” continues where “Lazarus” left off; alternative rock with an ambient edge . A piano interlude in the middle of the song is a welcome change of pace, slowing the pace the shaping an intimacy with the listener before fuzzy distortion closes the song. The only problem I have with these two songs is that the rest of the album pales in comparison.

Songs like “Bring Us Back,” “I Belong To You,” and “Chains” are too predictable to be of much interest. They each have their merits, but not enough to overcome their shortcomings.“Bring Us Back” has a catchy beat and synths that evoke David Crowder* Band and a bit of Benjamin Dunn – it is a pleasant, cheerful number that gets your toes tapping, but it never breaks out into anything more mild fun.

As is becoming the norm in many worship albums, Bellarive have included a song, “Hallelujah To Saving Grace,” that serves as a contemporary hymn. The sort of contemporary hymn which is sure to attract listeners, but is not as rich as I’d hoped. It follows the typical modern hymn arrangement: beginning with soft vocals and only a sparse piano as accompaniment, slowly adding in more instruments, without being overbearing, before the song suddenly picks up the tempo for the chorus only to dip back down to earth again before ending on high, loud note with choral backing.  Enjoyable enough, but it doesn’t quite capture that classic hymnal sense of songs like “In Christ Alone.”

Lyrically, “Only You Can Raise the Dead” is the sort of song I’d dismiss. There are essentially six lines to the song, and it consists of repeating variations of them, ad nauseum. When some bands do this, I often find it nauseating; but others can use the repetition to create something beautiful. Bellarive’s excellent blend of clean vocals on the verses and autotuned harmony on the chorus, along with a tempo that belies expectations, crafts a song that cultivates contemplation of the few words it has, rather than boredom. I’ve often had rather heated discussions with friends about my criticism of worship lyrics – which I often find wanting – because they ask how I can dislike a lyric (for non theological reasons) if it is uplifting or speaks truth about God. My answer is that I find them to rely on recycled phraseology and presentation which undercuts whatever sentiment they express. “Only You Can Raise The Dead” is an example of how a song can use familiar lyrics in a way that opens them up to new eyes.

The album almost ends on a high note. “Caught In the Middle” is a stirring blend of melody, distorted guitars, innovative drumming, and a touch of chaos in the crescendo which not only helps to vary the album’s tone, but creates a dynamic song that takes the path less followed, weaving around you instead of leading you in a straight path. Along with the one-two punch of “Lazarus” and “Save Us” early on, “Caught In the Middle” is one of the strongest tracks of the album, serving as a reminder of what Bellarive is capable of. Then the album ends on the syrupy sweet “From the Very Start.” While boasting some impressive airy vocals and an ethereal tone in the middle that is very alluring, the song is too simplistic for the scope of what it hopes to accomplish (covering creation through to the Gospel), and lacks an emotional resonance to ground it.

Overall: It’s an album that I truly wanted to like, but I doubt I’ll listen through it again. It’s frustrating to find a band like Bellarive creating inconsistent material like Before There Was. To be sure, there are fantastic songs that I’ll be listening to years from now (“Lazarus” in particular) but they’re not enough to carry the album. If blending contemporary worship music with more creative fare is a balancing act, then Bellarive hasn’t removed their safety harness yet.

RIYL:  Young Oceans, Lovelite, The Ember Days, The Rend Collective

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