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  New Year Worship Release Roundup in the UK and Northern Ireland
by James Stewart

It's been quite a while since the last installment of our ongoing coverage of worship music releases, so without any ado here's an overview of a dozen or so releases from the latter half of 2000.

The "Celtic thing" has slowed a little bit over the past few months but one release has still slipped into our pile. Nick and Anita Haigh are part of the Northumbria Community in England and their Celtic Roots and Rhythms - Heartcry differs from many similarly titled albums in cutting down on the pipes and whistles and instead focusing on low-key vocal driven songs with the Celtic influence apparent in the melodies and the holistic touch to the lyrics.

A year can't go by without a set of albums from the Spring Harvest stable. The New Songs for Spring Harvest series is how a lot of people find new worship music each year and this year under the production hand of Phil Baggaley (Phil and John), there's a mixture of writers old and new. The material's mostly fairly mellow, middle of the road fare, but it's all well played, featuring folks like Mal Pope, Julie Costello, Dave Clifton, David Lyle Morris and Mark Edwards.

The Praise Mix is the youth oriented release and usually contains the more interesting arrangements of emerging songs. Last year's release didn't live up to the R:age and Praise Mix albums from 1998 but while 2000's still doesn't quite have the cutting edge of R:age there are a few interesting tracks, such as a breezy, funky take on "All Over the World." It is the chilled tracks such as that which are the album's strong points, and thankfully there are several of them. This year they've again stayed with just a single live CD release after several years of releasing two volumes. The cut back does help the album, highlighting some of the better tracks and allowing for plenty of variety as the producers try to showcase as many worship leaders as possible, but the album unfortunately contains a number of weak tracks where repeated, catchy choruses seem to obscure the fact that there are very few lyrics with any meaning to them. There are a few tracks on here which are worth a listen, but generally unless you were at the event and want the album as a keepsake it's difficult to recommend.

Northern Ireland contributes with a couple of live worship release albums, Powerscourt Live Worship 2000 (featuring David Ruis and Edgan Heaslip) and True Intimacy (recorded live at the Summer Madness festival). Both are fair releases and it is obvious that there was plenty of energy at the events, but the selection of songs is nothing new -- most of them can be found on quite a number of releases -- and in general there's nothing distinctive about these albums.

Johnny Markin's final release before he moved from the UK back to his native Canada was Restore My Soul. The first few tracks are fairly predictable soft-rock efforts, but the acoustic title track's quite pleasant and the album picks up a little from there on. It's difficult to tell how well the tracks would translate to a corporate worship setting, but for private listening it's a pleasant release.

The twelfth volume of New Wine's live worship series, The Heartbeat of God, is another of the "slightly better than average" live releases. The band is tight and the selection of songs actually differs slightly from the standard one. But only slightly. The latest Keswick Praise (volume 15) differs more strikingly by having a range of songs from the past few years. Their less energetic style seems to lessen the up front role of the worship leader, which helps the album stand out and may well be a good thing.

The album that most clearly breaks the mold is the latest from The Violet Burning, I Am A Stranger In This Place. A best-of of sorts, this album sees the band re-recording a selection of their worship tunes in the style of their last couple of albums, packed with brooding guitars and heavy vibes. It's not going to be to everyone's tastes -- it doesn't sit comfortably with the albums mentioned up to this point -- and isn't quite up to the standard of their self-titled release, but this is an excellent collection.

Sitting somewhere between the recordings mentioned earlier and that last one is City On a Hill. Widely noted as the final project to include work of the late Gene Eugene, the album is in a way a more populist successor to the At The Foot of the Cross series, produced by Steve Hindalong, and bringing together artists such as the Choir, Sixpence None the Richer, Jars of Clay, and Third Day. The result is a consistent and relaxing collection of sophisticated pop worship songs.

The popularity of live releases never seems to dim, due in large part to the impact many of the events so captured have on those in attendance and the inevitable desire to have some tactile souvenir of a cathartic event. Nevertheless the sheer volume of these releases does seem to reduce their impact and there is a fine line to be walked between giving the public what they want and demeaning the value of "worship music" by flooding the market with packaged and homogenized versions of it. It is therefore encouraging to see artists, including an increasing number of American artists, releasing albums which have a distinctive edge. More of the latter please.

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