by Mark Woodhouse
Someone recently suggested to me that the Christian music scene’s talent pool was basically empty and closed for the winter. In my defence of Christian music, Kings Kaleidoscope was my Exhibit A.
I loved the Seattle ten-piece’s debut, Becoming Who We Are (which was also the 2014 Reel Gospel Album of the Year). It was quirky and energetic, and had a real depth to it that still pays dividends two years on. So I have been hoping that new album Beyond Control would live up to those heights.
Beyond Control has a very different origin story to their first album. Becoming Who We Are grew out of frontman Chad Gardner and the gang continuing to make music for the wider church, having left Mars Hill earlier that year. The debut was filled with songs to be sung together, re-workings of old hymns, honed over time and perfected with love. Two years on, the band are more free and independent than before, so the songs on Beyond Control have a very different feel to them. These don’t strike me as songs I’ll be singing every Sunday. These strike me as songs that have come from a much more personal, intimate place.
To be honest, I think this gave me a negative first impression of the album. Kings Kaleidoscope just didn’t deliver what I was expecting. So it took me a while to warm to Beyond Control. It doesn’t quite have the energy I was hoping for. It doesn’t creatively re-work a hymn I love and have loved for years. It doesn’t inspire me to sing along. But after a few listens, the album’s true identity began to emerge from the distorted image I had in my head.
While these songs haven’t quite gone through the maturing process so many on Becoming Who We Are did, the lyrical harmony and consistency across the album strikes me as the product of a deeply reflective mind and heart. Each song considers a similar theme but from a different angle, casting new light on what is a deep and consistent and frustrating reality of this world: control. We so desire to control things in this world, to regulate our lives and determine our own outcomes, and yet we so often find things are, er, beyond control.
But – God is in control. As Chad told our editor Sam about the album, back in April:
‘Beyond Control is a concept, it makes you think. This album has a lot of songs like that. One of the things I’ve been thinking about as a person, is what it looks like to be a person in a digital, information, global world. It freaks me out often, it makes me feel like I have so many things to keep track of and control. I’m asking God to break me free from this ceiling that I need to have everything lined up as the world expects me to have it lined up.’
As an aside, I recommend listening to that full interview below. I found it a fascinating insight into how this album came together, and it has made listening to it a richer experience.
There are two standout tracks for me. The first is DUST, which swaggers along with a good groove and pent-up energy that bubbles to the surface in the chorus.
The second is A Prayer, which is a strikingly honest and fragile journal-entry chronicling utter fear and despair. Chad asks, ‘Jesus where are you? Am I still beside you?’ It’s almost awkward hearing such transparency. In fact, it’s so transparent that there is an explicit version which keeps Chad’s journal entry word-for-word. If you’re averse to swearing, make sure you get the clean version. Personally, I really like the vulnerability and honesty, and I think the shocking nature of such language in this case captures something very real of the deep fear in this prayer (and similar to language evident in the psalms and in Paul’s writings). It’s nothing if not evocative. Musically, it is melancholic and dark. That is, until the music explodes and we hear an answer to the prayer. It’s a powerful moment.
Also, Kings Kaleidoscope have again proved their skill and musicianship with tightly-weaved melodies and rhythms keeping things interesting throughout. I can’t believe a ten-piece can produce such intricate and yet clean music so consistently. And once again, it’s self-produced by Chad Gardner himself, this time in his home studio.
But the album doesn’t feel consistent to me. Most Of It never really gets going, and closing number Trackless Sea just doesn’t grab me. Gone has an awkward riff that doesn’t quite seem to work (but I do like the imaginative use of instruments here). And the instrumental tracks just kind of noodle along, and I’m not really sure what they’re doing there.
So does it live up to my expectations? Not really. But it’s still growing on me. Beyond Control is an album that will repay with multiple listens, and one that’ll provoke and encourage you, and will leave you wanting more of the good stuff. 3.5/5