- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2001 1 Jan
It's incredible that Avalon has already been around for five years, and they're still going strong. Their sound has evolved considerably with every project, as they've managed to kick it up a notch and refine their dance-pop sound with every bland (though catchy) single they've released. Oxygen is the group's fifth and most aggressive album to date, featuring production values that sometimes rival that of the Backstreet Boys. If that sounds far-fetched, you need look no further than Avalon's single "Make It Last Forever" to hear that their sound is indeed compatible with the highly produced pop that's so popular today. The group has made some significant changes to their sound on this project, and as with their past efforts, the changes are for the better.
Oxygen begins with "Wonder Why," a typical energetic pop song about living our faith as a testimony to the world. It may not be far off lyrically from "Testify To Love," but the difference this time is the heavy guitar-synth groove, which sets it apart from your usual Christian pop. It's still Avalon, but Avalon on adrenaline. Sure to be a future hit single, "Undeniably You" has a catchy dance-pop sound that seems both classic and current, simultaneously reminiscent of ABBA, Roxette, Ace of Base, and Backstreet Boys. Other highlights include the aforementioned N'Sync sound of "Make It Last Forever," the fusion-jazz flavored "Never Givin' Up," and the beautiful R&B-flavored duet "By Heart, By Soul," which also features legendary vocalist Aaron Neville (you may have heard his gospel debut last year). My far-and-away favorite track on the album, however, is the smash single "The Glory," a simply amazing track with a powerful melody and lyric matched with extremely big pop production. An excellent and concise statement of who Christ really was, the song's guitars and vocals are just a few steps away from the same beautiful bombast and excess that bands like Queen and Def Leppard were capable of.
Of course, Oxygen isn't a perfect album—true to Avalon's style, there are moments of mediocrity. "I Don't Wanna Go" is surely a beautiful song, but it's nothing different than your usual Celine Dion power ballad, and is saved from being a cliché by the superb production (are you noticing a theme?). Unfortunately, the album seems to run out of steam for the last three tracks. The title song is pleasant (and interestingly enough written by Richard Page, the frontman for classic '80s band Mr. Mister), but the sound doesn't captivate the ear like the preceding eight tracks. And let's face it — saying God is as essential to our lives as the air that we breathe isn't exactly an original idea. The remaining two tracks, "Love Remains" and "Come & Fill My Heart," are also a little routine compared to the rest of the album. They're par for the course if you're expecting old Avalon, but on Oxygen they feel more like padding.
Vocally, the four members of Avalon are as terrific as ever. For this album, they employed a vocal producer in addition to the usual production duties. The results are quite often stunning. Still, one can't help but wonder how much artistic input Avalon really has. Since they don't write their own material, they are in many ways only as good as the songs they select (which are sometimes breathtaking and just as often cheesy). Avalon may show some artistic vision in their song selection, but the remainder of the process concerns their vocals as guided by the producers. Consequently, the real winner on this album is producer Brown Bannister, who is continually proving himself able to adapt his skills with time. He's been producing albums since Amy Grant's early days, yet he's still one of the best out there, having grown adept at heavily programmed productions and blending keyboard programming with guitars. The superb work Brown did for Steven Curtis Chapman with "Dive" and the rest of the Speechless album, he also accomplishes for Avalon here.
There's no escaping Avalon's success and popularity, and those who try to ignore it are only kidding themselves. By the same token, I wouldn't go as far as others and say that Avalon is cutting edge, original, or groundbreaking. I personally wish there were more meat to the songwriting on the group's material, but let's stick to Avalon's true strengths. They are a very talented vocal group, far more interesting and current than your average Christian vocal group, and they know how to perform Christian pop well. But it's the quality of the production on Oxygen that makes it an irresistible listen and sets it apart as Avalon's best work to date.