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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews
Ten Independent Artists You Should Know (Fall 2002)
Our first independent artist spotlight from earlier this year was met with such enthusiasm, we decided to make this a semi-annual feature. What follows is another list of ten independent artists (some with small, independent record label contracts) who you might be interested in checking out. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of Christian artists across the world you'll never hear of – some because they're not very good at their craft, and others because they just can't seem to create much buzz outside of their local community. My hope is that you'll visit these artists' web pages, listen to their music, and decide for yourselves whether or not you like what you hear. They are included here because I believe they are "Ten More Independent Artists You Should Know."
Salt the Band
It's incredible that Salt the Band hasn't gotten more exposure via a recording contract or national radio play – don't be surprised if that happens in the next year or two. The Seattle quintet got its start playing special music for local churches as far back as 1997, recording two demo albums because of popular demand, including the simply titled Worship Project X. After much prayerful consideration, STB decided to take their music ministry to the next level, employing the talents of local acclaimed producer Roy Salmond to help create their first proper album. Mr. Brown is an excellent modern/alternative rock album that rivals a number of major Christian acts: Audio Adrenaline, All Star United, Third Day, and Daily Planet to name a few. Yet despite the numerous comparisons, STB still maintains their own hook-laden and melodic rock sound, peppered with the occasionally funky riff. "Second Wind" is a terrific pop/rock anthem in the same vein as "Turn" by the Paul Colman Trio, and "Insanity" is a great funk rocker with a simplistic but infectious chorus – "You'll go insane without Jesus" – that teens will quickly embrace. "Hammer in My Hand" graphically describes the crucifixion of Christ and how our sin nailed him there, alternating stylistically between a bombastic rock ballad reminiscent of Queen and an upbeat chorus similar to R.E.M. I don't have enough space here to do this album justice, because most all of the tracks are excellent. Let's just say if you're a fan of modern rock as heard on Christian Hit or Rock Radio, STB's album is a safe bet. Go directly to their site and listen to the tracks yourself. If you've ever wanted to be into a band before they broke big, now's your chance.
Staci Frenes www.stacifrenes.com
Those firmly plugged into the Christian music industry are probably already acquainted with Staci Frenes' music in some way. The San Francisco-based songwriter has four independent albums to her name, including 2000's self-titled project. She also co-wrote "In Your Love" with Margaret Becker, which was performed by Nichole Nordeman on the Heaven and Earth worship project a few years ago. Consider that she's shared a stage with Out of the Grey, Kathy Troccoli, and Maggie B, and you should have a good sense of her contemporary pop sound. If anything, it's probably because she sounds a little too much like Out of the Grey and Margaret Becker that she hasn't landed a major recording contract of her own. Appropriately enough, Staci has just recently signed with Margaret's newly formed publishing company, Modern M Music, and has been writing with several Christian artists over the past year. So you can expect more music from her soon, mostly on other people's albums, but I'm sure a new solo project is in the works. In the meantime, enjoy her self-titled project, if you haven't heard it already. There's a hint of alternative edge on songs such as "Strange Land," which refers to life on earth in anticipation of heaven, and "Paradise," a portrait of one who hopes it's not too late to find her way to paradise. A few of the songs blend together, such as the back-to-back tracks "You Said Enough" (a song of creation) and "Well Done" (a song of Christ's return). If you fancy well-crafted adult contemporary pop with thoughtful lyrics, you'd be wise to check out this acclaimed Christian artist on the verge of expanding her audience.
