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Psalm 100

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Farthest Seas (2014)

4.3

December 25, 2014

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Something In The Water 4.3
2 Come To Me 4.0
3 Awake My Soul 4.0
4 Skyfall 4.7
5 Burn 3.7
6 Slow Your Breath Down 3.7
7 Oh How I Need You 4.0
8 Holocene 4.0
9 This Is Not The End 3.7
10 Be Still 3.7
11 Oblivion 4.3
12 Hymn 3.7

Recorded 2013 – 2014
Total time: 47:27, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Something In The Water 4
2 Come To Me 4
3 Awake My Soul 5
4 Skyfall 4
5 Burn 3
6 Slow Your Breath Down 4
7 Oh How I Need You 4
8 Holocene 5
9 This Is Not The End 4
10 Be Still 4
11 Oblivion 4
12 Hymn 4

Psalm 100 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sells itself as a Christian a cappella group. But after experiencing Farthest Seas, I wouldn't limit the group's sound to just this; the music is not just sacred, it's inspirational. The group has the ability to take "church music" or hymnals and breathe new life into the song's landscape, infusing folk, rock, and pop to maintain a modern sound.

What makes Farthest Seas sound so effortless is the dynamic arranging by both Trevor Phillips and Daniel Sullivan. Both have a knack for layering vocals so they easily work in tandem; hardly any part is in competition with another. Awake My Soul is a prime example of this; vocals smoothly add on to each other, all while building energy throughout the track. The song flows from start to finish without a misstep.

Aside from song selection, the major contributor to this album having such an inspiring feel to it has to be the energy conveyed throughout. Come To Me is filled with loads of it, as the verses pair emotion and intensity well, only to have dynamics continue to grow over the entire track. Slow Your Breath Down is full of energy once percussion enters, keeping dynamics high all the way through the anthem-esque ending.

Holocene ends up being the one track that has it all. From the soothing, layered opening to a solid blend by the group, it's a song that remains light but evokes emotion. The arrangement is simply beautiful and catches your ear offguard between the pulsing folk duet of Oh How I Need You and the lighthearted, yet warm This Is Not The End.

While Farthest Seas is fairly close to being the full package, one of its strengths proves to be a weakness in certain songs. Both Skyfall and Burn are victims of incorporating too many rhythmic elements. The upper voices in Skyfall can be overpowering at times in the song, whereas Burn struggles to lock in on one appropriate rhythm. The former also suffers from an imbalance of energy between the lead and the rest of the group.

Halfway through Farthest Seas, I found myself putting down the pen and paper and really appreciating the project as a whole, as it all just becomes a breath of fresh air to listen to. Psalm 100 has a well-polished gem here. In the grand picture of what a great album should be, this album has it all: emotive soloists, great song choices, and refreshing takes on popular selections, plus consistent, finely-tuned production values.

Whether you're into Christian a cappella or not, I have no doubt this album will captivate you.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Something In The Water 5
2 Come To Me 4
3 Awake My Soul 4
4 Skyfall 5
5 Burn 3
6 Slow Your Breath Down 3
7 Oh How I Need You 5
8 Holocene 3
9 This Is Not The End 3
10 Be Still 3
11 Oblivion 4
12 Hymn 3

Psalm 100. That evokes a few images when applied to a group's name. One is the large choir, complete with robes, singing a selection of standard hymns. Another is the more madrigalian sound, like Chanticleer or the King's Singers. For me, I was picturing a Morten Lauridsen type of sound. Farthest Seas by Psalm 100 surprised me in a pleasant way. While this group embodies Christian ideology, its song choices include contemporary radio hits that anyone can appreciate regardless of background. I mean, Skyfall is on the track list. Who can say no to James Bond?

My only real issue with this album is that it's too perfect. Too much pitch correction, exact cut-offs, and studio tricks. Burn is a fun arrangement — very dynamic. But it starts with vocals that aren't allowed to shine due to studio tweaking. Slow Your Breath Down starts with vocals that are morphed into an organ. A nice trick, and accurate; but again, I feel that letting voices do what they do best would play more favorably. On the other hand, Oh How I Need You is an excellent example of letting the fact that this is an a cappella group be impressive on its own merits: a strong arrangement, fantastic soloists, and just the right amount of tweaks from the studio booth to give it the final polish. Something In The Water, Come To Me, Awake My Soul and Skyfall are also fabulous examples of balancing performances with button-pushing. What's interesting is that as this album moves along, the ethereal quality increases, but so does a slightly muddy ambiance. It starts with Holocene and This Is Not The End and increases through Oblivion and Hymn.

What really stands out with Farthest Seas is that the songs flow so seamlessly from one to the next. Even switching from more rock and R&B songs to more solemn ballads, the overall sense of identity remains present. Also, the performances are quite wonderful. The soloists of Psalm 100 are fully committed to the emotional content of each track. Not only that, but the arrangements are carefully crafted to evoke the same feelings as the originals, and the group as a whole channels these sensibilities as well.

While I love Morten Lauridsen's music, I'm very pleased that Psalm 100 showed me its unique Christian edge with Farthest Seas. It is always gratifying to really get to know a group through it's music. This is why the extent of dehumanization on many tracks bothers me. Psalm 100, you have great talent and a well-defined sense of self. Let these natural talents and hard-won skills shine in future endeavors.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Something In The Water 4
2 Come To Me 4
3 Awake My Soul 3
4 Skyfall 5
5 Burn 5
6 Slow Your Breath Down 4
7 Oh How I Need You 3
8 Holocene 4
9 This Is Not The End 4
10 Be Still 4
11 Oblivion 5
12 Hymn 4

Where to begin with Farthest Seas? Let's start with the packaging. It's not often I come across an album that unifies color scheme, font, and liner notes with the album title and song choice. This album is calming to the eyes and ears, with beautifully toned singers and equally intricate arrangements making this one a personal favorite for the year. 

Where next? How about the great layering job the arrangers do, breaking the chords into unique arpeggiation? How about the exceptional understanding the arrangers have of their group's sound? Trevor Phillips and Daniel Sullivan do fine work breaking their songs into pieces for each voice part, which then in turn effortlessly swell and fade to bring focus to their separate times to shine. The precision the group has in executing the intricacies is a pleasure to behold, bringing fresh life to the overdone Burn and Skyfall. Ooooh, Skyfall. What an absolute gem. Kalli Wade has the perfect intention, making her already beautiful voice on a difficult solo absolutely captiviating. The microdynamics and chord structure complement her perfectly. 

Speaking of intention, the soloists of this group have it in spades, and it makes the album stand a head above the rest. The difference between being a pitch-perfect singer who can hit the notes and a virtuoso musician begins in the personal connection, the ownership, the emotion and inflection that only intention communicates. This isn't just cover songs; this is music. Anna Nudo and Jenna Hostetler deserve a shout out for similarly powerful choices. Daniel Sullivan emphasizes his versatility by commanding two completely different styles of music, as Bon Iver and The Fray.

I wish the group had really used its big sound more. The singers move well dynamically but don't hit their big forte moments until late in the album, even though the arrangements set them up for great ones early on. I suppose you could argue not wanting to show all your cards right away, but I wanted so many more explosions and kept getting underwhelming (yet well-executed) pops. 

The mixing is occasionally uneven, and I wish the group had credited the percussionists. But if only all groups in the upcoming year tried to reach what Psalm 100 puts forth in Farthest Seas. The intent is unparalleled, and it makes this product, in a word, "excellent".

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