It’s a descriptor that makes avid music listeners groan more often than not, even in Christian circles. While there are many people out there who are happy turning on their local Christian radio station–and more power to them!–the more picky among us are a little weary of hearing the same style of U2-influenced radio rock that Chris Tomlin and Casting Crowns have used and reused again and again. As much as we may respect the impact those artists have had, are there not more bands out there who are dedicated to reverent, biblical lyrics and creative musicianship?
Enter DENS. Their debut full-length record, From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees, takes the reverent nature of modern worship bands and injects it with the thoughtful brand of indie rock pioneered by bands like Thrice and As Cities Burn. And spoiler alert: it’s a success.
Before delving deeper into the music of the album, it would be helpful to provide context for what exactly From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees is all about. The band describes the core theme of the album on the homepage of their website:
“Jesus once said that the Kingdom of God is like a small seed that turns into a tree. That is, from one rabbi and a few disciples, the entire world will be changed. The Kingdom doesn’t come all at once nor does it come as a foreign army of heaven invading the world with force. But rather the Kingdom is delivered gradually, through expansion of the Church, through renewing the souls of men, and mending the fallenness of creation. Our album, “From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees” is designed to help us think through the identity of the one who ushers in this Kingdom.”
As such, every song title is a uniquely-worded attribute describing our Creator, with the lyrics to each song giving more insight into each attribute. It’s a unique concept that I’m surprised I haven’t seen before in Christian music and it made the record intriguing before I even pressed the play button. Thankfully, that unique concept isn’t let down by the music once the album starts. From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees is every bit as unique and beautiful as its premise suggests it to be.
The overall sound on From Small Seeds carries with it elements of the aforementioned bands Thrice and As Cities Burn, but it has a softer, ambient tone to it that’s wholly unique. It also sounds big, like it was recorded in an arena, or a large auditorium. It’s a very nice touch that an album that describes the vastness of God would sound pretty vast itself and it’s one of my personal favorite aspects of the record. The best musical comparison I can think of is My Epic’s masterful record Behold, which is a complimentary comparison as it is, but DENS has still managed to craft a sound on this album that’s uniquely theirs.
As for the individual songs, there’s not a single track here that doesn’t hit. “Lifebreather” opens up the record in epic fashion. It wastes no time setting the tone for the record with a slow-paced-but-heavy indie rock sound that, again, doesn’t seem far too removed from the opening track off of My Epic’s Behold. At first, I was a little nervous the band would follow that sound too closely. But when the haunting falsetto vocals come in at the three minute mark with the repetition of “God, Your breath is life,” the band’s talent really shines, both musically and vocally. It’s hard not to get chills. After a lengthy (but equally gripping) guitar outro closes the first track, the intro to the second track, “Seasplitter,” begins and we’re thrown into another super-solid indie rock cut. This track was the band’s first “single” off the album and it’s not hard to see why. Of all the tracks on the record, this one probably encapsulates their core sound the best.
However, it’s in the third track, “Headlifter,” where the band really begins to show how versatile they are. Stylistically, the song isn’t too far removed from the first two. But while the first two tracks have a moodier tone to them, “Headlifter” throws the listener for a loop by sounding genuinely joyful. It’s a nice twist on a style of music that’s usually melancholy at best. After this track, “Hopebringer” fades in with just a soft acoustic guitar and the reverent repetition of gang vocals singing, “The wrong is in me, there is nothing wrong with You,” before the full-band comes crashing in complete with one of the record’s most impressive guitar riffs. It’s on this track where the band’s talents come to a climax. Everything in this song hits, from the unique intro, to the tense verses, to the huge chorus, to the guitar solo in the bridge. The entire band is utilized to their fullest here and “Hopebringer” ends up not only being the best song on the record, but one of the best songs of the year. Period.
It’s also here where the vocals really began to strike me. I had to do some research to see if there were two vocalists singing on this record and the band is still so low-profile it’s hard to tell. But if it’s mainly one person, Shaun Hype is one of the more dynamic vocalists I’ve heard in awhile. His softer moments sound comparable to My Epic’s Aaron Stone or SONS’ Aaron Newberry, but in the louder moments his impressive tenor voice really contributes to the band’s big sound. It’s also very unique, but I can’t quite put a finger on why. There’s almost a hint of (dare I say) “twang” to his voice once he gets into the higher registers, which really sets it apart.
“Peacemaker” comes next with a heavier CCM vibe than the rest of record, but without compromising the band’s core sound. This is a song that could easily be sung in modern worship services, but it still feels multiple steps ahead of most of the CCM world, both musically and melodically. “Warender” follows as the longest track on the record, exceeding the six minute mark. It also might be the most unique track. It’s an upbeat song, but it’s relatively restrained for the first half. The chorus is very catchy, and once again highlights Shaun Hype’s unique but excellent vocals. The song switches gears considerably in the second half, turning darker and ending with an outro that’s easily the heaviest moment on the record. “Debtpayer” follows up as a gorgeous reworking of the hymn “Jesus Paid It All”. Like “Peacemaker,” this song would be a tremendous inclusion in modern worship services.
The penultimate track, “Teethbreaker,” is a slow-building song that captures the same worshipful tone that David does in the Psalms when his enemies are surrounding him. The haunting falsetto vocals make another appearance here as the song softly builds to a desperate, but worshipful climax when full-band again comes in. The band nails these build ups every time. DENS closes out the album with the gentle ballad “Safekeeper”. It’s starts as a simple, acoustic driven track, but the band adds so many extra layers in the second half to create a memorable atmosphere. The band concludes the record by repeating, “Come rising Son with healing in Your wings.” It’s the perfect way of closing out the record and, at just nine tracks, the album still has enough substance to feel complete and satisfying.
The only complaint I have about the record is the mixing. While the record as a whole is remarkably well-produced for a band this unknown, there are certain moments where the vocals get lost beneath the wall of instrumentation. They never get so overwhelmed that the melody is lost, but there are multiple times during the record where the lyrics were hard for me to understand. In fact, almost a year of countless listens later, and there are still certain parts of the record I have trouble understanding. This wouldn’t be much of an issue, because it’s a virtually flawless album in almost every other sense, but since it’s a worship album it takes me out of the moment when I can’t understand the lyrics enough to join in worship. It’s not a major problem, but it lessens the overall impact of the record ever-so-slightly. I also wish the drums were a little louder at times, because the drumming is consistently great (if not fantastic) throughout the entire record, but it has the same tendency of getting lost in the mix.
But even with those minor complaints, which bring From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees just below a perfect score, the impact it has is unmistakable. It’s music like this that could set a new standard for what “worship music” can really be. This is a band that’s more concerned with being excellent than they are with being relevant and, as a result, the music on From Small Seeds ends up being more reverent and ultimately more relevant than your average Christian rock band. It has the potential to truly edify the masses because it’s both Scriptural and skillful. That’s what worship music is all about and the rest of the CCM world would do well to take note.
DENS took me completely by surprise last year as my favorite new artist of 2016 and, Lord-willing, we’ll be hearing a lot more from them in the future. We need more bands like them occupying that all-too-empty space of Christian artists who are willing to speak the Truth and speak it well. Overall, From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees is an excellent record that’s more than deserving of your attention. Don’t let these guys pass you by.