Atlanta-based gospel group “Spirit of Praise” styles itself more as a ministry than as a band or choir, which is striking when you consider just how thoroughly the musicians involved succeed at being those two things. The group’s 2021 release “Still God” is an absolute tour de force in excellent musicianship; if properly paid attention to, it should have people talking at least for the remainder of the decade.
One of two major distinguishing elements for this project is the occasional presence of distinctly Haitian cultural influences. The group’s website elaborates more explicitly on their heritage: “Spirit of Praise (S.O.P) Ministry is a Christian movement stemming from the Haitian Seventh Day Adventist church. Our mission is to present Christ through a message of Hope using our different avenues: Music, Monday Matters Podcast & The Journey. Though seasons change, but God is still relevant in today’s world.”
While the most obvious manifestation of this is in the heritage of the people involved, it also shows up sonically. The use of Kreyòl lyrics in the track “God is Faithful” gives the song a strikingly unique sound right off the bat. And, “AMP, Accept My Praise” – itself a rendition Chukwudi Timothy Godfrey’s English-Igbo song “Nara,” – cleverly features the distinctive characteristics of Haitian Kompa from the chorus-laden backing guitars to the vocal ad libs.
This tendency for stylistic exploration extends across the whole record. The title track makes the bold choice to feature up and coming rapper Nashbi as the album’s opening voice. While hip-hop and gospel have overlapped and collaborated for years now, the styles still do have a sometimes tenuous and tense relationship. To launch a worship-oriented gospel record with a rapper is to stand decidedly in the more experimental lane of gospel music, which Spirit of Praise does exceptionally well. Nashbi also appears again in the track “Everything I Need,” an anthemic half-time power punch that seamlessly fuses trap and metal influences. Contemporary hip-hop elements do pop up from time to time across other tracks on the album, especially in the form of electronic percussion and occasional 808 bass lines.
The balance between instrumental and vocal performances on this record is really interesting. The musicians aren’t shy about taking a moment to shine, and nowhere is this more evident than on the band’s shed session that immediately follows the track “On Faith.” In just a minute and 44 seconds, each band member gets a moment in the spotlight, with the absolutely ridiculous closing drum solo being a particular highlight. Still, this high level of musicianship never outshines the vocalists, who frequently deliver jaw-dropping harmonies. A host of phenomenal featured vocalists appear song-to-song: Just Rev, Tiffany Nealy Peoples, Jamie Francis, Gardel Buissereth, Cecelia, Valerie Isons, PJ Anderson, and Nashbi all bring unique performances that cumulatively elevate the album.
Thematically, the lyrics of the opening and title track, “Still God,” really set the tone for the whole record. More than anything, each song exudes an undeniable feeling of confidence. While some worship artists in current times have been stereotyped and satirized for dwelling too long on vague notions of “storms of life,” “mountains before me,” and other similar clichés that evoke insecurity or even self-pity, “Still God” as a whole work is decidedly triumphant. The opening song acknowledges a handful of painful truths about life, as does the opening verse of the stirring power-ballad “Redemption.” But in all cases, these acknowledgements of the shadowy side of things quickly turn upward in a brighter direction. While this kind of positivity might be corny in the hands of other artists, SOP delivers a striking sincerity across the whole project that demands to be taken at face value. The messaging is clear: He is still God indeed.
The only real criticism that could be levied against “Still God” is the technical production issues. The drum mix does come across a bit strange at times with the toms and snare all sounding a little pushed to the back. There are moments where the drum performance is absolutely ballistic, but the mix holds especially the snare drum back from being as impactful as it could be. There is also something about the album master that just feels a bit more compressed than maybe it needed to be. This may have been a necessity - the arrangements on this record are so thoroughly dense with voices and instruments that the mixing process must have been absolute surgery. The fact that there is consistent clarity between the instruments and vocals is impressive, and this balance may have necessitated a certain amount of taming of the drums. It’s a minor and subjective complaint, but the astute ear may pick up on this often enough while listening through.
It should also be noted that there are moments when “Still God” is clearly meant to be experienced as a whole album with strong continuity between songs. There are multiple reprises or extensions of previous tracks – such as “Redemption” or “On Faith” and their respective reprises. This much is even true of the songs that don’t repeat titles. In the case of the opening one-two punch of “Still God” and “Authority,” it sounds very much like there is supposed to be a continuous transition between them, with Nashbi’s rap vocals hanging on into the first few moments of the second song. But each of these transitions between tracks, which feel like they should have been gapless, are instead subject to abrupt and awkward fade-outs and fade-ins. The whole album ends with a similarly bizarre anticlimax: the song “Jesus, Your Name” is one of the strongest songs on the record in its own right, with unmistakable “grand finale” energy. But instead of allowing the song to just play out to the end, it gets cut off by an extremely abrupt fade, only to be brought back in as a new “track” on a different section of the same song – which plays out for just 52 seconds. What’s even stranger, this arbitrarily separated reprise of the song puts an unnecessary fade out over an audible, definitive ending: you hear the band play what is unambiguously the last note, but they do so at an extremely low volume because the track had begun to prematurely fade out ten whole seconds ahead of time. It robs an otherwise excellent song (and album) of a proper “finish,” and I cannot really understand why this choice to rely so heavily on fade edits was made.
Put another way, across a nearly 47 minute run time I found approximately 30 total seconds worthy of actual critique. This is a solid record with, again, undeniable musicianship and song craft. Part of what we witness in this project is simply a matter of experience and longevity; Spirit of Praise has been active for over a decade at this point, and that kind of dedication has a tendency to pay off in quality. Any fans of gospel music, and even those less familiar with the genre, will find something to appreciate here. More importantly, anyone with a spirit of praise within them will hear of a faithful God who is ultimately everything they need.
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Maxwell Aka is a Canadian musician and writer. He performs and records with many musicians and works as a fundraising writer for ADRA Canada.
Photos courtesy of Spirit of Praise (S.O.P) Ministry
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