Illumination puts virtuosity in the context of relatable songs – songs that reflect the artists’ hearts as much as their technical chops in a progressive pop format.
Phil Keaggy and Rex Paul
11 tracks 45:53
Illumination, the new project by Phil Keaggy and Rex Paul Schnelle, is a combination of everything we loved about the music that was birthed in the heyday of the Jesus movement. There’s a freshness, an energy, a momentum, and an enthusiasm that’s sadly missing in much of the so-called Contemporary Christian Music market – a cultural ghetto that’s sorely in need of some creative vitality. That I had to hunt to find this musical gem is a sad commentary on how far we’ve come from our initial passion for discovering vital, fresh rock & roll expressions of our deepest spiritual longings. All that to say, don’t let Illumination escape you – seek it out and enjoy a fresh cross-pollination of the classic and the new.
Without question – since you’re reading this far – you’re familiar with the great Phil Keaggy, whose song-writing, vocal, and guitar skills are legendary. On Illumination, Phil teams up with Rex Paul, and the pairing results in a classic set of songs old and new – but all sounding energized and infused with a “Jesus Music” zeal that fills the speakers with an irresistible combination of electric pop/rock, with explicitly Bible-influenced lyrics.
The juxtaposition of these two fine musicians creates a musical alchemy that brings out the best in each of them. Keaggy’s beautiful, fluid, intricate runs interplay with Paul’s more visceral, equally-articulate playing to create a true ‘guts and glory’ sound that should thrill the hearts and ears of any fan of great guitar soloing in the Keaggy/Dann Huff vein. Illumination is certainly a wonderful introduction to the artistry of Rex Paul. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Paul not only produced, co-wrote, sang and played guitar, but played all of the rest of the instruments on these songs. Like me, I think you’ll be googling his work after the first listen. The amazing thing is that, with each player obviously performing at his best, neither sounds like he’s trying to outdo the other – it all works together to create some truly tasty rock and roll.
The album starts off with “Don’t Hold Back,” a song co-written by Rex and Phil (the pair co-wrote five of the tracks altogether). The song is a fine example of progressive pop in a John Elefante mode (a compliment to all parties, by the way) and features the first of many elegant and fiery guitar solos that permeate the following three-quarters of an hour. Rex Paul’s vocals are featured first in the initial verse of the following song, “Calling Us Home,” followed by Keaggy on verse two, and then both, together sharing some wonderful harmonies. The sound is rich and full, and includes a deliciously nasty instrumental section with Phil and Rex trading solos.
Incidentally, the project will delight those that are looking for music that has some, let’s say, testosterone to it, but at the same time honors God with Biblically-inspired, uplifting lyrics. Check out the explosive soloing by Phil and Rex on Glorify Your Name! Who says you can’t have praise and worship while you’re digging a monster guitar jam?
Rex Paul’s production on Illumination is clean and with a great instinct for combining pop with an edgy rock sound. This puts the four Keaggy classics that are re-done on Illumination into a fresh environment. Of course the songs are already beautifully-written pieces but they take on a freshness here that gives them new life. In fact, it’s a testament to the quality of the songs that they shine in this new, reworked musical environment, revealing new layers and possibilities.
“Time” trades off some of its jazz-fusion elements for a rock and roll band version, with a scorching guitar solo leading into further tasty playing over the ascending chord vamp at the end (which maybe comes a little too soon). Here, as on some of the other songs, Keaggy does some minor lyric tweaking, apparently choosing to upgrade, rather than give in to lyrical nostalgia.
The transcendent “Let Everything Else Go” is given an effective piano/acoustic guitar intro and features Phil’s vocal’s way up front and in a more intimate, emotional phrasing than I’ve ever heard before. The familiar chorus opens up the song in a big way with some stunning guitar work closing out the song at the end.
“Spend My Life With You” is a tastefully rhythmic take on the song featuring very effective drumming and percussion in all of the right places, abetted by excellent strings (Kurt Heineke) and a wonderful guitar instrumental on the outro.
Reaching back to Nedra Ross’s album, then to Phil’s own Town To Town project, here’s a third iteration of the wonderful “Full Circle” – with a harder attack, a new drum approach, and a potent guitar solo at the end.
Illumination is, in many ways, a more satisfying experience than Keaggy’s previous collaboration, The Bucket List, despite the presence of instrumental heavyweights Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta. The Keaggy, Levin, Marotta combination improvised some wonderful instrumental jams that rightfully earned our admiration for the technical virtuosity of the playing, but Illumination puts that virtuosity in the context of relatable songs – songs that reflect the artists’ hearts as much as their technical chops in a progressive pop format. .
4 ½ tocks
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