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Sounds like … simple acoustic worship highlighted by loads of interesting percussion — a truly unplugged worship albumAt a Glance … some will find the album lengthy and tire of its consistent sound, but fans of the first disc and those looking for a simple, intimate, and original expression of worship will find plenty to appreciate here.
When people talk about the current renaissance in worship music and the hunger people have to connect with the Lord through music, I don't look at albums such as Sonicflood's debut or Michael W. Smith's Worship as the hard evidence for that. There's no question that those albums have touched many people's lives and inspired them to a place of worship, but I suspect many bought such albums for the artists involved or the hit singles they generated. Still, I'm glad that such albums ultimately bring a listener to a place of worship.
By contrast, an album like 1999's Enter the Worship Circle attracted an audience purely out of its simple heart for worship, unless you consider Waterdeep a strong draw (though they were still an independent band when the album was made). The band partnered with Ben and Robin Pasley, the duo known as 100 Portraits, to record a "live studio worship experience," featuring songs written by all of them, intended to be performed in small group settings. With only acoustic guitars and percussion for instrumentation, the album had an intimate and improvisational feel. In fact, some of the songs were written and recorded on the spot. It was original, simple, beautiful, well-performed, very worshipful … and it went on to sell more than 70,000 copies without support from a major record label! On average, a major Christian release sells between 100,000 and 200,000 copies — so an independent recording selling 70,000 units is nothing to sneeze at.
This detailed history is worth keeping in mind when considering its newly released sequel, Second Circle. Aside from the absence of Waterdeep, it's a very similar album. Joining the Pasleys this time are several independent artists, including two members of the indie band Calling Cedar and Will Hunt, the percussionist and producer who masterminded the incredible Apt•Core project last year. The first Enter the Worship Circle featured a lot of interesting percussion instruments from around the world, and Second Circle follows suit. In the liner notes and press kits, much attention is called to the Pasleys recent mission trips to India, and the incorporation of Indian musical influences on this album's sound. If world music deters your enjoyment, fear not — most of the Indian influence resides in the percussion and not in the song structure. While I appreciate the different instrumentation and sounds as a student of music, the average listener probably won't even notice. You'll get more of a world-music education listening to Will Hunt's Apt•Core project or albums on Peter Gabriel's Real World record label. Kudos, however, to the producers for including photos of the interesting percussion instruments in the CD booklet.
The overall effect then is an acoustic worship album with enough of a live sound to fool the listener into believing the acoustic guitars, percussion, and vocalists are in the same room as you are. The stereo recording techniques help give clean separation between all the instruments. It's an album that's both clean in sound, yet raw in its simplistic performance, allowing you to create an intimate worship setting in your own home. But as with the first Enter the Worship Circle disc, Second Circle can be very homogenous sounding after 71 minutes of music. There are exceptions, thanks to the instrumentation. The hypnotic, chant-like "Lost Art of Living" is the most Indian-sounding track on the album, with only percussion and a cappella vocals. If I had to pick some favorites, I'd go with the memorable melody of "Always Beautiful" (taken from Psalm 10), the bluesy "Be Near to Me" (Psalm 143), and the driving Caedmon's Call-like sound of "All I Need" (Psalm 6).
It's remarkable how these musicians adapt the Psalms into personalized expressions of praise, utilizing modern language and music. They successfully make the ancient words of the psalmists their own, demonstrating a genuine hunger to know God better that's more evident here than on the typical praise-and-worship album. You might say the homogenous sound even helps lull the listener into a more meditative state to focus more on the words than the music. Regardless, I recommend either Enter the Worship Circle disc to praise and worship fans, and Second Circle is definitely worth picking up if you enjoyed the first album. This promises to be as important a worship series as City on a Hill.
In closing, it should also be noted that one dollar from every copy of Second Circle sold benefits the people of India through the ministries of Good News for the Nations and Peace Gospel Ministries International. You can find more information on these compassionate ministries at www.goodnewsforthenations.org and www.peacegospel.org. Peace Gospel Ministries will use a portion of the money to spearhead a Hepatitis C vaccination program for poor and homeless children with the help of local Red Cross chapters. The album has already raised $15,000 from pre-sales alone.