Remember the band Mastedon, a group of studio musicians assembled by John and Dino Elefante around 1990? They made a couple of hard rock/pop metal albums, featuring other artistic legends such as Bob Carlisle and Bob Hartman (Petra). Don't worry, I don't remember it either. Anyway, Kenny McCafferty was a part of the big hair pop metal bands of Los Angeles in the mid-80's before becoming a Christian. Shortly after, he was selected to play lead guitar for the "Live Mastedon" concerts at Cornerstone (going by the nickname Kez). Since then, Kenny has kept a low profile, growing a family and becoming a worship leader over the last five years. That brings us to Kenny's solo project, Warm Waters, a remarkably good independent project that's worthy of Christian Radio airtime. It's produced by Dan Strain, who, from the first-rate sound of this album, obviously deserves more major recording opportunities. The musicians are all excellent, led by Kenny's impressive vocals and acoustic guitar work. Warm Waters is as catchy as anything you've ever heard by Steven Curtis Chapman, Shaun Groves, John Elefante, Geoff Moore, and David Crowder Band. Considering the glut of modern worship pop albums today, it's all the more impressive that this album can stand head and shoulders above most of them. There's only a few quibbles concerning Warm Waters. Many of the songs have the same mid-tempo shuffle, and though the simplistic and worshipful lyrics aren't bad, they could be better. Those are minor points, but Kenny HAS to consider changing the titles of his songs. Substituting every "to," "be," "for," and "you" with letters and numbers is overkill – "Lord I Love 2 Sing 2 U" is too cool a worship song for such a lame title format. Folks, if you consider yourself a fan of Christian pop and modern worship, it would be tragic if you missed out on this one. Check out Kenny's site, as well as Grassroots Music, and listen for yourself.
Morris is an Oakland, California-based minister and musician who's been playing music in the church since the age of five. Back then his instrument of choice was the drums, but he's since gone on to become a musical journeyman. On his latest project, Fourth Watch, Morris sings and plays just about every instrument: drums, bass, keyboards, and guitar. His skill level draws inevitable comparisons to Fred Hammond, and though there are some definite similarities to their styles, Morris is less into Urban and more into "Smooth gospel." It's an apt name, but it's probably more accurate to describe it as lite jazz meets smooth rhythm-and-blues; I'd call it gospel only because of the praise & worship lyrical content. A lot of people may equate Morris' sound with music on the Weather channel. That's probably just as apt a comparison, but don't ignore the strong musicianship – Morris is a stunning jazz guitarist. Four of the album's ten tracks are instrumental, and most of the others are quite mellow; "Peace Be Still" features gentle ambience and ocean wave sounds. One exception is "Slippin'" an upbeat lite jazz song that warns of the perils of temptation, encouraging listeners to live a life that's holy and pleasing to God. Fourth Watch is a fine album for fans of lite jazz and new age, with strong musicianship and inspirational lyrics that make it all the more meaningful.
Seven years ago, a college freshman strolled into a music store, picked up a guitar for the first time, and sensed a calling to pursue a music career. It's a story not all that uncommon among budding Christian artists these days (see Kerry Koberg below), but so far, Colby Schaub has pursued his calling with moderate success. While attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he led worship for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and formed a short-lived band called Water's Edge. After graduating, Colby recorded his first solo project, Remember the Days. He then moved to Nashville to further pursue his career and hooked up with Scotty Wilbanks, the producer and songwriter who used to be in Newsong. With Scotty's assistance as a producer and co-writer, Colby's released a new five-song EP called Everyday Everynight, which is a perfect addition to your collection if you're into the adult contemporary pop/rock of artists such as Shaun Groves, Ben Glover, Newsong, and Wes King. The comparisons are complimentary in regards to the quality of his songwriting and sound, but they're also a criticism. He sounds far too much like Shaun Groves for his own good on "Found the Way," one of those songs that takes the perspective of a new believer explaining his faith. "Your Grace" is the strongest of the songs musically, with touches of jazz and progressive pop. Listeners likely will be most touched by "On the Other Side," a song of hope that recounts the loss of a close friend's sister who had been blind since the age of six. Colby may not have the most original sound to his music, but he's absolutely passionate about using his songs to connect with others and share the message of the Gospel. Visit Colby's site to purchase his album or to book him to perform at your church.
