Film Review: Divergent


by Sam Robinson

Rated M. Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet. Directed by Neil Burger.

Stars: [3.5/5]

There’s no doubt that Divergent is unashamedly cashing in on the success of The Hunger Games.

Both these franchises are based on young adult novels, set in a dystopian futuristic location, have strong heroines in the lead role, involve brutality for survival… I could go on. With all this in mind, it would be easy to dismiss Divergent as a clone, but doing that would be a mistake. Divergent manages to stand on its own two feet.

As I mentioned, the film transports us to dystopian future, in this case Chicago, where the city landscape is eroding and society is split and pigeon-holed into five factions according to their individuals’ characteristic strength to keep things in order.

‘The future belongs to those who know where they belong.’

Beatrice – or Tris as she is nicknamed (Woodley) – grows up in the Abnegation faction, known as being “selfless”, or as you might be mistaken, “the faction wearing grey clothing”.

As Beatrice turns 16, she completes an aptitude test to discover what faction she should live in for the rest of her life. While the test result would normally assign her to a faction, Beatrice’s results are inconclusive, meaning that she’s “Divergent”: an independent thinker – and as we discover, an apparent danger to society. 

When it comes to the Choosing Ceremony – it’s pretty much the Sorting Hat – Beatrice chooses Dauntless, characterised by their bravery, and mad enthusiasm for parkour. She keeps her Divergent status a secret and does her best to fit in to the faction as they train to become fighters, soldiers, and police.

The best thing about Divergent is Shailene Woodley. In a world raving about Jennifer Lawrence (who is wonderful in her own right), Shailene too is a superstar. She’s believable and gives a strong performance. Also convincing is Beatrice’s beau, Four (James) who she meets at the Dauntless camp. Sure there’s a soppy scene or two between the pair, but you’ve got to expect that for a YA novel adaptation.

What lets down Divergent is its length. It’s just over two hours but it feels long – and it isn’t paced out well. The training at camp Dauntless goes on and on, and by the time we reach the climax, there’s already been three or four points where the action could have wrapped. The script isn’t brilliant and there are a few clunky moments along the way, too.

‘You can’t let them find out about you!’

The tension is strung along by Tris’ Divergent label. If her secret is revealed, she’ll be rejected by society, and left out in the cold, perhaps killed. In many ways, she embodies what people fear about Divergents – an independent thinker who has moral issues with the way society is being run (now we’re sounding like Hunger Games again). But Tris does everything to keep her identity secret. She doesn’t want the truth to be known.

For Christians, we find our identity in Christ. And sometimes, actually – often, we can feel a little like we want to fit in with the crowd and not let the truth be known of who we really are. There are places around the world where Christians are persecuted for their faith. But for us who live in places free from persecution, we are called to be bold about who we are.

In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus says:

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

We are Christ’s ambassadors in this world and we are called to be the light in a dark world. There’s no need to hide who we are, because our hope is secure in Jesus. And this is liberating! There’s no need to hide, or pretend we’re someone that we’re not.

Divergent is well worth watching, but I’m hoping the editor brings a sharper pair of scissors to the sequel. I’m giving it three-and-a-half out of five stars.

Divergent is out now in cinemas everywhere.

Album Review: Francesca Battistelli – If We’re Honest


by Sam Robinson

Francesca Battistelli is without doubt one of the biggest female artists on the Christian music scene. Not only that, but she is certified as the best-selling new Christian artist in the last ten years. Even her face has appeared on three million Diet Pepsi cans (look out for my interview with Francesca next week for more on this).

This week sees the release of her highly-anticipated third album – and her first in three years – simply titled If We’re Honest.

Often CCM pop can take a cookie-cutter approach to both music and lyrics, but if Francesca Battistelli is indeed classified as ‘CCM pop’, then she’s broken the mould. And this excites me as a listener.

There’s real thought and consideration into the songs on this record, particularly the lyrics. Musically, there’s plenty of pop (sugary sweet at times) but Francesca deviates at times into country, soul, and even ballad territory.

As you might guess from the title, this album is a call for honesty. Francesca joyfully opens up about her faith, her life, her struggles, and invites us into her story, all the while encouraging us to share our lives with others too. It’s clear across If We’re Honest that despite her successes, Francesca wants to be challenged by God and his Word, and have her life shaped by Him.

This is clear from the first track Write Your Story, a radio-ready hit that’s all about surrendering our whole lives to God, for his glory. It sets the pace for the album. On He Knows My Name Francesca shares her desire to find her identity in Christ, rather than in fame or worldly treasures: ‘He calls me chosen / Free, forgiven / Child of the King.’ If we’ve been bought, and God knows our name, then what on this earth could be better?

Run to Jesus has a distinct country twang but again, encourages listeners to find their identity and hope in Jesus – particularly in times of trouble. Title track If We’re Honest strips things back a bit – featuring just Francesca and a piano for the most part. For me, it’s the highlight of the album. It brings a challenge to bring our brokenness and our fears to the cross, where we find not only forgiveness but our true identity.

‘Don’t pretend to be something that you’re not / Living life afraid of getting caught /

There is freedom found when we lay our secrets down at the cross.’

Giants Fall brings back the pop feels, and We Are the Kingdom closes the standard edition of the record, a send-off encouraging us to live boldly for Christ in everything we do. The deluxe edition of If We’re Honest features an extra four tracks (resulting in a very generous fifteen songs). Perhaps my favourite of the bonus songs is Keeping Score – a song with swagger (and what appears to be banjo!) that rejoices that God doesn’t keep score of our ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deeds. We’re covered by grace! I’m surprised this track didn’t make the standard release.

If We’re Honest is most certainly a pop release but doesn’t rest on cliche. It cleverly delves into who we are as his beings saved at the cross, and called to live for him in everything. I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars.

If We’re Honest by Francesca Battistelli will be released this Tuesday 22nd April. It can be pre-ordered now on iTunes. My interview with Francesca Battistelli about this record will be posted soon, follow Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter to read it first.

Interview: Page CXVI on Good Friday to Easter

Page CXVI Reel Gospel.jpg

by Sam Robinson

After eighteen months of hard work, and three albums released across five months, the church calendar project from Page CXVI has come to a close. The final album in the trilogy, Good Friday to Easter is perhaps the best yet (read my review here). I got to chat with lead singer and co-producer Latifah Phillips one final time to get the scoop on this album, the stories behind the songs, and what’s to come next for both the band and herself.

SAM: Latifah, the last church calendar record is out. Is it a little hard to believe that you’ve reached this point?

LATIFAH: Yes. It’s really hard. Especially since we’ve been talking about making a record associated to Advent for five or six years. And then we’ve been talking about doing the whole calendar for a year-and-a-half. So I can’t believe it’s finally at its end. It’s sad but it’s also kind of a relief: ‘Yay! We did it!’ I’m really proud of us. I think we did really good work and I’m hopeful that it will really encourage people with the seasons.

SAM: You’ve done a magnificent job across three – I don’t know how you release three albums in five months!

LATIFAH: I don’t know how we do it either! [Laughs] It’s crazy!

SAM: One day you’ll look back and go – I can’t believe we did all that!

