The decorations are already going up in your local shopping mall, and that music is already being played through the hallways. Music about bells, Santa, and winter. Lost among the confusion and chaos of traffic jams, snow, long line-ups at cash registers, gift lists, and plastic reindeer is the idea that Christmas is meant for family, reflection, food, and most importantly, God. While I recognize that there may be readers who are not of the Christian persuasion, it’s safe to say that the Christmas season has, over the years, lost a sense of the wonder, majesty, and awe of what the holiday actually celebrates: namely, the amazing claim that God came to Earth as a child. And, whether or not one is a Christian, any astute observer of North American culture can see that this sense of grandeur and thanksgiving has departed our practice of the holiday season, only to be replaced by crass commercialism.
Thankfully, there are those out there who still believe that Christmas should be a time of celebrating Christ and family with a sense of wonder. People like the ones at Sojourn, a church community that has released a CD of Christmas music, played by home-grown talent, that rivals any other CD in terms of music production, heartfelt emotions, and strong songwriting. In fact, Songs for the Advent is so solid that it’s hard to fathom that it was created by musicians from one congregation. The eclectic collection runs the gamut from rock, folk, instrumental acoustic guitar music, instrumental piano wizardry, spoken words over electronic beats, contemporary praise and worship, and even subtle soundscapes, yet all tracks are infused with a sense of sincere reverence.
Songs for the Advent opens with “God is With Us”, an Americana-tinged track with the distinct vocals of Jeremy Quillo. The song features accordions, a cello, and acoustic guitars supporting Quillo’s stellar vocals and songwriting. The track is beautifully orchestrated, and perfectly sets the stage for the rest of the CD. Next is the odd “John 1”, which is a spoken word paraphrase of the first chapter of the Gospel of John set over strange electronic beats and gurgles. The track contrasts musically with the rest of Songs for the Advent making it seem oddly out of place, yet thematically it draws the connection between Christ’s divinity and His humanity. Following “John 1” is a passionate rock rendition of the Christmas staple “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. Beautifully sung by Hayley Patty, the song features a full rock band instrumentation, even including a tasteful and very well-executed electric guitar solo. “The Shepherds, Part 1” showcases the notable guitar abilities of Mike Cosper, who doubles as the producer of Songs for the Advent. The track is short and sweet, as Cosper’s fingers float effortlessly over the strings and frets of his guitar. Next, Quillo takes a second turn at writing a Christmas original, with his moving “Hosanna in the Highest”. Backed by a full rock band, including more guitar heroics by Cosper and a delicate mid-song pause from the rock that features cello, angelic female vocals, and guitar accents, “Hosanna in the Highest” brings together some of the best elements of Songs for the Advent into one song. The song somehow manages to be rocking yet devotional at the same time. After the song fades, the opening strains of “The Shepherds, Part II” fill the listener’s ears with the sounds of crickets and subdued acoustic guitar work from Cosper. “The Shepherds, Part II” is another brief instrumental interlude that is beautiful in its simplicity. Next, Songs for the Advent offers a minimal acoustic version of “What Child Is This”, showcasing the vocal talents of Rebecca Dennison. “The Birth, The Visit, The Escape” by Asaph invites listeners to read the Biblical Christmas account while listening to the instrumental rock music offered on the CD. The song blends math rock with artistic imagination as it utilizes complex rhythms played by standard rock instruments and subtle loops. The instrumental solitary piano composition “The Advent”, performed by Nathan Stites, plays a morose-sounding tune, which is followed by a lighter, freer melody. The song ends on this high note, conveying hope and warmth. Finally, the excellent “Glory Be” rounds out Songs for the Advent. The song is everything that contemporary praise and worship music should be (but sadly isn’t): an excellent and catchy melody, pensive lyrics, and terrific performances from vocalist Mike Blakeney and guitarist Cosper. Blackeney’s vocals are polished and executed with the passion and dexterity expected from a more famous performer. “Glory Be” is followed by several minutes of electronic beats and light drones that ultimately fade, leaving the listener to contemplate the Biblical events surrounding Christmas.
While the songs on Songs for the Advent are so diverse, the CD’s lyrical and conceptual focus ensures that the listener is left with a sense of a uniting theme that pervades through the entire project. The liner notes feature scripture references, lyrics, and other written-word aids to help the listener navigate through the Christmas themes and give the listener an opportunity to ponder what these themes mean for the listener. And this reverent, sensitive, and often joyous approach to the subject matter of Christmas is Songs for the Advent’s greatest strength. While the music itself is interesting and even gorgeous at times, the focus of Christ’s coming into this world is dealt with in an intelligent, edifying, and worship-provoking manner. In the midst of this season of tinsel, elves, and the elbowing at the local shopping centres, Songs for the Advent eloquently brings hope to all of us that there is much more to Christmas than meets our societal eye.