Sounds like … MercyMe, Big Daddy Weave, Jeremy Camp, By the Tree, and other AC friendly artists favoring guitar-driven pop/rock.At a glance … the gutsy and outspoken lyricism is still intact, but Casting Crowns has left behind the grand melodies and polish of their earlier albums in favor of a flatter, rougher pop/rock sound.Track Listing What This World Needs
Every Man
Slow Fade
East to West
The Word Is Alive
The Altar and the Door
Somewhere in the Middle
I Know You're There
Prayer for a Friend
All Because of Jesus

Third Day, MercyMe, and Switchfoot are all heavyweights, but Casting Crowns is the biggest band in Christian music right now. In less than five years, the Atlanta-based group has risen from obscurity to becoming the most popular in terms of sales, airplay, and concert draws. Their first two albums—Casting Crowns and Lifesong—have both been certified Platinum, the latter spending a staggering two years (and counting) in the upper echelons of Billboard's Christian Albums chart.

From a Christian radio standpoint, the group is the most played across all formats, with a solid track record of 6 No. 1 hits, and understandably so. Songs such as "Who Am I," "Voice of Truth," and "Lifesong" have become beloved anthems of the Christian faith—if not by virtue of their artistry, then by virtue of their accessible, larger-than-life pop/rock sound, a strong sense of melody, and lead singer Mark Hall's bold evangelical songwriting.

So given this proven formula for success, it's a wonder that the group's third album, The Altar and the Door, sounds the way it does. Lifesong was a natural progression from the group's best-selling debut: bigger, louder, more rocking, and more polished than the band's first public offering. By comparison, The Altar and the Door feels like a step backward—a surprisingly lackluster and rough-around-the-edges effort for an A-list Christian band.

It can't be due to a shortage in planning and recording budgets, but Altar nevertheless feels hastily thrown together with little thought for the creative process. Gone are the hook-laden, arena-rock moments of "American Dream," the wall-of-sound dynamics of ballad "Praise You in This Storm," and the acoustic-rock excitement of "If We Are the Body." Instead we get first single "East to West"—a sorrowful song of forgiveness that takes way too long for its climax.

p>About eighty percent of Altar is that way: a slow, mournful start followed by an equally slow, mournful chorus that never really takes off. The sad "Slow Fade," for example, is full of great ideas about spiritual apostasy, but compared to previous songs, this one leaves the impression that Hall and company are bored or tired. Even semi-rockers meant to rouse congregations ("What the World Needs," "The Altar and the Door") sound like under-produced afterthoughts; they just don't carry the enthusiasm you'd expect from a pop band in its prime.

It's not until the album's midpoint that the group regains its unmistakable "Casting Crowns stamp"—that anthemic, take-no-prisoners vibe that's made them a crowd favorite in a few years' time. Both the swaying "The Word Is Alive" and the piano-driven "Somewhere in the Middle" have huge potential because they're so … well, huge. These songs are more like the Casting Crowns we all know—Christian pop at its most glorious.