LATIFAH: I know! I think I do that with all of our hymns releases. We made Hymns II-IV all at the same time. So it’s kind of the same thing. Except then we released them within two years of each other. I think the hardest part is releasing them so close together. To get the energy up to talk about and reach out to people. I hope that we haven’t exhausted people at this point…

SAM: I don’t think that’s the case! Actually, I was watching the teaser video you posted online for this last album, and I felt a bit emotional watching that. This musical journey is ending! Is there a sense of grief in wrapping a project like this?

LATIFAH: I think that the grief might come later… I think that relief is my initial feeling. Just because it’s been so much work, and so much energy. Getting this last record to a place where – I have this obsessive compulsive desire to beat every record that I have made, with this record that I’m releasing. And so doing Advent and Lent and Easter so close together was a real challenge for me because I still had that same desire. But they’re all so close together so I’m not sure if I succeeded! [Laughs] You know, when Clark and I were editing the video and putting it together, I also was feeling a little bit sad, just thinking about how far we’ve come. And I’m not sure what’s next as far as what music we’ll put out… Which is strange for us, because we always have a plan. And we just all decided to take a season of rest and explore other adventures. So I think for me, maybe that’s where the sadness lies. But I’m really proud of the project, I feel relieved and I feel thankful to move on to something else. I think I’m ready.

SAM: Good to hear! Now the last time we talked, you gave me the scoop that there would be eight tracks rather than seven on the Easter record; and that everyone couldn’t quite deal with that because all your records have seven tracks! Have you come to terms with it yet?

LATIFAH: Yes! I love it. I mean, the eighth and final track was what we used for the YouTube promo. That was the song. And I just love it. It’s totally different! It’s a different approach. It is a transitional song. I love it and I think Reid and Dann really like it too.

SAM: I’ll ask you about that song soon, but the first track on the album, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, I assume that’s a deep reflection on Good Friday?

LATIFAH: Yes. It’s really about hoping to put yourself into the space of the kind of sacrifice that Christ made. And it uses a lot of dark language that really is almost somewhat graphic in the sense of… ‘Sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down.’ It just immediately takes you to that point. I think a lot of people have seen The Passion of the Christ, and images of Christ with the crown of thorns and blood dripping down, but I think what this song does successfully is that it works past just the visual imagery, and takes you to a more spiritual, emotional, imagery place of what Christ’s walk and transition was like as he was realising the gravity of the sacrifice he was going to have to make. And also, maybe what it looked like and why he did it. So I have always loved that song. We have a simplified video of it for a YouTube video that we’ve made. And I loved it then, I love leading it. I hope it puts us in a place of gratitude but also realising the gravity moreso of what he’s done. Yeah, I love that song. I think it’s great.

SAM: Absolutely. And then it’s followed by Go to Dark Gethsemane. I was trying to work out how to describe this song, I think I’d call it ‘chilling but in a beautiful, haunting way’. Is that what you wanted to create on that song, because your voice on that track is – compared to other Page tracks – quite unique. What can you tell me about that song?

LATIFAH: You know, that’s funny you mentioned that. When I was tracking it, in the studio, I made myself cry. [Laughs] And not because I’m amazing…

SAM: You got out some onions, and got someone to punch you in the arm…

LATIFAH: Exactly! No, I got really emotional. I tried to – especially when I’m in the studio singing a song that I’ve already written. It’s not the first time I’m singing it. It’s the same thing I’ve tried to do when we’re leading worship or I’m performing the song. If I try to take myself to the emotional space of what the song is communicating – so that as the voice I can really contextualise what that space is. So I was thinking about the real imagery of Christ and him doing that journey to calvary, and just how lonely it was. How so many people rejected him and denied him. And that he still went through with it. I remember when I was singing the words I made myself cry because it gave me a deeper sense of love for Christ when I think about what he really sacrificed. So I think that the reason the song even sounds different vocally is because I was pretty emotional as I was singing it.

It’s a heavy tune. The concept is really heavy. I think I might have said this in our last interview, but when you put yourself in the place of the people that loved Christ – his disciples, his friends, his family – they didn’t know he was going to rise from the dead three days later. And so I really wanted to put myself in that space of grief. And I lost my Dad almost six years ago, so I have a little bit of experience to relate it to. So I decided to put myself in that place. So I think the song turned out really special. And I love the string work on it. Cameron and Keith did such a beautiful job in creating a haunting, dark, but yet so lovely and beautiful sound with their instruments. I love using all-organic instruments at the top. They go into a dark and industrial heavy place at the end with the drums and the cool electric guitar tones! We kinda sang ‘He wept. We wept.’ at the end to take us to that place as far as I could without wanting to die. [Laughs]

SAM: I think that’s the thing about Good Friday. It’s one of those days that is so horrific but yet it’s still hopeful. How does Good Friday hit you?

LATIFAH: I think I’ve always been someone that’s more accustomed to feeling the weight and grief of Good Friday. And maybe it’s because I’m an artist and I tend to be a little bit melancholy by nature. But it’s really sad when you think about it! And I know it’s hard because we know the full story, the narrative. It’s easy to feel hopeful because what we’re really thinking about is Easter. So when I just think about Good Friday as an isolated event, it’s tremendously sad. So I tend to live there in that place. I love those dark Friday services I’ve been to in the past where the church has put black up everywhere, and there’s maybe a couple of candles, and a real sense that it feels like a funeral. A solemn nature. I know that a lot of Christians want to try to rush to Easter because it’s hopeful, and hopefulness feels better than sadness and grief. But like I said before, hopefulness is only as powerful when you experience loss. So I tend to lean towards the dark, melancholy side of Good Friday. Sometimes I know it makes people feel uncomfortable, but that’s why I wanted to go as dark as I could on the record before transitioning into the happier, more upbeat Easter songs.

SAM: And I guess there is that transitory song in Three. And it seems to be more than just an interlude, or a track to move from the dark to the light…

LATIFAH: Yeah well when I was thinking about how we needed one… I had the whole record almost mixed with Dave. And I was listening to it in the car, the premixes, and when we jumped from Go to Dark Gethsemane to Roll Away the Stone it just felt really jarring. Like I wasn’t emotionally ready yet. And so when I was crafting that song it actually – I think that whole song was tracked within twenty-five minutes. It was really fast. Dave did a wonderful mix on it. But what I was going for, I was thinking about those three days. And it worked out really well that it also happened to be the third track on the record! I should say that it was intentionally that clever, but it was really unintentional! [Laughs] But there’s something really mystical and powerful and unknown about how God moves. And the miracle of taking something that is dead and making it alive. Some people describe it as magic! God can do anything.

So I wanted to tap into – what would that mystical, particles moving, that we can’t see but we know it’s happening. What would it sound like if it had a sound? I didn’t really want a centre lead vocal, I wanted these different concepts and at the top of the song you have the ‘Swing low, sweet chariot,’ ‘Lay this body down,’ lyrics happening. Then there’s a lift or breath in the centre. And to me that’s like: he’s died and this is really sad, and God’s doing something that we don’t see or we don’t know but it’s like a breath. Then you start hearing the lyric: ‘You set the captives free,’ ‘Alleluia, sing to our king,’ and it’s like what I imagine the angels are doing singing. Because you still don’t yet know that he’s going to rise from the dead. So I wanted a song that had that… it sounds weird but particles moving. It’s kind of like – you know when you’re sitting in a room and you don’t realise how dusty it is. Then a light shines through the window and you see all the particles moving through the air? You can’t think about how dirty and gross and dusty it is [laughs] because when you just look at it it’s really beautiful. That’s one of the pictures I had when I was building the track. That space of a [exhales]. I think in Scripture they use the word ‘selah’. A breath. Amen. So that was the concept, and I love it. It might even be my favourite song on that record! It’s kind of an anti-song song too.

