Release Date: October 14th 2014
Reviewed by Joshua Andre
- Star Of Wonder (O Come All Ye Faithful/We Three Kings/Angels From The Realms Of Glory)
- Unto Us
- Advent Carol
- God Has Come To Earth
- Keep Silent
- Go Tell It
It’s October already, and Christmas albums have already been released. Michael W. Smith, 1 Girl Nation and Peter Furler have all contributed in singing about the joyous holiday season, and tthis celebratory occasion, and now Centricity Music artist Aaron Shust has put up his hand and has recorded a batch of 10 songs, taking about Jesus’ birth and the events surrounding it. While I believe that it’s unnecessary for stores to light up their establishments with decorations, trees and lights, as early as September, the plus side is that it is a special time of the year that is being promoted. Believers are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, and it’s always a good thing when everyone is reminded about Jesus and what He has done for us. It’s a fact of life that Christmas is celebrated way too early in the year, and surprisingly enough I’m used to it now, even though I still am perplexed and confused by the idea.
With Aaron having released many hit songs and albums in the past, inclusive of “My Saviour My God”, “My Hope Is In You” and “God Of Brilliant Lights”; he has also having been nominated for many Dove awards, and personally I think this album is pretty awesome, as it shows us a great mix of traditional carols and originally written songs, as well as a couple of instrumental tracks, with most of the songs recorded with the Prague Symphony Orchestra in February this year. Though not as poppy as 1GN’s EP, the album is as grandiose and musically epic like Smitty’s album full of collaborations, and could possibly compete for Christmas album of the year next year at the Dove Awards. Though big and majestic, we are still given an album true to his adult contemporary and acoustic style, that is divided into 3 sections. Tracks 1-5 are songs about proclamation, 6-8 about adoration and the last 2 tracks about celebration. All in all, this album is a joy to listen to, if you choose to get into the Christmas spirit early!
“I wanted to take people back to that night. I wanted the opening overture, ‘Star of Wonder,’ to feel like the journey of the Wise Men. The star has appeared and the Wise Men are beginning their journey even before the angels appeared to the shepherds. That’s why it’s track one. It features a bouzouki, a Greek guitar–like instrument that kind of takes you to that place. It feels very dusty to me. I can just picture the rolling hills of the Holy Land.” Opening the track list is the orchestral like inspiring piece “Star Of Wonder (Overture)”- though the song is an original recording, there are tributes and homages to the song “We Three Kings”! The track starts off with bells chiming to the unmistakable tune of “O Come All Ye Faithful”, then a vibrant keyboard and later on a bouzouki plays out the melody of “We Three Kings” against a backdrop of shakers. Creating a cinematic and soundtrack feel, the last part has Aaron emphatically sing out the words to “Angels from the Realms of Glory”. Overall, this majestic track is a brilliant opener, and sets the stage quite nicely as we celebrate Jesus’ birth and the implications for our salvation and our relationship with Him!
Out of last four tracks of the 1st act (tracks 1-5), most are originals (is it a coincidence that Aaron is on the same label as Jason Gray, who also flooded his 2012 Christmas album with original tunes? I don’t think so!). Thematically similar to “Angels We Have Heard On High”, Aaron takes familiar phrases, and constructs a well thought out original song, with the heartbeat of the song being the chorus that proclaims ‘…Gloria, Gloria, in excelcius deo…’. Singing these words against the backdrop of a children’s choir and a full orchestra, we are met with and ethereal sound meshed together with a powerful worship moment that brings us to our knees in adoration to our Lord and Father. A brilliant way of executing a well-known carol in a different way, Aaron makes up for the repetitive chorus with vocally some of his best work!
The album’s lead single “Unto Us” is next. Though musically it’s a bit more radio friendly, Aaron’s vocals help breathe new life into concepts that have been sung again and again. Reminding us that unto us a child is born in Bethlehem, which is an occasion alone worthy to be celebrated, Aaron emphatically reminds us that ‘…His name will ever be the Prince of Peace, the wonderful Counsellor, He’s the great and mighty Lord, bow before our holy Saviour…’, a phrase that makes me caught up in the emotion and experience of remembering about the birth of Jesus. With plenty of instruments included in the 5 minute song, inclusive of synth, strings and captivating keys, as an original song this is simply fantastic and my favourite original Christmas melody since Love & The Outcome’s “Emmanuel”!
