The Sout Project: Story (CD Review)

I was delighted to be able to receive a copy of The Sout Project’s debut, entitled Story, in advance of its launch next week on 11 Dec.

The Sout Project is the brainchild of Nic Paton, who has been around in the South African music industry a longer time than most actually know. His experience and talent as a composer and producer on the album really shines – with truly brilliant instrumentation that is a pleasure to listen to with a set of headphones on (how one should always listen closely to an album, in my opinion).

The first thing that must be said about Story is that it is by no means a commercial album. From a musical point of view, don’t expect pop, rock, rap, electronica or anything that most of us are used to; from a lyrical point of view, don’t expect the usual either.

Story has been labelled a Christian worship album in various places by Paton, who has made a point of saying that it isn’t your standard run-of-the-mill Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) worship album. I’m grateful for that as I’m a little tired of all the usual stuff we see floating around, usually with cheesy pop tunes and cheesy lyrics to boot. Seriously, a five year old can come up with “I worship you my King, to you I sing” and most of us probably know how little depth a great deal of CCM has. There’s nothing wrong with simple lyrics and music, but we need a bit of simple and depth in the mix.

Personally, I love world music and when Paton first told me about the idea of Story I got very excited. I imagined a mix of Sting and Paul Simon and perhaps a bit of 80’s Peter Gabriel all thrown into the mix. I think a Gabriel influence is definitely evident on this album.

I’ve been wanting to experiment with different musical styles from all over the world in worship for ages myself, but just have never quite had the resources. So I was very stoked when someone else echoed my heart in this respect.

Track one on the album sees the popular author Brian Mclaren narrate and sing over the famous Irish traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision.” He is joined by a choir, a child, and a number of other singers. It opens up the theme of the album nicely and has some wonderful violins and bongo rhythms, and what sounds like sitar, amidst some great arrangements; but it is not a very strong song in my opinion. We’ll get to the theme of the album when we discuss the lyrical content below.

Track two is great. The song features the Xhosa traditional bow player Madosini. Right from the beginning anyone who loves world music will be hooked from an instrumentation point of view. When listening on headphones there’s a great eclectic African mix on this song that I really enjoyed, with some choir coming in at the end. The song really shines at the end with great arrangements.

Aumen (track three) has a fantastic electronica arrangement at about 2:15 minutes in, with the song having built up to this point. The vocals are great from this point as well with really enjoyable sitar solos coming in a little later. The song builds up nicely and continues to surprise as it goes. I’m not a fan of the narration a little later though.

Track four, “Be Still”, is probably my least favourite track but it mixes nicely into track five. Track five, “Held”, is pretty average in my opinion, until about 2:40 minutes in when a beautiful classic guitar solo reminiscent of something we’d hear from Sting shines through. It could have actually gone on a little longer it’s that enjoyable!

Track six sees a change of pace. The song is best described as a world-music electronica dance piece. The melody on this one is really great and the African vocals are fantastic, alongside the inclusion of a host of different instruments. I’m sure there’s a vuvuzela in there somewhere. Paton was having fun with this song. The song reminds me of Goldfish in some ways.

The pace slows down with track seven, “Instrument”, which sounds like a medieval tune. It’s nice and would do if one is in the mood for it.

“Meditation with Mechtild”, which is track eight, has some wonderful synthesisers and sound effects (even birds in the background) alongside a wonderful mandolin (I’m sure it’s a mandolin) piece that repeats over the track again and again. Here we meet some ethereal planes and the song does well in that respect. It mixes wonderfully into track nine, “In All Things”. One doesn’t pick up that these are two separate tracks on the CD until the last track comes up.

“In All Things” sees a change of pace but continues in a similar vein with surprising arrangements. The song is sung in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa – a nice touch. From about 3:05 minutes in the song surprises with a change of rhythm completely and incorporates some medditeranean vibes. I really enjoy this about it.