SAM: Yeah, it’s different for you guys to do something like that as well.

LATIFAH: It is different. It was fun to make a song just for a record because the record needed it. Not because – I mean I don’t know if we’ll ever play it live. The record was just really calling for it. So it was made.

SAM: And then, as you mentioned, we move into these songs that are so upbeat. Roll Away the Stone and Christ is Risen are so… positive! Really joyous. Where did these songs come from?

LATIFAH: These were really fun! Dave and I sat down and we wrote Roll Away the Stone together. That’s an original song. And that song originally – I was telling Dave ‘We have all these songs about Christ rising from the dead but we don’t really have any songs that actually tell us the story of people going to the tomb. The women – and I love that it was women, because I’m a woman. People don’t like talking about that very much, but I love that women first went and looked for him and discovered that he wasn’t there, and then Thomas who Christ sees and doesn’t even believe him! ‘Touch this, touch this! This is me!’ I love the story! And I love the imagery of the stone rolling away. So I told Dave, ‘We need a song about this moment,’ because we’re going to get to the other realm of Christ raised from the dead, reigning as King. So Dave and I sat and we read all the passages, all the accounts in Scripture that describe that moment. And ended up penning out the song. It was really fun. It was one of the last to be written for the whole project. I love how it turned out. It’s real fun, real exciting. I like that it tells a story. I love the background vocals: ‘Alleluia!’ It so catchy! I love great backgrounds.

But yeah, Christ is Risen comes from a couple of hymns. The first is obviously Christ is Risen, where we took most of the lyric from, but I felt like it needed – I felt if I was at this service on Sunday and we were going to be singing that Christ is risen, I’d want it to feel massive. I’d want the drums to be a 1950s motown feel-good rhythm. Dann found that and did a great job with that. It’s so fun to sing ‘Christ is risen, he hath burst His bonds in twain’ which means he’s burst them in two. You get the imagery of the cloth that’s hanging in – is it the tabernacle? It’s hanging in the temple and it’s ripped in two when Christ defeats death. I love that imagery! It’s just a great song about his glory and what he’s done. It’s fun to focus on that part. It’s such a relief after going through Good Friday. I love that those two songs follow the heavier content on the record.

SAM: And the arrangements to both those songs are in a pop-rock style, perhaps moreso than usual for you guys. Was it fun to work in that style?

LATIFAH: Yeah! I love layered, full music. Sigur Rós, Jónsi, Aqualung, Radiohead… they’re all experts at making this layered, lush sound. It’s like a wall of sound. And when you think about the concept of Easter you think of the angels rejoicing, and the body of Christ – it’s a wall of people and they’re singing! It’s fun to get to do it with sound. And it’s always fun to be loud! [Laughs]

SAM: Now it’s been about a month since we last caught up, but how’s your cactus finger going?

LATIFAH: Oh, it’s still swollen, man. I actually go to hand therapy tomorrow.

SAM: Are you still wearing the knuckle sweater for it?

LATIFAH: No, unfortunately I don’t get that anymore. It’s actually probably better. But I think it’s going to be hopefully a couple more months until the swelling goes down but – I literally go to hand therapy every week and it feels so crazy to go for one finger! [Laughs]

SAM: Now this obviously a soundtrack to the Easter weekend, but is there a key message or big idea to the album as a whole, other than just exploring what Christ has done?

LATIFAH: I think it’s really a record about rejoicing. We can only rejoice in what we’ve understood to have happened. So it’s OK that the first two songs are really heavy. Then the end of the record – every song is in C major. Which is a very positive key. Very positive notes. It’s really about celebration and rejoicing. Whereas the other records have themes of gratitude, and anticipation and expectation. This is really about rejoicing and celebration. And I think that’s why we had so much fun making big, full party-sounding songs. Like – Christ the Lord is Risen Today – it’s got this happy, ukulele, vocal intro and then it’s BOOM! Everything is in in the chorus! We have all these crazy sounds. There’s literally times when Dave and I would put our hands on the keyboard and just bang out notes… That’s really the sense for me, for the record. And I hope that that translates across.

SAM: Absolutely. Hugely celebratory. And even though the first two tracks are quite solemn, by the end of it you know it’s a party.

LATIFAH: Yeah! Totally!

SAM: Now Easter – what do you usually get up to across the weekend?

LATIFAH: Y’know, I think there’s only been in the last ten years one Easter Sunday that we haven’t played! There’s something about – and I don’t mean this in a negative way – Easter Sunday in America that’s kind of like Superbowl Sunday for churches. They go to the nines for it all. But this Sunday what’s going to be fun is that Reid and I are actually just playing as part of a team of musicians for Easter Sunday at a church in Denver. It’s not about being Page CXVI, it’s just getting to play and use our gifts, and enjoy the Sunday in a different way. So usually I’m playing and there’s three services on Sunday. So I get to go to church a lot on Sunday! But I love playing music. It’s how I’m made, it’s how I understand the world, so to use those skills to celebrate God on Easter Sunday feels very appropriate.

SAM: And do you do a similar thing on Good Friday?

LATIFAH: I’ve done a handful of Good Friday services. This Good Friday I’m actually just relaxing and I’ll probably just attend a service, which is really special. When you work a lot of services, or are part of a team of leading people, it’s really nice to just go and be part of the body and participate. So Reid and I will probably just go to our church’s Good Friday service and just sit. I’ll probably cry. [Laughs]

SAM: Everything will be black…

LATIFAH: Hopefully, right? [Laughs] That’s what I love! I’ll watch a real depressing movie. [Laughs]

SAM: Oh man… Well actually speaking of the darkness and the positiveness, you’ve done a version of How Deep the Father’s Love on this record. It’s a modern hymn, really. What do you love about it?

LATIFAH: Well the first time I heard it I was at a service somewhere. And I remember loving the words. But they were playing it so slowly. I get it – I get why you would do that, and how it would be helpful to meditate on the lyric, but I remember feeling like it just wasn’t celebratory enough. So it was really fun to do it in a format – and I don’t know how the original writers play it – but I love getting to have a great indie pop-rock fun celebratory vibe. I wrote a chorus and a bridge for the song because I find it really helpful when you’re singing hymns with a congregation – because you’re giving them so much great content and so much to talk about. It’s jam-packed in one song. And if you’re like us we sing all hymns when we’re leading worship. It’s so much theology and so much content which is great – but sometimes it’s really helpful to have a simple refrain as a breather, that focusses on the thesis of the hymn. So you have the thesis statement and then as you’re going through each verse you can appreciate and connect the dots. So it was really fun to add those elements. I love that song. And I always get excited when there’s people writing – in my opinion – on the same level as the hymn writers were doing hundreds of years ago. It could be a song that when I first heard it, I assumed it was older. Then it wasn’t until we wanted to do it for one of our videos that I looked it up and said ‘Look! Somebody wrote this in the nineties! So this is not free to use but I really love it, so we’re going to use it anyway!’

