Most families will start playing their favorite Christmas music starting Thanksgiving on through Christmas Day. But what about Easter? Christmas gets all the press, but the older I’ve gotten (meaning the less I care about the presents!) the more I’ve come to love Easter as possibly the more substantive holiday. There are fewer Easter albums to choose from (unlike Christmas with baby Jesus meek and mild, it’s much harder to sentimentalize Easter’s story of Christ’s victory by way of a brutal death by execution), but there is one that the Gray family returns to every year with gratitude: At The Foot Of The Cross: Volumes 1 (Clouds, Rain, Fire) and 2 (The Seven Last Words Of Christ).
If it’s true that it seems the best albums never get the attention they deserve, it’s also true to say that most of them have a longer shelf life. In the early 90’s Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty of The Choir set out to create a unique and modern worship project for Easter. Grossly overlooked at the time, it still sounds as fresh and adventurous today as it did back then. In fact, in a market where much of worship music has become increasingly saccharine, this record sounds all the more adventurous and true. At the foot of the cross is imbued with the dark mystery of it’s subject matter and is an evocative musical meditation on the Easter journey from Good Friday through Easter morning with respect to both liturgical and modern pop/rock music conventions.
Fans of Andrew Peterson may remember that Steve Hindalong produced his Love & Thunder record as well as the City On A Hill series. But before that he was a member of the seminal alternative band The Choir from the late 80’s and early 90’s. All the moodiness and vibe that they honed as The Choir is put to good use here on the Easter records. The first of the two, Clouds Rain Fire, was released in 1991 and features performances by an eclectic cross section of artists like Phil Keaggy, Mike Roe, Buddy & Julie Miller, Victoria Williams, Bob Bennett and what may have been Mark Heard’s final recording – his rendition of “I Know My Redeemer Lives” is a gem. The album also featured one of Hindalong & Daugherty’s best songs, “Beautiful Scandalous Night” (later re-recorded for the City On A Hill series by Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer, but never quite as moving as the original.)
Volume 1 begins with the lyric: “The dust of your feet, clouds are the dust of your feet… You cover light with clouds… fire is the chariot you ride…you sleigh the night with fire.” This is set against a backdrop of lush orchestration, haunting electric guitars and ethereal percussion. Many of the albums meditations feature similar lyrics (like: “Clouds are round about you, shadows veil your eyes…”) that create a sense of deep mystery, giving us a context for our worship. Interspersed throughout are liturgical selections in Latin with organ and orchestral accompaniments that compliment the atmospheric qualities of the production. These days, it’s not hard to find a church that is trying to incorporate a service with a post modern aesthetic where they light candles, burn incense, and dress up the sanctuary with artsy accouterments to give the setting a certain vibe, but long before any of this was considered relevant, Hindalong and company were making music that could be the soundtrack to the best of these kinds of services. But whereas many postmodern services can feel a little contrived, the music of At The Foot Of The Cross felt like the real thing – full of vibe ‘o plenty but without the pretense. The desire to honor the mystery of God revealed in Easter comes through on every track – in the music, the lyric, and the performances. The album was a modern worship masterpiece, but like many great works was less than a commercial success.
At The Foot Of The Cross Volume 2: The Seven Last Words Of Christ was released a few years later and was even more focused than Volume 1. Without feeling compromised, it seemed decidedly more commercial featuring higher profile CCM artists like Charlie Peacock, Bryan Duncan, and Babbie Mason as well as Julie Miller and Gene Eugene. I’d never heard an album that sounded as good as this one and I remember bringing it to the guy who was producing my first record to use as a reference. The producer was an unbeliever and didn’t like most of the Christian CDs I played for him, but he would ask me to play this record over and over again and he would listen, mesmerized by the beauty of it.
Volume 2 explores the seven last utterances of Christ from the cross in chronological order, leading us through a meditation of Good Friday with a song dedicated to each of the seven sayings as well as response pieces. One of the most beautiful tracks I’ve ever heard is “The Winds Are Not The Same” with it’s otherworldly percussion, hammered dulcimer, and Irish flute. It’s a track, I discovered, that Hindalong himself is proud of – when I singled it out in a recent conversation with him he was grateful, saying that I was the only person he could remember who commented specifically about that track and that he himself had always been fond of it. The song closes with a reprise of Mark Heard‘s “I Know My Redeemer Lives” in honor of his passing. It makes me cry nearly every time.
Musically adventurous, these records fused modern pop/rock, gospel, and folk with celtic and classical influences and featured some of my favorite orchestration I’ve ever heard. As a whole, it transcends the times in which it was made. City On A Hill would later become a bigger success – no small feat considering it’s a worship album that combined artistry, community, and commercial viability – but for my money, his greatest achievement as a producer is At The Foot Of The Cross.
I was talking with him about this recently, naming the big blockbuster Christian albums of the time (I won’t name names here). They may have sold hundreds of thousands of copies at the time, but so few people care about or reference them anymore. They were disposable. Steve told me he still gets people who seek him out to tell him how much the At The Foot Of The Cross records mean to them. And that’s because, I suspect, that the ultimate motivation for these records wasn’t only commercial success. For that matter, I doubt they were created with any kind of agenda of making some progressive musical or artistic statement, either. It sounds like they made a record of Easter music that they would like to listen to, and we get to eavesdrop. It’s clear these records were a labor of love, created to testify to the glory, mystery, and hope of Christ’s death and resurrection.
And they are the soundtrack to the Easter season in the Gray household.
These records are long out of print, but there are still ways to get them. The best way is to download them (for a great price!) from http://www.thechoirdownloads.com/
Also, you can usually find used copies floating around on the net.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".