The final two songs before half way are “Advent Carol” and “God Has Come to Earth”. “Advent Carol” is a subdued hymn like anthem, with lyrics inspired by an unnamed hymn, and music based on the Little Women soundtrack by Thomas Newman. Basically reminds us of Jesus’ birth in 4 distinct verses- of which all are in a different key. With the song showing us brilliant piano playing and plenty of magical moments in the orchestra with the strings, we are given an exhilarating sound and a reason to declare that Jesus is Lord. Previously on his Christmas EP, “God Has Come To Earth” is a mid tempo radio friendly anthem, and is a re-recording of the 2009 smash hit. A worship song to Jesus with the piano and soft electric guitar at the forefront, we are presented with an earnest and honest chorus and as personal as ever. As Aaron sings out ‘…glory in the highest, there is no other name by which we can be saved…heaven and earth forever will proclaim that God has come to earth…’, it is these words that give me chills, and stir up my soul and heart to sing along and praise God for His birth.
With “Sanctuary” being the last original track, making up song #1 of the adoration part, we are met with a contemplative and reflective piano ballad (with a one minute synth intro) that gently reminds us of our feelings and emotions when Jesus is born. As Aaron sings that when Jesus is born ‘…peace is here, fear is gone, love has come, hope has dawned…’, we are also given hope and reassurance that ‘…He will be our sanctuary, let our hearts not be afraid, dwelling here with us forever, Jesus Christ is born today…’. What a spine tingling track that deserves much more and more airplay this holiday season!
The last four tracks are renditions of carols, although some more obscure than others. “Keep Silent”, is an instrumental track led by keys and sounding similar to a Middle Eastern of Indian track (is that a sitar I hear?), and based on the song “Picardy”, which is a lesser known but still impacting carol that originated in France, while “Bethlehem” has Aaron fervently singing about the town of Bethlehem, declaring how special the town is because of Jesus’ birth. With the melody drastically changed, the piano led acoustic track still packs a punch, as Aaron’s rendition powerfully captivates me very much- the original melody is played on the keys in the bridge, and I thoroughly enjoy this song, maybe even more than the original recording.
“Rejoice” is a modern take on the classic tune “In Dulci Jubilo” (literally meaning ‘In sweet rejoicing’) complete with a celebratory chorus and plenty of strings and synth to add depth to the track. Though this is the first time I’ve heard the track, I can see why Aaron chose it to be on the album- musically it’s very epic and anthemic! While the final track is the country inspired and gospel/soul influenced “Go Tell It On The Mountain”. Until now, my favourite version of the iconic carol was Needtobreathe’s version, however Aaron’s version comes very close, and may surpass it as my favourite version. The perfect way to end the album, full of praise as the electronic keys and brass instruments kick into gear during an epic instrumental bridge; I cannot sing enough praises for Unto Us– Aaron Shust has recorded a gem, and deserves all the praise and the accolades. He has shown courage in choosing the obscure carols and recording more originals than most, and I think that’s what makes him a great singer and songwriter, as he takes a lot of risks here!
“…I wanted to give them something familiar, yet also to gift them with something else, a new experience. The Savior was born for a purpose, to set the captives free. That is good news and something we can get excited about. If you can couple that feeling with exciting music, all of a sudden there’s a deeper realization. You’re not just celebrating ‘He was born and He was God.’ You’re celebrating the fact that God is coming on a rescue mission and that’s exciting!…” At first glance, an album that is less hyped up than Smitty’s album of great magnitude (with more than half the songs sung with guest vocalists), probably wouldn’t stack up in quality. However Aaron Shust has recorded with his whole heart, and it shows on all of the ten tracks. A must listen for those who want to hear something different, or just to worship God this festive season; there’s plenty of Christ centred original songs and well-known carols for us to sing along to; and that is definitely a very good thing! I will definitely keep this album in my iTunes playlist until next Christmas, or even the Christmas after that- Aaron’s album is maybe as good as Smitty’s, in a different way so to speak!
3 songs to listen to: Unto Us, God Has Come To Earth, Rejoice
RIYL: Jeremy Camp, Building 429, Sanctus Real, Chris Tomlin