The Ravensongs 101 project shouldn’t be viewed in the same terms as a regular music release, but, as a conversation between art and listener. It is expected that some initially drawn to this release on the basis of Kevin Max’s past association with dc Talk may not fully appreciate this project for what it is. Poetry, not often intended to be bite size or sugar-coated, works best when an honest give-and-take dialogue of questions and interpretations exists between the reader (in this case the listener) and the poem itself. Concepts related to divinity, guilt, romance, pleasures of the flesh, conflict and hope are communicated less as sermons and more as confessions and open-ended questions. The name of the project is appropriate because, overall, the listening experience provided by this release is one blanketed with shadows and layers of complexity that reveal new details and nuances with every repeated listen. That being said, the full audio affect is best appreciated while listening alone in a room with dimmed lights or none at all. This isn’t one to play for the kids on the way to daycare. The project is notable mainly because of Max’s masterful control of his voice as an instrument that, while demanding the listener’s attention to the integrity of each poem, works in tandem with Adrian Belew’s (King Crimson – has worked with Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, Talking Heads) instrumentation to create an audio experience that hooks the listener without relying on the traditional structural format of a song. The rhythmic variations of Belew’s instrumentation serve to enhance, to a higher level, the dynamic between tone, meter, and concept Kevin Max consistently and articulately injects into his poetry. With each track built on the framework of Max’s poems instead of some formulaic framework that guarantees a shot at pop stardom, this project serves as another testament to Kevin Max’s intent to produce artwork with integrity at all costs.
Crashing Gates is a formidable snapshot of just how much Kevin Max has developed as a true artist to be reckoned with since the long gone days of dc Talk. The EP shares some thematic ties with The Imposter (Kevin Max, 2005), like the topic of the apocalypse for example (“Out Of The Wild”), but this recording has raised the bar to a new level with Max’s tactful and intelligent lyrics and fresh songwriting.
“Future Love Song” and “Baby, I’m Your Man” both feature infectious melodies that refuse to stop reverberating in the brain of the listener for some time after the song has finished playing.
The guitar work on “Out Of The Wild,” beautifully captures the desperate and desolate tone that one might expect to witness in end-time America while the bridge provides an exquisitely bittersweet change-up in mood and tempo that, somehow, fits the song perfectly.
Another common thread between The Imposter and Crashing Gates is the song “Beautiful Mind” which as been redone with acoustic treatment and a more personal and desperate vocal tone for Crashing Gates. The new version, in my opinion, is an improvement over the original because it features a less-polished and more sincere, personal feel.
Overall, Crashing Gates is a landmark release for Max that should finally help old dc Talk fans to get off the dc Talk reunion bus and, instead, board Max Airways for a flight to an altogether different destination. In addition, Crashing Gates has the potential to break through to a wider mainstream audience where his artistic maturity can be appreciated and the subtle tact of his lyrics can simultaneously coax listeners to ask more questions about what they believe and who they are being lead by.
Crashing Gates indeed.
Holy Night is a delicious change of pace when compared with the bulk of what is released in the category of holiday music. There is tremendous consistency in style, quality, and vision from the first track to the last. The general spirit of the album is one of respect for the original historical contexts in which many of these classic Christmas songs were written and an apparent desire by Kevin Max to present Christmas music as art as opposed to pre-formatted, Christmas pop. He seems to have intentionally shunned the crowded commercial sound often employed by artists when they decide to record a Christmas album. Many of the tracks adopt a darker and more mysterious mood. For example “Joy To The World” seems closer to David Bowie than it does Mahalia Jackson. Yet reverence for the focus of the lyric is maintained and the quality and craftsmanship of the music is remarkable.
While a consistent thread of lonesome reverence is injected into each of the songs on Holy Night, a few of the tracks are hung on an up-tempo frame that, while continuing to maintain a level of intimate, personal sincerity, also breathe a sense of spirited optimism rooted in the birth of Jesus Christ. While songs like “What Child Is This” employ lush strings and the taste of a full orchestra for the musical backdrop, the basic, quick-tempo of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is much simpler, yet, equally infectious and undeniably mood-lightening. Both songs have a character that grabs the heart of the listener and makes it feel just a little bit more than it did before.
A personal favorite from this album include “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which opens treading lightly with a particularly lonely sounding piano, but, soon unfolds into what I can only try to describe (and perhaps not accurately) as some kind of Soviet/middle eastern kind of rhythm. Max’s unique and lush vocals inject an often-heard and under appreciated song with a sense of renewal that draws the listener in.
The lowest point of the album in my humble opinion (if there is one on this album) is “Greensleeves” which seems to be thematically out of place. But, one blip isn’t enough to darken the bright light that is the quality of this album from front to back. The fantastic match between Max’s unique and piercingly powerful voice and the understated, yet masterfully present musical backdrop that blankets each track on this album is, indeed, magical if not, at least, worth a listen.