Sounds like … just about every other modern worship band these days: Sonicflood, By the Tree, Circadian Rhythm, David Crowder Band, etcAt a Glance … the loss of lead vocalist and primary songwriter Jason Harrison strikes a severe blow against the creativity and artistry of this talented worship band.
Among Thorns got its start from serving as the original house worship band for Metro Bible Study in Houston, where many other Christian artists have also began their music careers – Caedmon's Call, Watermark, and Shane Barnard to name a few. After releasing a self-titled debut in 1999, the band released Desperate in 2001, which displayed a sincere passion to connect listeners with God. The latter also showed strong musicianship on a collection of songs that smoothly transitioned from worshipful rock anthems to gentle and atmospheric prayer ballads, concluding with the powerful majesty of "Forever." Last year I named Amonng Thorns' Desperate one of my favorite worship albums of the year. At a time when Sonicflood mania was still rampant, Among Thorns stood out among a crop of similar-sounding modern worship bands.
Something's different about the band's latest release, Draw Near. Let's see … drummer Brandon Eller is back, as are Matt Gilder on keyboards and Dave Childress on bass. Guitarists Gary Ishee and Darin Sasser also return, which is good since they contributed to some of the songwriting on Desperate. But wait, who's this Chad Jarnigan guy? The new lead vocalist joined the band in the fall of 2001, replacing founding member Jason Harrison. There's nothing to shed light on the matter in the band's press releases — in fact, Jason isn't even mentioned. I can only hope the parting was amicable, and I surmise it may have something to do with the band's decision to move from Houston to Nashville to pursue their recording career with more fervor. Jason's diverse vocal talents are missed, but to be fair, Chad does a fine job of singing on Draw Near.
Replacing the lead vocalist of a band is no easy matter, since he or she is considered the frontman and foundation. I'm not ignorant enough to suggest it can't be done, as long as the lead vocalist's role is simply that. But what if the lead singer is also the primary songwriter? As an example, Sonicflood's sound and songs were clearly a collaborative effort on their first album. In hindsight, thanks to subsequent projects, we can see that lead singer Jeff Deyo was integral to the band's songwriting, but that Jason Halbert and Dwayne Larring were as essential to shaping the band's sound. With Jeff Deyo and the rest of the band gone, few would dispute that Sonicflood is no longer the same band. Unfortunately, the loss of Jason Harrison is an equally severe blow to the sound of Among Thorns, since Jason co-wrote every song on Desperate.
To compensate, Gary Ishee and Darin Sasser have stepped up to the plate and increased their output, as have the rest of the band (who didn't write at all on Desperate). Also featured are the songwriting efforts of longtime collaborator Jay Hall, as well as Jason Marant and Margaret Becker. The project was produced by Paul Mills (Lincoln Brewster, Phillips Craig & Dean) and recorded at the legendary Dark Horse Studio in Franklin, TN. Unfortunately, none of these elements can add up to the successful formula of Among Thorns' previous albums. With 13 tracks clocking in at 64 minutes in length, Draw Near is a test in endurance. Though well performed, the songs aren't interesting. After three listens, the songs still bleed together into a tired and worn modern worship sound. "Invitation" in particular sounds like it was lifted directly from Jeff Deyo's Saturate album. The song "Bless the Lord" eventually caught my ear as a moving six-minute worship anthem that comes close to the quality of the tracks on Desperate. Beyond that, there isn't much that warrants description on Draw Near.
If I seem too negative, bear in mind how highly I regarded Among Thorns' previous work. It feels strange to go from enthusiastic recommendation to disappointment within one album. The musicianship is clearly present, and I'm confident the band still can lead worship well. I've heard nothing but good things about a concert they performed in Nashville earlier this summer. It's simply the songwriting that suffered on Draw Near. I only can recommend this album to those who care about the concept of worship regardless of how good the music is. If you've bought Sonicflood (both versions of the band), David Crowder Band, By the Tree, Circadian Rhythm, and all of the other standard modern worship bands, and still want more, you may well enjoy Draw Near. There are some Christian music journalists who have been saying the worship music fad is over. The notion is absurd – you may as well suggest Christmas carols are out of style. The better way to say it is that this particular modern worship style, the one started by Sonicflood in 1998, is nearing its end due to over-saturation and a lack of originality. But there are always creative and meaningful alternatives for offering praise to the Lord. Check out our favorite worship albums of 2002 for ten excellent examples. The absence of Among Thorns from that list may seem conspicuous to some of you, but now you know why.