Explaining ic3's band name is the easy part – it's simply a recognition of the triune God, though it could just as easily apply to the three members of this power trio. The hard part is explaining this Seattle band's sound. What in the world is "post-industrial-jump funk"? It's probably more helpful to think of these guys as fusion jazz-rock and progressive funk-metal, a blend of bands such as King's X, Resurrection Band, and Van Halen. Lead vocalist and guitarist Vic Lipsey sounds like an intriguing cross between Sammy Haggar and Sting. He's joined by second guitarist Jay Anderson and the impressive drumming of Carl Martin; the band switches between two different bass players on the album, and tours with a third bass player by the name of Tony Rivera. This is an impressive band of musicians with a fairly unique rock sound, one you're not likely to hear on your local radio station. Equally impressive are the songs written by ic3, which are Christian without sounding too obvious. The inspirational "someOne" is one of the more overt tracks on Forever, with a pretty nifty paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 – "One day I hope to see you there / In another place without a care / Now we see ourselves in a broken mirror / And only SomeOne can make us whole again." There's a similar theme of life in heaven heard in "Superunified," and "Empty" is basically a psalm of praise: "Sing a new song, join the melody / Break another chain, set the music free / Listen now, there's a new sound we believe." If it's funk you really want, check out the groove on "Now." I hope ic3 can expand their sound sonically in the future. Forever sounds like it was recorded live for the most part, a testimony to their strong musicianship, but the mix doesn't seem big enough for their sound. Forever still is an excellent album, certainly not for all tastes, but I love it just because it's different from the norm without being too "out there." It's just what you need if you're looking for a truly alternative hard rock album.
Wide Eyed Wonder www.thewildings.com
Electro-acoustic modern worship
Although the Wilding brothers, Ron and David, aren't exactly twins, they were born a scant 11 months apart and are as close to each other in faith and friendship as they are in their passion for creating music about God. Serving as the core songwriters, vocalists, and guitarists for the Vancouver-based worship band that bears their name, they're joined by Kenny Rahn (guitars), Tracy Rahn (vocals), Jonathan Perkins (bass), and Chad Bjorgan (drums). It's possible you're already familiar with The Wildings from such Vineyard Canada releases as Believe and Change Me on the Inside, both of which feature songs written by the band; they continue to be involved with Worship Invasion, which ministers to churches and youth events throughout Canada. Musically, this band falls right in line with many recent modern worship releases from Vineyard, though you might also compare their electro-acoustic guitar-laden pop/rock sound to bands such as Waterdeep, The Choir, 100 Portraits, and Caedmon's Call. These aren't exactly worship songs that will be readily embraced by your average contemporary worship service – the melodies don't leap out enough and they're not written in a comfortable range for corporate singing. Nevertheless, The Wildings are an enjoyable worship band that's pleasant to listen to, with sometimes inspired and poetic lyrics. "Tell You" portrays a heart that's literally bursting at the seams to tell a loved one about Jesus: "This light of a thousand stars is a bursting explosion inside / This high tide flood of tears is spilling out to the broken ground / And I just can't hold it back anymore." The Wildings need a little bit of tweaking if they hope to reach a wider audience – vary their sound a bit, display some more experimental or prolific guitar work, and create some more memorable hooks and melodies that will earn them more radio play or church exposure. I know that sounds like a lot, but The Wildings are off to a good start with Wide Eyed Wonder, a modern worship project that should appeal to those looking for a guitar-based alternative worship experience.
Let It Begin www.kerrykoberg.com
Roots rock / folk-pop
Kerry Koberg's story is a familiar one for many independent artists (see Colby Schaub above). In 1998, he decided to take up the guitar, inexplicably consumed by a passion to develop his skills and see where it would take him. After a couple years of struggling at it, the Denver, Colorado native soon developed into a respectable songwriter and musician. Let It Begin represents Kerry's first fruits as an artist, and it's not half bad. Vocally and stylistically, he sounds much like Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers, sharing a similar penchant for roots rock and organic pop. You also might draw comparisons to Mitch McVicker, Bebo Norman, and Tom Petty. Lyrically, Kerry is equally simplistic and poetic, with several songs that focus on his spiritual relationship with the Lord, written from a Romans-inspired point of view (i.e. how can God love us so much despite our sinful nature?). Two standout cuts are "New Day," a celebratory rocker with vivid 4th of July imagery, and "Her Prince," a love song for our Savior that uses fairy tale metaphors to get the point across. Let It Begin is a decent start from an artist with some admirable skills and a sincere heart for ministry, but I'm even more excited about the developing artistry and the opportunities ahead of him. Kerry wrote to me about this album last spring asking for some advice and affirmation. I suggested he build a band to strengthen his sound and showcase some more musicianship. Sure enough, right about the time he wrote me, Kerry added a drummer, an electric violin player, and a bass player (Dave Vilano, formerly of Shaded Red). Having listened to the new tracks on his site, I'm intrigued by the likelihood of a debut album from the Kerry Koberg Band. Keep your eyes and ears glued to his website for more details.