SAM: You know, I’ve loved being able to talk to you for each of these calendar records and get the stories behind them but I’m going to ask you a really tough question. Do you have a favourite out of the three records?

LATIFAH: On some levels – I don’t have children yet – I imagine it’s like asking someone with children which of their three kids is their favourite. And I imagine each of those kids is totally different, they have different personalities, different character, they look different. But you appreciate them for their unique aspects. So I really love all the records. But if I had had had to choose… I might say Advent to Christmas. Which is funny because before they all were finished and said and done I would have said Good Friday to Easter. And it’s by a nose, it’s a really close race! But there’s something, perhaps because those songs are so familiar to me and there are songs that I’d been wanting to re-do for such a long time, that maybe it felt the most satisfying in that way. But yeah. I love them all. Do you have a favourite after hearing all three?

SAM: I do love them all, but I think this latest one is my favourite.

LATIFAH: Oh yay! Well that’s good! That’s what I actually hope people will say, because if I’m really honest about the concept of wanting to beat every record then technically Good Friday to Easter should be it!

SAM: Yeah that’s right! Now you mentioned that you’re not quite sure what’s next for Page CXVI, other than a break?

LATIFAH: Yeah, I should clarify that it’s not a break-up. Dann, Reid and I are on wonderful terms. Obviously Reid is my husband so we’re hoping we’re on good terms! [Laughs] We all love each other a lot. We’ve toured really hard for eight years and spent a lot of time in a van on the road, travelling America. Making tonnes and tonnes of music. It’s been wonderful. There are realities about travelling so much and being gone so much that I think that we’re all just ready for a bit of a breather. We miss being part of a regular community at home. Reid and I got a dog and I love him, I miss him. For me, personally, I’ve got involved in producing a lot of projects for other artists and it just requires me being home a bit more. And I’ve loved it. I obviously co-produce all of our records with Dave Wilton, and the production is one of my first loves. So getting to do it for other artists is such a joy. And Reid’s exploring some other things and opportunities and so is Dann. So it’s fun to see them thriving and trying new things. But by no means would I say we’re finished. I don’t know when the next record will be or what it’s about, but I think creatively we all need a bit of a break so if and when we do come back, it’s really good! [Laughs] And I think there’s something to be said as artists to have just some life experience to keep drawing from. I feel like we’ve drawn a lot of music out of the last decade. I feel like I need to live life a little bit then come back and write some more in this way. I also say – we’re also taking random gig opportunities but just being more choosy and taking the opportunities that excite us right now. Luckily we’re in a position where we don’t have to take every gig right now. We don’t have to hit the road as hard. Which is a blessing and something I’m really thankful for.

SAM: And it seems like you’re still working on some other projects – I’ve seen on Twitter that you’re working on Aaron Strumpel’s new record?

LATIFAH: Yes! He’s a fabulous artist! The record we’re working on is called Bright Star. It’s a really beautiful, deep, fun worship record. Aaron plays trumpets on all of our records, he’s an amazing trumpet player but he’s also an incredible vocalist and songwriter. We actually worked from 10am to 9pm on his record yesterday. It was so fun at one point I was dancing in the studio because I loved what we had made! I think that will be released early next fall.

SAM: And another project Moda Spira?

LATIFAH: It’s hard to say because it’s in an ancient Latin language… But Moda Spira means ‘just breathe’ in Latin. When I was a little girl I had really terrible asthma. I had to be in an oxygen machine at night with a little mask to breathe really well. And now I’m fine. And I love the idea that when I was a little girl who would have guessed that God would have brought me to a place – to live in Colorado at high altitude – and be a singer with big lungs! I love the idea of naming the project Moda Spira because of that. It’s meant to be a project for me to explore songwriting just on my own, and make sounds wherever I like. I did a cover of The National’s Terrible Love and it was for a film that’s airing soon on TV. So that’s the first thing that will come out as Moda Spira. But I am working on a few EPs for it. Just slowly, because I haven’t had as much time. So the plan for me is to take a bit of a break, then dive in to making these records and seeing what comes out after ten years of making music as Autumn Film and Page CXVI. I’m excited about it!

SAM: The last track on this record, Hallelujah, it’s beautiful!

LATIFAH: Thank you! I was really scared to do it!

SAM: Really? Why?

LATIFAH: Because it’s Handel’s Messiah! [Sings] Hallelujah! Hallelujah! It’s really well known… When we were thinking of how to end the whole project, and the record, this song came to my head. Dann and Jenny – our drummer and his wife – they went and saw that full concert last year. They were talking about how beautiful it was, it was with the Denver Symphony and Choir. So it got in my head. I looked it up and the lyric is very simple for this part of the score where it discusses Christ raising from the dead and then conquering, he is King and Lord… and it seemed right to end the record declaring who Christ is. And what he has done and doing. So it was a really fun way – and also for me to have 800 vocals on one song! To think about how to contextualise a song that is very choral and symphony-based, and move it to an indie pop-rock place. It was really fun to translate it. To move it around and see if it could work. And it’s probably the one that required the most attention. We had to edit and change and move things around and cut things out and put things in. I was probably tweaking that song until the bitter end. Just changing things constantly. I think by the end I was losing my mind, and I was asking Dave over and over ‘Are you sure this is OK?’ I lost my mind over these last mixes! But it was really fun to do. Thematically, I think it’s the most appropriate ending for the project.

SAM: Thanks so much for talking to me Latifah – not only this album but the others as well. It’s been so brilliant to feature three great records across the last three months.

LATIFAH: Thanks for doing it, really appreciate it!

cxvi_friday_1600 2Good Friday to Easter by Page CXVI is out now at and on iTunes.

For more interviews, follow Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter.

Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro


Reviewed by Keith Hill

Rated M. Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx. Directed by Marc Webb.

[Stars: 3.5/5]

Vying for the award of the longest film title of 2014 is The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro.

Rise of Electro is the second movie in the rebooted Spider-Man series, starring Andrew Garfield as hipster Spidey and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.

The film sticks to the standard Spider-Man formula – Spidey battles a villain (or three) with superpowers that come about as a result of a freak accident at an Oscorp facility (someone really needs to do an OH&S audit on that place!).  At the same time he negotiates teenage relationship dramas and delves deeper into the mystery surrounding the death of his parents.

The main villain in this case is Max Dillon/Electro (Foxx), an electrical engineer at Oscorp. Max is a “nobody”, ignored and walked over by everyone around him, who becomes obsessed with Spider-Man after being saved by him. An accident involving a tank full of electric eels gives Max a blue glow, the ability to control electricity and the attention he has always longed for. Spurred on by Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaane), he sets out to destroy Spidey for a perceived betrayal.

The special effects are fantastic. Electro’s ability to control electricity and Spidey’s web-slinging both make the most of the 3D technology, and the slowing down of time as we see things from Spider-Man’s point of view is used for maximum dramatic effect.

