8.1 BEST NEW RECORD
Integrity Music / 2015
David Gungor and John Arndt have carved out quite a lonely little niche over their last four years as The Brilliance. Originally known as an offshoot of prominent "alt-worship" band Gungor (David is brother to the lead singer), the duo's spare arrangements and ruminative lyrics have distinguished them even as Gungor deliberately veers in a more experimental, poppy direction with its own music. The Brilliance has still managed to self-release a relatively large amount of music over that span, and gathered a large following that is sure to grow further after Brother, their studio-debut album and first with Integrity Music. The Brilliance is conspicuous on the label's roster of mostly milquetoast worship music, and hopefully the leavening presence of their CDs on Christian-bookstore shelves will bring in a mass of new listeners while inching the mainstream closer to their visionary sound.
For faithful fans, however, Brother's tracklist will look rather familiar - only four tracks are brand new, while the other six are re-recordings of tracks from previous EPs. That's a little disappointing, but thankfully the less-hurried production process furnished by the label pays off - these are, with a few exceptions, the best versions the group has given us yet.
Thankfully, the small number of fresh tracks doesn't signal a loss of creative steam for The Brilliance. Instead, the new songs are high-water marks, more daring and vibrant than anything they've attempted thus far. Title track "Brother" is the most musically lush piece the band has put together, and a sterling example of what The Brilliance does best: begin with the germ of a simple theological concept or prayer, and patiently let it flower into a stirring meditation. "Yahweh", also, with its humble plea for God to keep his own promises, is a reminder of what sets The Brilliance's liturgical music apart from so many other worship groups - it feels like space is given for God to reply if he so pleases. Then there's the dizzyingly intricate "Make Us One", where mismatched time signatures mirror its urgent appeal for reunification. It's the most structurally ambitious song in their long catalog, and a sign that very, very good things are in store as The Brilliance continue to challenge themselves in the future.
The re-recorded tracks are for the most part in their finest form on this new record. But while Brother's more meticulous studio treatment is always audible, some of the new flourishes actually impair the songs. On "Love Remains" and "Does Your Heart Break?", for instance, minimalist electronics dispel the contemplative atmosphere. And on the latter, the heavy, dramatic kick-drum of the original is sorely missed. Still, some of the revisions contribute in deeply meaningful ways. On the same track, which questions God's goodness in light of pervasive suffering and injustice, a new verse initially seems pointlessly broad, but turns searing when the listener discovers it to be a reference to Eric Garner's death at police hands in the Bronx in 2014. Gungor, who leads worship at his home church in New York, improvised the change on the fly as outrage and grief engulfed the city last year.
Brother is in many ways everything a debut album should be - a distillation and amplification of all that makes The Brilliance such a special act, and a foretaste of even better things to come. It finds the group operating at its highest level, combining deft musicianship with an open, earnest humility before the divine. The Brilliance's habit of recycling songs has meant that for fans, each release feels a little like attending a church where the very talented praise band sticks to a small repertoire, fine-tuning a bit each week and occasionally introducing a new tune for the congregation to learn. Thankfully, the band surpasses itself every week, and for those who haven't listened to The Brilliance yet, there's never been a better time to start.