Russ Rosen Band
Celtic and blues-flavored alternative roots rock
Oil greets the listener with thunderous drums that echo in your speakers, leading into the rousing Celtic-flavored alternative roots rock of "Watchmen." It's a fitting start to this excellently made project from the Russ Rosen Band, showcasing their blend of folk styles from America, Canada, and Ireland – think Ceili Rain with folk and alternative rock leanings. Russ has worked for years in various youth ministries and worship events; he leads the band as primary songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, and harmonica player. The band proper is rounded out by his wife, Sandy, on vocals and keyboards, and Kathleen Nisbet on vocals and fiddle. Joined by a backing band of studio musicians, this project is equally revelatory of the talents of producer Alan Shacklock (Phil Keaggy, Shaded Red, Graham Kendrick). It's purely coincidental that I've featured this guy in back-to-back independent artist features (Rev 21 last time), but it does amaze me that this guy doesn't get more prominent work in the Christian music industry. He can make a band like this one rock with joyful bombast on one track, and then shift them to delicate and beautiful pop the next – in other words, he's absolutely amazing on this album. "Stand," for example, features Sandy's vocals on an Irish-flavored track reminiscent of Enigma's modern New Age sound. This is followed by the loud and rousing Celtic rock of "Warriors," which is like some crazy blend of The Chieftans, Dave Matthews Band, and The Who. Russ' vocals sound like Randy Stonehill when he's soft, and Dave Matthews when he belts out his strong growl. Later, Kathleen takes the lead vocals on the bluesy gospel of "Down to the River." Lyrically, Russ presents a wide array of worship styles that range from inspirational and modern worship to southern gospel and traditional church. The songs are consistently interesting as the album progresses, thanks to the intriguing blend of styles, the strong musicianship, and the stunning production. I dare anyone who says modern worship lacks creativity and originality to come away from Oil unimpressed.
Steve Babb & Frederick Schendel
David & Goliath www.amazon.com
Rock opera / musical
The independent artists in this case are lyricist Steve Babb and composer Fred Schendel, who have written seven concept albums together (most often as progressive rock band, Glass Hammer) while running their own recording facility in Tennessee. Their latest is a rock opera based on the classic Bible story of overcoming obstacles through faith in God. One probably should bear in mind that this album seems to be created for a younger audience, though musically it's far more mature than your typical children's musical. Unfortunately, there's a lot of poorly written dialogue in between the songs, which sometimes makes the album sound a bit like a musical parody from The Simpsons. David and Goliath is narrated by David's sister Zeriauah and also features such clumsily named characters as Abinadab, Shammah, and Eliab, three of David's brothers who are ridiculously aristocratic and snooty in their voicing, with nothing but contempt for their little brother (shades of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). Nevertheless, listen more closely and you'll find the potential makings for one of the stronger Christian musicals available. Steve Babb may need work in his scripting, but he has a way with lyrics when the music gets going, and Fred Schendel has a good sense of aria and recitative (songs and sung dialogue). The musical is sprinkled with moments of humor and inspiration, but you'll be most impressed with the quality of the music, surprisingly all programmed and performed by Steve and Fred except for some live drumming. And check out the quality of the lead vocalists! Mel Madaris as Samuel sounds a bit like Colm Wilkinson's Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, but Robert Street is truly outstanding as David – he's a dead ringer for Dennis DeYoung of Styx. Really, the only thing wrong with David and Goliath is the "book," which should probably focus less on the speculative fictionalization of David's early family life and his days as a shepherd, and more on his character as a man after God's own heart and his rise to the throne of Israel. Despite some flaws, Christian aficionados of musical theater should give David and Goliath a chance. This is no Joseph or Les Miz, but I'd say it's fairly comparable to the works of Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde, The Civil War).
(Note: Sorry there's no definitive website available for you to listen to this last disc. Click on the links above to purchase it at Amazon.com, which soon will include audio clips and already features a nice description of the album. You can view a brief video with sound clips at Glass Hammer's official site, www.glasshammer.com/davidandgoliath.)
If you are an independent artist who would like to be considered for review
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Due to the number of projects we receive, we are unable to cover or correspond with every artist that contributes. But we do give all submissions a fair listen for coverage consideration.