Tunes to make the summer soar

Many people might not realize that there is much more to Catholic music than what they hear in the liturgy. The work of Catholic recording artists spans genres — from contemporary Christian to bluegrass and even rap and metal. And in doing so, these artists provide a source of spiritual inspiration for listeners with varying tastes.

“Their artistry, like their lives, leads with beauty, courageously pursues the truth, and transforms the heart to love what is good. In a culture of isolation and confusion, they inspire ordinary people to share life together well and transform the culture at large.”

Jessamyn Anderson, communications director for Love Good Culture, on what sets apart the artists they promote.

As summer approaches and folks build the soundtracks of their leisure time with both beloved standards and the exciting and new, Our Sunday Visitor offers the following as a roundup of opportunities for Catholic music lovers to build some spiritual nourishment into that equation. The following profiles highlight recent works from a variety of these Catholic recording artists. These are only a few of the many Catholic artists who give glory to God with not only their voices but also with guitar, drums, piano and other instruments.

Happy listening, and happy summer!

Jessica L. Marsala writes from Georgia.

Audrey Assad

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Album: “Evergreen”

Year Released: 2018

Genre: Contemporary Christian

Description: Described on her website as “a combination of journal-style person writing and worship writing,” Assad’s first album in four years offers a glimpse into the singer’s mind or perhaps her soul as she comes to terms with her recent crisis of faith. The majority of the album’s 12 songs — another one of her self-described “soundtracks for prayer” — put her vocals front and center, letting the listener sense her transition away from doubt, vulnerability and hesitancy throughout her self-described deconstruction (and continual reconstruction) of God and faith. The emotive quality of Assad’s vocals is further amplified by its musical accompaniment — piano, percussion, mellotron, strings and the occasional woodwind — which support and mimic the themes expressed in many of the lyrics. Assad explains on her website that one of her intents on the album was to create “lush soundscapes — to sort of melt everything so the listener could float” — a new-age-like effect she achieved by layering notes and allowing them to ripple and resonate as if in a dream. Particular attention needs to also be given to the lyric videos Assad released to accompany four of her songs. These videos, created by her husband William, feature the album’s signature evergreen tree — a metaphor for the faith of both Assad and the listener — as seen from different perspectives: sometimes scratched and broken; other times bearing fruit; occasionally faded, covered or isolated; and once in a while completely unobstructed. “I found that the tree of life is evergreen; and though my faith looks and feels very different than it used to, it still exists. It survives. I am still breathing,” she explained in a press release announcing her pre-order campaign for the album. “Even when belief seems dead, faith can still bloom.”

A-lob (Andrew Laubacher)

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Album: “No Match for Love”

Year Released: 2017

Genre: Rock, praise and worship

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Description: In a February 2018 interview with OSV about the young Church, Andrew Laubacher or “A-Lob,” his stage name, remarked that “As songwriters, we are putting words in people’s mouths. I can’t think of any better words for people to sing than honest worship.” In this debut album, which might be described as praise and worship with an edge, A-Lob does just that by pairing straightforward, easy-to-learn lyrics with liberal doses of electric guitar — drawing on his childhood spent playing classic rock, which he said was a “classic California kid’s first love” — layering them over well-paced percussion. This combination, easy for the consumer to grasp both musically and spiritually and clearly not meant to be consumed sitting down, is well suited for the youth conferences like Steubenville — the setting of his own high school reversion — at which the 27-year-old frequently performs. A-Lob told OSV that he especially likes to write music for teens and young adults, because “In this mass exodus of young people leaving the Church, allowing them to experience the love of God in worship is crucial.” In the nine original tracks and one cover that comprise “No Match for Love,” A-Lob tackles the basics of faith, touching on God’s omnipotent nature, the importance of trusting him even though doubts may arise and, in the title track, how his love and grace embraces even our faults — possibly a testimony to his own prodigal son experience. Two songs especially worth listening to: “Creed,” a cover of the song originally written by A-Lob’s favorite worship leader and hero in the industry, Rich Mullins, and “Heart to Heart,” a harmonious duet with band member Molly Marrow about the Eucharist, which is a topic few artists seem to tackle and which incorporates bits of the well-known adoration hymn, “O Sacrament Most Holy.”

