Reviewed by Tony Cummings
In case you're new to the history of Christian music I should explain that during the '70s and '80s Adrian Snell was the most consistently popular singer/songwriter in the European Church. His music moved from the Jesus music era (Adrian even having albums released in the US through the pioneering Maranatha! Music) until in the '80s he'd developed into a purveyor of ambitious concept albums that brought elements of classical music, progressive rock and sometimes, in their theatric sweep, even seemed to touch on stage musicals (think Les Miserables). In 1986 he recorded 'Alpha & Omega' for Word UK with the biggest budget Word had ever spent on a British recording (UK Christian albums had up until then been recorded for laughably tiny budgets). Such commitment payed off for both Word and Snell and 'Alpha & Omega' went onto be the best-selling Christian music album in Europe, even outselling America's top CCM artists like Amy Grant, Michael W Smith and Sandi Patty whose album were flooding into Europe's Christian bookshops. That was somewhat ironic in that, on hearing 'Alpha & Omega', American CCM record execs and radio programme controllers showed not the slightest interest in giving it US exposure. And to be charitable 'Alpha & Omega' was light years from the easily digestible and sometimes vapid music which had come to dominate US Christian radio.
In Europe it was a different story. Countless Christians "got" 'Alpha & Omega', enjoyed its epic grandeur and dazzling musicianship and embraced the triumphant, disturbing and challenging sweep of its lyrics. Performed first in Israel and then in cathedrals, churches and concert halls across Europe, many church-goers found the work to be truly significant in their lives. The 1986 recording of the work, recorded in studios in Leeds, London and Eastbourne, featured the All Souls Choir directed by Noel Tredinnick and some fine Christian musicians like Dave Fitzgerald, Neil Costello and Dave Bainbridge. But the album was to some extent a product of its time. Vast improvements in recording technology over the last 30 years meant Adrian wished a new recording of his work could be made utilising this technology. Amazingly, without big budget record company help, this has now been achieved and 'Alpha & Omega: 30th Anniversary Recording' has been recorded and released. How this mountain was climbed is explained in Adrian's sleevenote. "Unexpected to me, in the last couple of years an increasing number of requests, challenges and invitations have been received to perform Alpha & Omega again. The more time I spent revisiting the songs, the more I understood the groundswell of feeling - that this work has as much to say in 2017 as it did in 1986. The music, the songs, the themes and challenges could just as easily have been written for our times. And so we committed to a series of Alpha & Omega concerts in October 2016. Importantly, I was in no doubt that we needed to renew the work musically too. This led to the decision to make a completely new recording that would be based on the live concerts and then completed in the studio in the skilled production hands of Dave Bainbridge, who had also been a co-producer of the original album. I am truly thrilled by the result."
So will be many who bought the 1986 album or who witnessed one of the live performances old or new. Sonically, Bainbridge has done a wonderful job. Taking the live recordings made at Zwolle, Veenendaal and Rotterdam and with skilled overdubbing, editing and mixing Bainbridge has developed the nuances and dynamics of these remarkable songs and arrangements. Snell has never sung better. Dare I say it, the choir directed by Maarten Wassink sounds ever grander than the All Souls ensemble of the '80s and musically, the album is packed with delights. The goosebump-inducing way the choir enters on "Man Of Sorrows", the crisp bass and drums drive on "I Am The Way" and the delightful soprano sax fill played by Dave Fitzgerald on "Nobody Listens" all impact the listener. In fact, having Iona musicians like Fitzgerald, Bainbridge and Van Essen have ensured that the musicianship demonstrated on the Anniversary Recording consistently surpasses the original. Only the lack of the sublime Joanne Hogg on the album is a disappointment. The 1986 release featured Joanne making her recording debut on the haunting "Child Of Darkness". (Joanne was, of course, within four years to go on to front Iona formed by Dave Fitzgerald.) Although Sera van der Viver does a perfectly adequate job in singing "Child Of Darkness" (in a style rather resembling Sarah Brightman), she's no Joanne Hogg. But this is the only minor disappointment in this revitalised new version. I must make a comment about the poetry and at times prophetic power of 'Alpha & Omega' lyrics written by Phil Thomson. Be it the 2017 relevance of "The Nations Rage And Fall" portraying God's wrath awaiting the kings of the earth who "plot in vain against the Lord and against his Chosen One" through to the tender-hearted "He Lives In You" ("I am your God and I will hold you/Safe in my embrace/Child, you have come to me in repentance/Now you will see my face") these are words to touch deeply those who take them to heart. The same can be said of the whole album.
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