Unfortunately, fantastic effects don’t make up for what is lacking in character development for the film’s three villains. The villains are easily the weakest part of the movie – Paul Giamatti hams it up with a terrible Russian accent as Rhino, and the Harry Osborn/Green Goblin storyline has been done to death in the various Spider-Man versions. Too many villains vying for screen time made the film drag a bit in sections, and made it feel like too much time was given to setting up potential plots for the next movie in the franchise, rather than focusing in this one.

The relationship between Peter and Gwen is what really drives the movie. You can feel the tension that Peter feels as he tries to negotiate his feelings for Gwen and still keep the promise he made to her father in the previous movie, The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter knows his crime-fighting lifestyle will ultimately place her in danger, and he is torn between his love for her and his desire to keep her safe and out of harms way.

The main conflict in the film comes from Max’s desire to be known. Jamie Foxx does a great job at the start of the movie enabling us to sympathize with Max, who feels ignored and forgotten by the world and underappreciated by his employers at Oscorp.

We sympathize with Max because that’s often how we feel too. We can sometimes feel alone, ignored and undervalued by the world and the people around us. But despite our feelings, the Bible tells us that we aren’t unknown. Psalm 130:1 says:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!

We are not “nobody” – we are somebody made and loved by God. He formed each one of us in our mother’s womb. He carefully and lovingly planned out the tiniest detail of each and every day of our lives, from before we were born, and guides every step we take. He knows each one of us by name and he gave his only Son to bring sinners like us into his family.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro has something to keep everyone happy – some great comedic one-liners, plenty of soppy romance and a stack of great action scenes. With several more sequels in this series planned, it will be interesting to see how they manage to keep it feeling fresh, but as this movie shows, there’s no shortage of bad guys lining up to take on Spider-Man. Three and a half stars.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro is released in Australia and the UK this Thursday 17th April, and in the US on Friday 2nd May.

For more film reviews, follow Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter.

Interview: Loud Harp talk Asaph


by Sam Robinson

One of the best releases so far this year is Asaph, a beautiful album from American indie band Loud Harp (read my review here). The record contains songs based on psalms, mixed together with personal reflections. I recently caught up with the two musicians who make up Loud Harp, Asher Seevinck and Dave Wilton, to talk about the new album, who Asaph is, and much more.

SAM: Asher, you’re part of Seafinch, and Dave, A Boy and His Kite. Can you share briefly how you got together as Loud Harp?

ASHER: Seafinch is a band that I had been doing for a little while, and Dave produced the first Seafinch record as an EP. So we had known each other before that, just as friends. I lived in Colorado for a little while and we got to know each other then. Then as I was leaving we started working on the Seafinch EP and he produced it. Then a little while into me moving away from Colorado I was starting to want to work on some more Seafinch stuff and I was hitting a bit of a writing wall. I was in a bit of a funny season at the time anyway, just a hard season. So I called Dave to see if I could come out to Colorado and write with him. When I got out there the Loud Harp record is what we ended up writing. So it was pretty different to the Seafinch stuff – obviously it’s way more worshipful, way more prayer-like. That was the season both of us was in, so that’s what came out. We decided, maybe we should record this stuff, even if it’s just for us to remember the weekend.

SAM: And you’re from different states now, is that right?

ASHER: Correct.

SAM: So considering the distance, did that make it hard to work on this new album?

DAVE: Because we’re a band that was unexpected it’s such a blessing just because we’re friends first and foremost, we just believe in each other, and are thankful for our friendship. It has been hard to navigate how to be a band. We do live eight, nine hours apart via car trip. So with the new record, we always feel whenever we’re together we’re just excited to be together and we’re always ready to worship God and offer our music when we’re together. So there’s always that excitement. In fact we wrote the new record in three days, together. But what takes so long is the working out of all the parts and recording. Praying through and taking the time required to make an album that we feel really excited about, and captures the full scope of what God’s put on our hearts. So that does take a lot of time.

SAM: Does it also take a while considering you have your own bands, as well?

DAVE: Yeah. My own music and Asher’s music, we don’t play a whole lot. We don’t do that many shows. But it took a considerable amount more time because I produce and record other people for a living. So I run a recording studio besides having my own music. So yeah, I was always in the middle of other projects, and to try and find time to work on my and Asher’s stuff turned harder for me than I originally expected.

SAM: This new album Asaph is incredible. How long did it take to make the record?

ASHER: So we started in May last year – that’s when we started writing it. And so I was there [with Dave] for a weekend in May…

DAVE: We started recording in June.

ASHER: Yeah, so I went back out a month later in June and we tracked for a week. Maybe 75% of the parts. Then after that we did our Kickstarter to raise money to finish it, buy Dave some time, and get funds so we can produce it on the back end…

[At this point in the interview the sound of a dog howling began. Dave left briefly...]

SAM: That sounds like a nice dog.

ASHER: Yeah the studio Dave works at, there’s some folks that live there and they have this dog who’s a great studio dog but every once in a while he does that.

DAVE: [Returns and laughs] He’s so funny!

SAM: Does this dog come in and step on delay pedals, or anything like that?

DAVE: He’s a great studio dog. His name’s Royer, he’s named after a ribbon microphone. And most of the time he’s super chill, but sometimes he’s a little dependent on his mom. So when she leaves he goes into howl mode for a little bit.

SAM: So we were talking about the Kickstarter…

ASHER: Yeah we then did the Kickstarter in June to July. Dave and I both had a couple of international trips, separately. I probably took another four or five trips over the last six, seven months to re-do some stuff, and then Dave’s been working on it the entire time, when he has time in-between other projects. So that’s why it takes so long. He’s got other stuff he’s doing. And because Loud Harp probably pays him the worst out of all of his other projects, it gets pushed to the back of the line which is fair.

DAVE: Also I care about this project on a level that – it’s me and Asher’s. It’s our very honest hearts of worship. So I obsess over it on a level that only an artist can obsess about their own art. So that’s why it took a good healthy ten months to make the record. It’s like a child!

ASHER: Yeah we were thinking we could knock it out in a month. [Laughs] That’s what we had said! And then to our Kickstarter backers, we did the thing in June and we said that we would release it in October. So we gave ourselves a few months. But we thought we could do it pretty quick and then it just took much longer than we expected – which we should have known.

SAM: What was it like making an album through Kickstarter?

ASHER: Amazing. I tell people all the time, when people ask me this question… We were told going into it ‘Get ready for the worst thirty days of your life.’ And so that’s what we were prepping for. Some of my friends were telling me ‘You’re going to have to email every single one of your Mom’s friends to have them donate to Kickstarter.’ And we got into it and we decided for several reasons, for 21 days instead of 30 days. So we gave ourselves less time and we had some people telling us we were crazy to be doing that. We just both felt peace about it. So we went for it and two weeks in we had already reached our goal. It wasn’t the type of thing where we were emailing our moms’ friends. So instead of it being the worst experience, it was one of the most validating experiences for us. We felt: ‘There are people out there that we don’t even know, not even our friends, that are so blessed by our previous record and are willing to support us. They want more.’ That was so validating. It was a great experience.