The Hillbilly Thomists

Hillbilly Thomists
The Hillbilly Thomists perform in April. CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Album: “The Hillbilly Thomists”

Year Released: 2017

Genre: American folk/bluegrass

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Description: Though personal amusement may have been the starting place for these 10 Dominicans from the Northeast Province of St. Joseph when they first began playing bluegrass and folk music together, as Brother Joseph Hagan said in an interview with Aleteia, it certainly isn’t only the ending place. The 11 covers and one original song on their self-titled first album — inspired by well-known author Flannery O’Connor, a fellow Aquinas enthusiast who used the phrase to contradict readers who thought she was just a hillbilly who didn’t believe in God — are certainly “playful and energetic” (as their order’s website describes it). However, they are that and so much more. From the opening song’s first verse, “what a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms,” to the last song’s final verse, “Guide me gently, safely over to thy kingdom shore, O Lord, to thy shore,” the listener comes to better understand not only who God is but also how true followers of Christ, like the Dominicans, are. Of particular note is the song written by Brother Justin Bolger, a professional singer and songwriter in his former vocation, who expands on the origin story and Latin roots of their order. Featuring satisfying multipart vocal harmonies and varied tempos, as well as a plethora of instruments, including the banjo — which seems to play a role as prominent as the electric guitar would in other genres — these songs, in Word on Fire’s review, “send the message that priests and brothers are human beings — ordinary people who, as Father White explains, ‘love and appreciate beauty and play.’”

Enzo and the Glory Ensemble

Album: “In the Name of the Son”

Year Released: 2017

Genre: Symphonic progressive metal


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Description: Before listening to Enzo and the Glory Ensemble’s second album, led by Member of the God’s Italian frontman Enzo Donnarumma, one must already be familiar with the narrative of Christ, because many of the preconceived notions one has surrounding his story will be turned on their head. The listener, especially one unfamiliar with any of the genres and sub-genres of metal — Enzo and the Glory Ensemble’s albums are considered “symphonic progressive metal” — must approach “In the Name of the Son” with an open mind, willing to experience this chapter of salvation history in a different way. Featuring the “symphonic” (and sometimes ethnic) sounds of woodwinds, strings and piano mixed with the power, volume and intensity of electric guitar and percussion — all of which is overlaid on top of and occasionally beneath sung recitations by guest artists of psalms and passages from Scripture — this album (and that of its predecessor) certainly fits Donnarumma’s description of a “Christian metal opera.” Though whether it is, as Donnarumma intended, “the most ambitious … of all time” isn’t yet apparent. But what is apparent about this album is the overall dark, eerie, frenzied feeling the use of metal instrumentation gives to not only appropriate passages like the “Tower of Babel” but also to more traditional, peaceful passages like Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel in “Luke 1, 28.” Furthermore, the use of metal might encourage the listener to remember that even from the beginning, Christ’s story had rough edges. Indeed, while some have described Donnarumma’s juxtapositions as forced or over the top, likely owing to his prior work directing musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar” — in an interview with Davide Riccio on Kult Underground (translated by Google), he himself once said the album’s predecessor was the result of a search for identity that had been “confused” by his interest in multiple genres — it can’t be denied that this solo project of his is unique and definitely gives credence to his assertion in that same interview that Christianity is meant to be “anti-conformist.”

Connor Flanagan

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Album:
“Mountains”

Year Released: 2016

Genre: Hip hop

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Description: If in “Evergreen,” the listener is able to hear Audrey Assad’s personal prayers, he or she does so almost as if a fly on the wall; the vulnerability and emotion evident in her voice and the awareness of her journey could prompt the listener to stand back to give her the space and independence she needs to share her story before drawing their own parallels. On the other hand, perhaps because of the spoken, colloquial nature of hip hop, “Mountains” seems more like an invitation, a backstage or behind-the-scenes peek into Connor Flanagan’s journal. One song details his writing process; another is a natural-sound piece recorded on the walk to and from a coffee shop familiar to him. On the 14 “pages” of “Mountains,” Flanagan talks about his own attempts to progress further in his faith, to find God in the ordinary as well as in his own brokenness and his journey to realize the God-given potential in himself and in the life he was given to live, among other themes. Though he describes his style as “where hip hop meets worship,” as per the tagline on his website, he doesn’t merely rap and rhyme his faith-centered lyrics to a drum beat. Rather, he often sings them alongside acoustic guitar, among other instruments. On some songs like “Fire in my eyes” and “Simple,” he even breaks the fourth wall of music when he directly addresses the listener and tells them “we’re going to have some fun,” or invites a chorus to sing along — expected more with a live performance than a post-production recording.

Jimmy Mitchell

Album: “Love (An Epic)”

Year Released: 2016

Genre: Instrumental

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Description: Jimmy Mitchell, pianist, speaker and head curator at Love Good Culture, once told the mother of the Cimorelli sisters band in an interview for her blog that, “When I started composing original songs a few years ago, I wanted to convey beauty without words, a beauty that we’re all made for and that ultimately points beyond us.” He continued, “While much of the personal inspiration behind my instrumental songs is rooted in faith, I think they also transcend the human experience enough to speak to every heart.” Indeed, as entirely instrumental works, driven by piano but accompanied by string quartets, both Mitchell’s sophomore and freshman albums require the use of not only a listener’s ears and mind but also his or her heart, soul and imagination in order to be understood — both in the way that Mitchell intended as well as on a personal level. Moreover, because his music addresses such primal ideas and experiences, it is difficult, as Mitchell suggested, to satisfactorily describe his songs with manmade words. What can be said about Mitchell’s sophomore album “Love (An Epic),” is that he uses varying melodies, harmonies, rhythms and tempos in place of lyrics to symbolically mimic the experience of being loved by God, as per his website’s store, which also notes that Mitchell drew on Theology of the Body and Bernard Clairvaux’s “Sermons on the Song of Songs” when composing the album. Overall, though each of the songs — named for 12 different parts of that process such as “Wonder,” “Pursuit,” “Fiat” or “Kenosis” — are unique, there are many elements, such as recurrent rhythms, that tie the entire album together and suggest a consistency and stability to the way that God relates to his loves. Additionally, much of the album has a generally euphonious vibe — even the song “Agony” has its sweet-sounding moments. This suggests the worthwhileness of being in and forming a relationship with God and that even the suffering that might be experienced (by God’s son or man) as a result will be surpassed by and used for the good.

Aly Aleigha Band

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Album: “The Labyrinth”

Year Released: 2016

Genre: Indie/Americana

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Description: When Aly Aleigha and her band began reaching out to the public as a way to fund their first full-length album in July 2016, the Franciscan University alumna wrote on the band’s GoFundMe that their album, “The Labyrinth,” “inspired by the Fall in Genesis as well as personal life experiences, entering the desert and learning to find the light in every struggle” would have “multiple layers of meaning in each song.” She later added in their plea that, “I believe that there is a real need for Christianity to penetrate the culture seamlessly, and our aim with this album is to offer music that fits into the secular music industry as well as providing an entirely different sound to the Christian music scene.” This, she achieves quite successfully. Many, if not all, of the 12 songs on this album “seamlessly” thread subtle references to Scripture — without having significant attention drawn to themselves — by telling universal stories of the search for hope, freedom, strength and bravery and by using vivid and accessible imagery that, like a face-in-the-hole cardboard cutout, gives the listener the freedom to make one’s own. As she said in an interview with the National Catholic Register, “those who are more unfamiliar [with the Faith] might catch a hint of those truths and find themselves open to learning what this means for their own lives.” To give an example: “Ransom Blood,” which she says in that interview she wrote about St. Peter at Pentecost, could just as easily apply to anyone who has to speak up against resistance. Depth isn’t restricted to Aleigha’s lyrics either. It also applies to the fullness and richness of her voice — which stands out against the various instruments, including banjo, that accompany her songs — not only in the alto range, where she seems most comfortable, but also when she seemingly without effort maneuvers into higher ranges.

Josh Blakesley

(co-written by fellow bandmember Grae McCullough)

Album: “Mass of Restoration: Acoustic Sessions”

Year Released: 2017

Genre: Liturgical

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Description: What curation of Catholic music would be complete without featuring music directly from the Mass? In 2017, Catholic singer Josh Blakesley worked with his bandmates to compose a new contemporary setting for the Mass that would “resonate with all ages” and be “joyful, approachable and easy to sing but still fresh, dynamic and expressive,” according to Blakesley’s website. This setting features all of the traditional parts of the Mass from the Kyrie to the Lamb of God and also includes all three options for the Mystery of Faith, as well as the Lenten Gospel Acclamation. The recording of the setting, driven by acoustic guitar but accompanied by percussion (and also able to be played on the keyboard), doesn’t just feature the Blakesley band. Rather, according to Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), which published the setting, a slew of other Catholic artists harmonize with the Blakesley band on the recording, including Sarah Kroger, Dave and Lauren Moore, Andrea Thomas, Adam and Lori Ubowski, James and Kristyn Opdenhoff, John Finch, Laurie Lopez and Kristin Fuselier.