“Bigsmall”, the last track of the album, is probably the weakest of the album, with more Brian Mclaren narration at the end. It closes the album nicely from a theme point of view but I wasn’t too stoked about it in many other respects.

I’ve praised the instrumentation on Story and looked at each song separately. I need to obviously say something about the vocals. The fact of the matter is the vocals are not stand-out amazing; but the idea of the album is more to express than impress, in my opinion, and I appreciate that from an artistic and musical point of view very much.

Now, onto the theme and lyrical content. A review needs to be as objective as possible and lyrics are as important to an album as everything else. John Mayer’s new album Battle Studies, for instance, irritates from a lyrical point of view and drags down the album a great deal. Since Story is said to be a Christian album – and a worship one to boot – I need to keep this in mind when reviewing the album.

Story aims to be more ‘earthy’ in its worship than ‘heavenly’ – which means that its trying to get away from the ‘ethereal plain’ of a lot of worship music. I love the idea and musically this comes across.

The album is very syncretistic in its musical content and in its lyrical content this is also the case. The issue is that this is worship, and that involves theology; the problem is that when theology gets syncretistic it gets controversial, and Story is no exception.

Obviously, with having Mclaren open the album, Christians who know anything about him need to be prepared for a little bit of syncretism. Although Mclaren has often claimed he is not syncretistic, Story is, and this makes it difficult for the standard run-of-the-mill Christian to feel comfortable worshipping to certain songs. In particular, “Aumen” and the meditation with Mechtild spring to mind. Although your standard run-of-the-mill Christian (which I admit is a pretty general term and really doesn’t explain much) probably wouldn’t be interested in this album anyway.

When it comes to worship I’ll usually spin some Matt Redman on my Ubuntu Rhythmbox who I know is usually going to belt out some heart-felt tunes with great theology. His new album “We Shall Not Be Shaken” is really good, for interest sake.

I also think David Crowder Band’s “A Collision” is fantastic; pity American audiences didn’t take to it too well.

But I do usually struggle to find anything in worship music that is different. Redman gets my vote due to his heart and theology, and some great tunes; other guys get no votes as there appears to be little heart, cheesy theology (to put it simply) and bubblegum tunes that you’ll be sick of in a week. Hillsongs United can give you goosebumps, sure, but very few songs last longer than a few months. However, we still sing “Better is One Day” (Matt Redman) at my church and that song is really old now.

What do I think of Story with regards to all this? Well, the tunes are certainly not congregational, but that’s OK I think (it doesn’t always have to be). The album sure has heart, but I’m not too keen on the theology.

But even if I was ok with some of the theology presented I still think the lyrics could have been much better. Lyrics are where I struggle the most in music writing, so I don’t think I’m one to talk when looking at my own skill in this; but I know what is good, and The Sout Project can do better.

Overall, could I worship with Story? No. That’s because of my own theological take on things. Do I enjoy it? Yes. It certainly is a great debut, musically, and fits my world-music tastes in a wonderful way. One or two tracks may even work really well on an African/Electronica/Eccentric Putamayo album of some sort, which is a great compliment as far as I’m concerned.

From a purely sound point of view, Story sounds much better on a set of headphones than it does going through most of the sound systems I used, except for a good hi-fi. I think the mix is done nicely but the mastering might be the real problem here. A good mastering would have given the album the boost it needs to stand out a little more. From the credits it looks like the album was mastered using Pro-Tools and, while this gives a fairly OK master, it doesn’t give it the edge a mastering technician would be able to give it. Mastering is expensive, though, and this is an independent undertaking – something that must be kept in mind.

Conclusion? A great debut with wonderful world music, simply beautiful instrumentation and excellent arrangements. However, the vocals and the lyrics need improving and the mastering is something that should be considered for future installments.

As far as the packaging goes, Story looks great and has some great style and artwork. I’m not too much of a fan of the picture montage inside, but everything else about the packaging conveys the theme and is very creative and original. I really liked it. So well done Sout, hoping to see a follow up come out of this.

See for more details about the album.

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