SAM: This new album Asaph, the songs on the record are numbered. I assume that’s to reflect the particular psalms that they’re based around?

DAVE: Yeah. The main inspiration behind the record is the psalms of Asaph. And we definitely pulled from a few other psalms that had been inspiring us in the same season. Psalm 27 is a psalm of David. Psalm 1:44. But there were also some spontaneous songs that we had stumbled upon while touring, and leading people in worship, and some of those songs came from different parts of Scripture. (77) I’m Yours ties into Psalm 77 for sure, but the majority of it Asher wrote from Romans 8. Similar with (05) Beautiful Son comes from Revelation 5 and the rest of it besides those two songs are inspired by the psalms of Asaph or psalms of David.

SAM: I found it really refreshing that – there are some bands out there that do the psalms verbatim – but it seems as though you incorporate the psalm with a bit of reflection as well.

ASHER: Yeah. I think for us – we have written projects before where it’s word-for-word stuff. But we feel pretty strongly about making things our own, y’know? I don’t feel like we’re changing the intention of what the psalms were. We’re just bringing them in and making them our prayers. So yeah. I think you’ll notice with both our last record and this record, there’s a fair amount of repetition. Part of that is when we sing: ‘You’re good. You’re so good. Your love never runs out,’ and we sing that over and over. I feel like when I do that myself, it gets in my spirit. If it’s something I’m struggling with, like ‘God, I don’t know if you’re good right now,’ then I say that [line] a hundred times, and I start believing what I’m saying. It starts actually getting in my spirit. That’s part of the reason why we write the way that I write.

SAM: What is it about the psalms that you love?

ASHER: Oh man. I just love that they’re honest. They’re real. I don’t feel like David or Asaph were pretending that they were in a place that they weren’t. I think that’s something that we do in the church. Not necessarily with music, I think a lot of music is very honest, but that’s the thing I love about the psalms. I love actually seeing somebody’s heart laid bare. I was talking to a friend the other day. He was asking me about the new St Vincent record. This has nothing to do with her lyrics, but I listened to the music and I feel like I’m listening to a robot. I just can’t connect to that. I just want emotion. I want something real. I want somebody laid bare. That’s part of our intention with everything we do with Loud Harp, that both lyrically and musically, that it’s just real. It’s raw emotion.

SAM: Dave, what is it about the psalms that you love?

DAVE: Everything that Asher said. And just to coattail on that. There’s something deeply inspiring to me, and encouraging to me, that I can read a man or woman’s words from that long ago and not knowing them, know their heart and their relationship with God. It’s as if I’m transported into somebody’s relationship with God and invited into that. That inspires me too. When I see that connection and as a musician I think of a lot of things and emotion and sound, and each psalmist has a particular sound and feeling. That inspires me. I want people to put on our record and know that my and Asher’s heart for God – this is what it sounds like. There’s no filter. We’ve laid it all out there and that’s the reason why God directed us to write from the psalms, because he knows how predominantly he speaks to us, and he speaks to me. I really want people to take part in that story.

SAM: I want to ask you about a few tracks on the record. The first is (27) Take Heart, and it’s got some very cool ’80s synth vibes. What can you tell me about that song in particular?

DAVE: Well, I think we didn’t have anything planned when we got together to write this music. But in the studio we had instruments laid out and we’d pray, and then be like, ‘let’s write from this psalm.’ With that particular psalm, I might have joked but we got out a Juno and just started playing those chords, and Asher started singing. It felt very natural. And we weren’t trying to go for an ’80s synth sound but I definitely reached for the Juno because there’s some dreamy emotion that comes from that keyboard that – I mean you hear it and immediately you’re in some awesome ’80s music video or some good movie that’s drawing a lot of emotion.

ASHER: Yeah. That’s an interesting one. It was probably halfway through the writing process. I think we had already written (73) and (77), and maybe one of the ones we did out of 50. I’d sent the really rough versions of what we had done to our friend Joel Davis, who’s the lead singer of Ascend the Hill. And he wrote me back, and he just had felt like there’s something about God’s goodness in the stuff that we were singing. So he said that when he thinks about Loud Harp he thinks about Psalm 27. He just quoted a part of it. So we went and read it and I said ‘Let’s just sing this over what you’re writing,’ – it was at the same time. And then as I’m reading through Psalm 27 – I had a friend at the time that was battling cancer and ended up losing that battle. He was an amazing dude. So in the midst of that, we’re singing this song about taking heart, and just seeing God’s goodness. So that one for me is a really special one, because the things we were thinking about as we were writing that one… that one was really raw. Even now when I listen to it I still feel really raw.

SAM: Another standout track to me is (73) The Nearness of You. How did that song come together?

DAVE: That was the first song.

ASHER: Yeah. First song that we wrote. Same thing, Dave kinda pulled out the Juno and put together a rhythmic thing – that’s how the song starts. And then that lyric – ‘The nearness of you is my only good’ – when we were on tour last February in the North-West we were reading all these psalms, and we were reading Psalm 73 right before we were going to lead worship somewhere, and that lyric just really caught me. So I started singing that when we were leading worship one of those nights. I thought, this is it. More than anything that lyric defines the record. And when we were actually recording it, we were referencing with the drummer a lot of the new National Record, because Trouble Will Find Me had just come out, and at the same time I had been listening to This Will Destroy You which is atmospheric, huge, post-rock. And so the ending of that song, it goes from this tighter, intentional drumming. The end of it opens up and just kinda goes.

SAM: I’m keen to learn more about Asaph, he’s a psalmist and you’ve named this record after him. I assume that you’ve looked into who he is, what did you discover about him?

DAVE: We did as much research and study that we could find in scripture, and we looked up a few different commentaries but it wasn’t until we reached out to a good friend and mentor, Ray Hughes, and we asked him to help us understand who Asaph was. And what his involvement was. He was so helpful. Basically David appointed him as leader of worship in David’s tent. He oversaw twenty-four hours of worship – this is pre-temple. And Asaph was a skilled musician. His job was also to train up the musicians, not just lead the people in worship but to impart this sound of God, which is such a cool idea when you think about it. Asaph was a percussionist, a drummer, and Ray said that there’s a lot of study that says his main instrument was cymbals and things that would resound and keep going. If you hit a cymbal for minutes after it will keep sounding and people will hear it. All his psalms have this longing to call people back to a place of nearness with God. A place of true worship, laying down their idols and seeking a real and dynamic relationship with God. As we learned more about it, we saw his psalms are brooding and he’s troubled a lot of the time. They’re really difficult psalms. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. There’s psalms that we’d read through and be stunned that Asaph writes ‘Fire goes before you and God’s ways are tempestuous’ or ‘unpeaceful’. And how can he say ‘your ways are unpeaceful’ and yet be called into the peace of the nearness of God? His view of God was so big in a way powerful…

One of the lyrics stands out to me on the record is from (50) The Fire and the Flood. The end of it: ‘Remind us that you’re God. Remind us that you’re good.’ This idea that God can be both powerful and we can fear him, and yet he’s good and we can have intimacy with him. Those two things don’t have to be at odds with one another. That’s the thing we took away from Asaph and his heart of worship is that we could see he didn’t have to choral with God. It was a lot about obedience and a lot about trusting in God, desiring to be near God. So we learned a great deal and I think we’re still learning a great deal.

