On the week that Worship Central’s album hit the itunes top 10 after what is probably the most sustained Christian Twitter spam campaign ever – and that’s saying something – another worship album, one that’s arguably more accessible to the general public, slipped out under the radar. Of course, those of us who listened to Beautiful Things, the last album from worship collective Gungor, had been eagerly awaiting it for a while, or at least ever since they released a promo video a month or so back, but all the same, Ghosts Upon the Earth appeared rather quietly.
The album itself is similar, slipping quietly into the listener’s consciousness almost unnoticed. Beginning with what sounds like acoustic riff on previous track Dry Bones – a metaphor for creation, perhaps? – the song imagines the creation of the world, with a gorgeous choral vocal slipping in for the first chorus. It’s a wonderful opener, but it’s also rather downbeat. Bouncy second track Brother Moon tries something more cheerful, with echoes of fellow worship musicians REND Collective Experiment and the previous album in the glockenspiel accompaniment throughout the verses, but then it’s back down to more reflective stylings for Crags and Clay again.
After the immediately accessible songs of Beautiful Things, it can all take you aback slightly. The arrangements are lush and sometimes the vocals get lost among them; there are fewer immediately memorable choruses and more meditations on finding God in the midst of the world. The album’s title, “Ghosts Upon the Earth”, was intended as a reflection on how humanity always assumes that they are the centre of creation, but in reality sometimes it feels like we are wanderers, walking a landscape that we can no longer fully understand or see clearly. That’s why the quasi-liturgical choruses soar upwards with cries like “all praises to the One | Who made it all | Who made it all | And finds it beautiful” – because that is our response in those situations. But that also means that it’s an album that doesn’t intend to provide its listener with answers, but to articulate the situation in which we find ourselves and to put words to our response.
That makes it an honest album, and a haunting one too, but it’s also one that’s shot through with melancholy. It’s not all downbeat – in the jaunty You Are The Beauty, an epic fiddle and banjo solo and glorious four-part harmonies combine with the lyrics “breath and sex and sight | All things made for good in love divine” in a way that would never happen in a Hillsong song. But they’re set alongside reflections like This is Not the End, an utterly stunning meditation on death which stands as my highpoint on the album, and Vous Etes Mon Coeur, which dramatises the loss of the beloved in the Song of Songs. So come prepared – it’s not all a happy experience.
Musically, When Death Dies and Wake Up Sleeper both borrow elements from Muse and lesser-known Christian band The Myriad, which sounds jarring, at least initially. The latter is an utterly bizarre song, setting the list of accusations that Jesus pours out against the Pharisees against a howling chorus of “Wake up, wake up | O sleeper from the dead” before descending into a synth-rock conclusion. You have to hear it, really – listen here – but it’s certainly the most bizarre Christian song I’ve heard in some time. It’s also totally fantastic, and it’s great to see this kind of experimentation in a band who aren’t David Crowder Band.
But the question is, is it as good an album as Beautiful Things? And it’s a hard question, that. It’s the sound of a band maturing, but it’s also an album that will take some work to love – the first few listens are alternately beautiful, alienating and baffling. In some ways that makes it exciting – because these guys are fine musicians, and they’re only going to improve. And as with all the best albums, it will seep slowly into your mind and linger with you, allowing you to discover nuances that you’ve never seen before. It will challenge you, it will cause you to reflect, and the best moments will take your breath away.
All the same, though, if you like your worship music straightforward, you might be better off looking elsewhere.