SAM: And what was it about Asaph’s psalms in particular that stood out to you?

ASHER: Y’know, I don’t know if it was necessarily the psalms that came first. It was the same weekend – I was in Utah – sitting under a teacher that was talking about Asaph. She was talking about him and one of the meanings of his name is ‘He that gathered, lifted burdens, removed reproach.’ And she talks about as worship leaders that one of our roles is to really gather God’s people. And then basically, help provide a place for them. Get rid of their burdens, and not think about their sin, but actually come to God. She was talking about that and on the same weekend Dave was listening to Ray Hughes speaking about Asaph. And we called each other and I was saying ‘Dude, I was hearing this thing…’ and Dave is telling me ‘I heard this thing!’ We were both hearing about Asaph at the same time. So we thought we should explore this Asaph guy. That’s how it happened. I don’t think it was the psalms first, we’d just been hearing about this guy.

SAM: And the press release for Asaph says that this is a step up from your debut, you’re now ‘ascending the hill of the Lord’. For me, that refers to the psalms of ascent. Why make the change from being ‘in the pit’ as you write, to ascending this hill?

ASHER: I feel like in that first record – and people may not catch it – but when we wrote that first record, I felt like I was in the pit. I was struggling so bad to even trust The Lord for things. So those things that we repeat: ‘You’re good, you’re so good, your love never runs out.’ When I’m saying that, I feel like I’m saying that from the pit. At one point on our first record we sing ‘You found me,’ and that song ends ‘You’re a good father, this is a good home. I’m right in the palm of your hands and I’m not letting go.’ And then we sing, ‘You found me and you pulled me out.’ To me that’s the point on that record where we came out of this place where we were, into something new. I feel like this new record there are a lot of similarities lyrically, but my viewpoint and the place I’m singing from, I feel like I’m in such a different place.

I was telling Dave a few months back – it was actually right before we started writing this record – my circumstances that I wrote the first record in were way better for a long time. Then the same thing that was happening happened again right before we started writing it. I told Dave: ‘This is the weirdest thing for me. I feel like I have victory over this other thing and now the circumstances are the same. But in my spirit I totally have victory over this thing. My spirit isn’t in the same place, I’m no longer thinking the things I was thinking then. I have a different trust in The Lord now.’ So writing these songs, my mind is in a different place than it was at that time… If that makes sense.

SAM: Yeah, and praise God for that. There’s a few instances on this record where there are two songs based on the same psalm. Can you explain to me how that works?

DAVE: For all the double ones there was just so much rich content that we wrote one, and we were still thinking through and praying through the psalm, and then a new melody or new idea came. And it required two different approaches. That’s what happened with (50). The other ones musically there was just something to express. With (73) The Nearness of You is so full and so complete and yet one of my favourite parts to that whole psalm is ‘My heart, my flesh may fail. You’re my strength and my portion forever.’ We wanted to experiment to see what it would sound like, that my portion is God’s forever. So the instrumental (73) track is in our imagination, what that sounds like. And same thing with (121). Psalm 121 is such a beautiful psalm but we wanted a journey. It’s almost like you have to work at it a little bit and then you’re close enough to the hills that you can lift your eyes. So yeah, it helped us thematically tell a story that felt honest and creative to us. We didn’t try and overthink it too much but a lot of times it felt like there needed more tension.

SAM: Musically this album is so amazing. You’ve got such incredible instrumentation and it really brings those psalms and reflections to life. One song in particular, (73) My Portion Forever, it’s very short but it’s got a real danceable groove to it. A lot of rhythm. What can you tell me about that song?

DAVE: It was last spring, almost a year ago, and we had really felt commissioned and called to make a new Loud Harp record. We didn’t know if we were going to make one to be honest. We didn’t plan on being a band but we felt like we needed to do this. I sat down one afternoon and within fifteen minutes all of that came out. Which seems like a lot, but there was a lot going on in my heart. I sent Asher a little rough [demo] of it and said that this is my soul dancing. This is my worship to The Lord. And I prefaced: Is this what the new Loud Harp record would sound like? We both just loved it. Asher weighed in on some of the music. Ultimately that song is my spirit dancing with The Lord. It sounds super cheesy but it’s true. [Laughs]

SAM: It’s very cool. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of souls dancing around. [Laughs] I’m keen to know, were there any funny moments in the recording of Asaph?

ASHER: That song, Dave had originally programmed it and the drums on that were programmed. So watching our drummer try and work out those intricate rhythms that you were just talking about, was funny. It was wild.

DAVE: Yeah, Caleb Friesen is one of the most talented drummers I’ve ever met. And I literally watched him – there’s a whole lot of rhythmic stuff that drummers and people who like rhythm will be like: ‘What is going on?’ There’s a lot of revolving rhythms and tricks. Two different types of triplets in 4/4 meter. Musically it’s pretty crazy and I don’t know why I wrote it but I did. So it was funny, man. Watching Caleb not know what to do. So my original beat he couldn’t play. So we had to actually make it easier! [Laughs]

SAM: In the lead up to this album you released a live EP. Was that to get fans excited for the album’s release?

ASHER: Yeah, there was that. I mean strategically we thought we were going to release this album a long time ago, right off the heels of a really good Kickstarter. And now it feels like it’s been so long. So we wanted to reintroduce ourselves to the world after being quiet for so long. That’s what it felt like to me.

SAM: Now is there a big idea of key message to Asaph as a whole?

ASHER: I feel like it fits into our big message as Loud Harp. We want to communicate God’s peace and hope. That feels very obvious on the first record, but on this one there’s more of a battle going on, because so much of what Asaph writes about is God’s hugeness and his greatness. Like Dave was saying earlier, it feels at odds a little bit with the peace of God. We lived in that tension a little bit on this record. Between those two ideas.

SAM: And what’s next for you guys? Are you hoping to record more as Loud Harp?

DAVE: I think so!

ASHER: Yeah. We are taking it one day at a time, and we’re really excited in this next season to share this music that God has put on our hearts with as many people as possible. We have a lot of great opportunities to join up and lead worship at some awesome conferences and events. So we’ll be travelling and excited about leading people in worship. I’m sure we’ll do some normal venue type of shows where we can play the songs like you hear on the record, but what we’re most excited about in the next six to eight months is just growing together as a band and involving our friends and inviting other friends to help us take these songs on the road, and bless a lot of people, and grow in how we’re able to lead others and worship God.

SAM: And is there anything in the pipeline for your other projects?

ASHER: Seafinch has been put on the shelf indefinitely. Mostly because where I live, I play music with some other guys. Seafinch was very much just my project. So I’ve started a new project with a couple of other guys. But it’s still so early I won’t even say much more about it. I do have some other stuff in the works.

DAVE: I hope to – now that Loud Harp is done – there’s definitely some new songs for A Boy and His Kite that are brewing in me and I’m really excited to think about that. I’ll probably be writing the new record over the next few months but I’m not putting any deadline on myself or anything like that.

SAM: Thanks so much for your time to chat about Asaph. It’s been a great insight!

LoudHarpAsaphAsaph by Loud Harp is out now on iTunes, Amazon, and physical copies are available here.

For more music interviews, keep in touch with Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter.

Film Review: Muppets Most Wanted


Reviewed by Sami Nguyen

Rated G. Starring Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Kermit the Frog. Directed by James Bobin.

Stars: [3/5]

How many sequels does it take for a movie series to grow stale? 

Muppets Most Wanted is the seventh sequel of the original Muppet Movie (1979). It seems like we can’t ever get sick of the fur-covered Muppets!

Muppets Most Wanted revolves around the crew looking for their next big ‘gig’. As a result, they consult a conniving Dominic Badguy (Gervais) to co-ordinate their next world tour. What they don’t realise is that Badguy is conspiring with the “world’s number one criminal”, Constantine, to incriminate them in stealing the beloved Crown Jewels!

The highlight of the shows revolves around the fact the criminal Constantine looks exactly like Kermit the Frog, except with an obvious brown mole. In a case of mistaken identity, Kermit is taken away Russian Soviet guard, Nadya (Fey) to a Gulag prison, where Constantine originally escaped from.

Whilst Kermit is desperate to get back to the Muppet family, they are overly consumed with gaining fame on the world tour. They stop by various major world cities to perform their humorously unappealing acts that cause havoc within the group. Meanwhile, they are totally oblivious to the scheming of Badguy and Constantine!

I found the integration of people/puppets exciting. Musically, the soundtrack was compelling and I had many laughs with it (although I don’t know if the kids would’ve picked it up so quickly!). The human cast wonderfully embraced the script. Add in the scattered appearances of Lady Gaga, Usher and Celine Dion, and Muppets Most Wanted has a surprising turn in every corner! It’s mostly clean humour, which is a plus if you’d like to bring young kids along to watch it over the coming holiday season. 

My overall experience watching Muppets Most Wanted was left wanting, however. Since the quality of animated films has been more than outstanding in recent years, Muppets Most Wanted could have achieved a lot more. Especially with the delivery of a ‘message’ that would be easily communicable to young kids. Yet, I think there was one clear message.

The producers of this sequel had a relatively pleasant field day in comparing the ‘good’ frog (Kermit) with ‘bad’ frog (Constantine).

What jumped out most at me was the fact that Constantine kept trying to win over the rest of the Muppets to his plans by saying, “I can give you what you want.” Constantine manages to win over Miss Piggy by offering her affection; with the others, it is the freedom to choose whatever they want to perform on stage, regardless of how distasteful it might be. 

Evil often disguises itself as good by appealing to our desires, rather than a principle. The Muppets weren’t able to perceive it; it’s Fozzie Bear who accidentally discovers that Constantine looks exactly like Kermit, without the mole (who would’ve guessed?).

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)

What James writes here is what happens with the Muppets. As cute and fuzzy as they are, they still are lured by their own desires for fame and fortune. Who knows what would have happened if not for Walter, Fozzie Bear and Animal uncovering the truth?

Walter: There’s only one guy in this world who can save us! There’s only one frog who can restore order, bring justice, and set things right!

Fozzie Bear: You are talking about Kermit, right?

Kermit’s seen as the one leader who can unite everyone back again, after the mess that the Muppet crew are making on their tour. The way the Muppets view Kermit is like a reflection of the reality found in Jesus and what he has done as Walter proclaimed – to “restore order, bring justice, and set things right!”

As humans, though we often blindly follow the patterns of this world, God had sent the saviour Jesus to set us free from our desire for sin (Eph 2:1-8). In our real world, he is the one who can do this – because he is God!

The Muppets come to realise that they need the whole team united under Kermit to function well as a family. It’s a heart-warming theme to the story, and I think one that will keep the Muppet crew busy for another few sequels – hopefully, with an even more compelling plot and guest appearances!

I’ll give it three stars out of five.

Muppets Most Wanted will be released in Australian cinemas tomorrow, Thursday 10th April. It is currently already screening in cinemas throughout the US and the UK.

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Album Review: Page CXVI – Good Friday to Easter

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by Sam Robinson

It’s been an absolute delight working through the church calendar this year with the help of a soundtrack provided by Colorado’s Page CXVI. The band spent most of 2013 creating three albums that explore the seasons from Advent through to Easter. Advent to Christmas dropped in December, and was followed by Lent to Maundy Thursday last month. Now, the band have saved the best until last with the absolutely stunning Good Friday to Easter, releasing next week.

Easter is the most important season on the Christian calendar. It’s when we remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, and after three days, Christ’s defeat of sin and death on Resurrection Sunday. As Christians, we should be remembering this wondrous event year-round, but Easter is such a good opportunity to stop and reflect. 

Good Friday to Easter is the three days of Easter in eight tracks. As you listen you experience all the emotional lows and highs. The agony of the cross. The joy of the empty tomb. And best of all, this album helps us focus on the heart of Easter: that more than anything it’s a celebration.

The album opens with two songs focussed on Good Friday: O Sacred Head Now Wounded and Go to Dark Gethsemane. The latter is as chilling as it is hauntingly beautiful. Lead singer Latifah Phillips wails ‘He wept. We wept,’ as strings and guitars swell. It’s rightfully stark, and true to the lyrics, Latifah cried as she recorded her vocals.

The third track, coincidentally named Three, is somewhat of a bonus two-minute interlude that transports us in time from Christ’s burial on Good Friday to the discovery of the empty tomb on Sunday morning. Don’t dismiss this as being just a transitionary song though, it’s one of the standouts on the record. Latifah describes this song as both ‘mystical’ and ‘magical’ - read more in my interview here.

Suddenly – boom! It’s Sunday! Page’s original track Roll Away the Stone is my favourite on the album. It’s bright, drenched in a pop groove, interesting timings, and joyous backing vocals singing ‘Alleluia!’ It tells the wonderful story of the women discovering the empty tomb at daybreak, that death has been defeated, and the incredible news that couldn’t be contained:

Risen and victorious / Radiant and glorious / He rose, amen! / He broke the chains of sin!

The party continues on Christ is Risen and Christ the Lord Has Risen Today. Heck, the band even pull out a ukulele and jazzy trumpet on the latter! Musically, the arrangements on this album are so tight, so uplifting, and fit the words of celebration to a tee.

The two final tracks are re-workings of classics, both old and new. How Deep the Father’s Love For Us is faithful to the original, but with a new bridge and chorus that the band added to help inject even more celebration to the song. And as a grand finale – not only to this album but the whole calendar project – Page CXVI choose to close with Hallelujah, from Handel’s Messiah. An ambitious choice to say the least, but It’s filled with layer upon layer of vocals and builds to a point of absolute beauty. The production is astounding.

Although an ambitious feat, Page CXVI have managed to release three magnificent albums across the space of five months, all to the glory of God. As I listened to this album, I felt a real sense of grief that this musical journey had come to an end, but I know that these albums will become helpful reflections for me and many others for years to come.

Good Friday to Easter may be the best release from Page CXVI yet. I’m giving it four-and-a-half out of five stars.

Good Friday to Easter by Page CXVI will be released Tuesday 15th April. It will be available at and on iTunes. Read my interview with Latifah Phillips about the album, here.

For more album reviews, follow Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter.